Are we doing this again?
Yes, we’re doing this again and we’re doing it comprehensively. It’s a lunar eclipse at high tide plus Halley’s comet set of coalescing events: Modell’s HOF vote occurs in two Saturdays (Feb. 2), months after his death, and with the Ravens in Super Bowl week. The drumbeat to vote him in from all places uninformed and uninvested will be loud. We need a link reviewing Modell’s ‘credentials’ and we need it fast.
Here is the thesis: Art Modell was a corrupt and failed businessman without HOF credentials in the categories of football, business, or civic contribution¹.
This is not personal.
This is not vendetta.
This is not a bitter Browns fan with a grudge; this is specifically not sour grapes.
This is a factual review of Art Modell’s career as owner of the Cleveland Browns.
There is nothing in his record the rises to the level of Hall-of-Famer. On the contrary, the record shows he did more to hurt than to help pro football.
(Unless you think that holding cities and fan-bases hostage for publicly funded stadia is a good thing.)
In the national discussions likely to take place this week you will not hear the problems with Art Modell’s candidacy detailed by our friends in national sports journalism. Here is a prototype example:
“… give it up already, show a little magnanimity and stop all this vengeful hate mongering. Modell belongs in the Hall of Fame for countless reasons. His haters belong in the Hall of Shame.“
Exactly. Putting aside the hacky clichés, Shapiro’s comment is typical of the credential presentation you will see from Modell fans. It’s a mix of haughtiness and judgement and snark and bereft of data in support of Modell. Shapiro paints Modell’s HOF argument as a struggle against Clevelanders. YOU are the problem Mr. Cleveland fan. YOU are unforgiving. YOU are vengeful. YOU are a hater.
(Sometimes they’ll bring it all the way to: YOU are the reason Modell was forced to leave.)
Be prepared. Moving into this week and next you will hear about Modell leaving Cleveland. And then you will be fed an ‘equal-time’ segment from Baltimore fans/reporters saying he should be in the Hall of Fame. Contriving that “… fans of Cleveland and Baltimore clearly benefited from a move that left both cities with magnificent new stadiums, …” (!!) Saying Cleveland should get over it. You will hear clap-trap about TV contracts. What you will not hear are sound qualifications for his induction to Canton.
This is because there are no sound qualifications for his induction to Canton.
Here’s his record.
OPM, part 1: How to buy an NFL team with $250,000
Art Modell purchases the most successful pro-football team in history with $250,000 of his own money in 1961. No really. Ultimately this asset would grow to be worth $600,000,000… and yet Modell was forced to sell due to financial distress. On its face it’s remarkable that one could not make a go of it with this printing press of a business. When we look at the public subsidies he received along the way it becomes surreal. What it is not is Hall of Fame worthy.
Who killed Brownie the Elf?
From Vince at Cleveland Scene we uncover this:
So, what do you do with a logo that the fans love?
Well, if you’re Art Modell, you get rid of it.
Apparently, Modell, who became the team’s owner in 1961, was completely embarrassed by the elf and hated it so much that in the mid-1960s he began to phase it out. Yes, in addition to taking the team from Cleveland, Modell also was responsible for putting the lovable Brownie on the unemployment line.
The Modell Record in Cleveland on the field
The Browns record going into the 1961 season was 143-37-6, .785. (If you want to exclude AAFC, fine, 88-30-2, .742.) Seven championships in 15 years (or three in 11 NFL years). Under Modell, the record is .543. Under Modell post Blanton Collier (marking the end of the Paul Brown built teams), the record is .507 with no championships and no Super Bowl appearances.
Modell ushered in his era by trading Paul Warfield to the Dolphins for the 3rd pick overall, Mike Phipps. Compounding matters, he filled Warfield’s hole by trading Jim Kanicki (!) and Ron Johnson to the Giants for Homer Jones. And finally, he sent Bob ’53 Defense’ Matheson to the Dolphins for a 2nd rounder (who became Lester Sims who played not one game). That’s three first round picks and a second — cornerstones for growth — gone because Art tended to be too hands on.
He actually received a nickname summing up his talent acquisition savvy from the Miami News: Santa Claus.
Jim Marshall, Ron Johnson, Marvin Upshaw, Mike Lucci, Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, Jim Langer, Dean Browns, Paul Warfield, and Bob Matheson.
That’s not a preseason All-NFL team, though it could be. It’s a partial list of the players who have been dealt away by the Cleveland Browns in recent years.
–Miami News, September 14, 1971. (Click images for original report.)
Here’s a montage of Modell’s dismantling of the 11-4-1, 1969 Browns.
Art’s post-Paul Brown win-loss record is .500; not a plus differentiator for HOF.
Imagine firing Branch Rickey. After two years.
The builder of the Browns, Paul Brown, is acknowledged as the most innovative coach in the history of football. A quick list (thanks):
- Brown was the first to integrate professional football, prior to Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson integrating baseball. In 1946, Brown put fullback Marion Motley and defensive lineman Bill Willis on his squad, and both have busts in the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
- Brown was the first coach to have his players wear facemasks.
- Brown was the first to have his players undergo classroom instruction on the professional level.
- Brown was also the first professional football head coach to use film study.
- The “practice squad” in the NFL was begun by Brown and McBride, who owned a cab company, as the “taxi squad.”
- The radio helmet for quarterbacks was experimented with by Brown in the preseason of 1956.
I would add:
- Messenger Guards for play calling.
- Short timing patterns emphasizing yards-after-catch. a.k.a., West Coast Offense.
- Used 40-yard dash in training camps because it was reflective of punt coverage length; now the universal measure of player speed.
- Invented the draw play,
- The famous Browns’ sweeps with precision release on snap and fast guards who can get out front to lead it.¹
- HE INVENTED THE PLAYBOOK WHEN HE WAS COACHING MASSILLON HIGH SCHOOL!
[ok, that's enough.]
Paul Brown’s coaching tree? Good lord. His direct branches (players or assistants) include Shula, Ewbank, Walsh, and Noll… you can imagine how it’s spawned from there.
And so what does Mr. Modell do with the secret sauce of his new enterprise? His magic beans? His IP? He moves into Brown’s office bumping him to a smaller one, buys players drinks in spite of Brown’s rules, second guesses Brown’s playcalls in the pressbox, dabbles in player personnel (Lou Groza), enables back-door player complaints about HC to owner, breaks Brown’s sacred ‘no one player is bigger than the team’ by setting up Jim Brown radio show and column with Hal Lebovitz, and ultimately fires Paul Brown after two years. Per Brown, his office belongings were packed in a corrugated box and left on Brown’s front porch.
In fairness, you can find reports from Cleveland stating it was time for Brown to go.³ It’s a mixed bag. But firing a coach with .757 win-loss percentage and then embarking on 25 years of .500 ball? Not HOF.
Ever wonder why Jim Brown retired at 29?
Yeah, me too. The answer is because he could. The answer is because he wasn’t about to take any crap from a 39-year-old ad exec. Art threatens to fine Brown $1500/week; Brown retires while on location filming the Dirty Dozen. The question becomes: does sending an ultimatum to the greatest player (you want to say ‘Top 5?’ fine.) ever to play the game make one MORE QUALIFIED or LESS QUALIFIED to enter Canton?
Art Modell: Television Pioneer
Here is the fall-back. The trump card. The ‘reasonable argument.’ The canard.
Art Modell deserves to be in the HOF because he (helped Pete Rozelle) negotiated TV contracts.
Let’s get something straight: after Wellington Mara agreed to let New York ad revenue be split equally among the franchises, I could have negotiated a TV contract. More precisely: I could have hung out on Clint Murchison’s island while Pete Rozelle opened sealed bids in NYC.
And not for nothing: do you know what would constitute a HOF TV negotiator? It would be the NOVEL IDEA of first thinking of the fans’ experience! Like how The Masters limits commercials to five minutes an hour? HEY NFL! HEY ART MODELL! You’re gonna get your 5.7 BILLION A YEAR no matter what! What say you get rid of the touchdown-commercial-kickoff-commercial thing. k, thx.
His one and only Championship was blacked-out on Cleveland TV
Prior to 1973, all games were blacked out in the home city regardless of whether they were sold out. Thus, not only did Art never get Cleveland to the Super Bowl, the one TV-era championship game we had WAS NOT SEEN IN CLEVELAND.
One would think such a TV Man, such a visionary, such a savant, would not need a decade to recognize that televising sold-out games would help the growth of the NFL. Art’s Blackout Policy is actually one of the reasons there is no football in LA: LA teams rarely sold out games in LA Coliseum, and the black-out rule makes LA’s TV market (5.65 million TV households) irrelevant.
Satellite TV: slow on the uptake
Personally, I recall my local Browns Backer chapter forced to move from bar to bar because Modell shut us down when his committee learned they were catching satellite feeds. This is in the 80s and I recall vividly thinking, ‘Geez Art, you yourself are screwing a couple dozen Browns fans who only want to support your own damn team.’ I mean: the cease and desist letters were signed by Modell and cognizant that it was the Browns Backers he was shutting down! I assure you, The Bus Stop Pub in Allston was no threat to future of the NFL.
I submit that if growth of the league is the laudable end to Art’s TV contributions, then network revenue generation should not be the only metric of success. I submit that his blackout policies, fear of satellite TV, and even the present commercial over-load are indicators that the growth occurred in spite of Art, not because of him.
Back to the contracts, Modell backers think he cured polio by being in the room when contracts were signed. (Correction: Art was not in the room. As noted above, he was on Clint Murchison’s private Bahamian island while Rozelle sealed the 1964 contract.) One thing is for sure, the fans were not represented in that room. But ok, let’s play it out: Art was our ‘top gun’ driving these hard-hitting negotiations. How did that work out? Art signs with with CBS for $14.6MM/yr in 1964. In 1965, the AFL signed a deal with NBC for $36MM/yr. (See page 12 of this white paper for more detail.) In the aftermath of the NBC deal, the NFL was able to triple their contract with CBS in 1966. This is why it seems money was left on the table. I think Oliver Douglas did better with Mr. Haney.
Moving along, let’s revisit the early 90s…
Thank you to Bart Hubbuch (@HubbuchNYP), ABJ Browns beat writer from 1994-96, now at NY Post, for the next two entries.
The one where Art wants to rebate the networks $238 million.
Two decades ago Art wanted the NFL to reduce its network fees. The story is a bit long and dense and if you want the blow-by-blow, it is linked. But here is the net, Jerry Jones took Art’s train off the track:
“On March 31, 1992, against the wishes of Tagliabue and a majority of owners, Jones and Braman got the needed votes to kill a proposed $238 million network rebate and a two-year contract extension at network-friendly prices. It would have cost Jones and the other owners each an immediate $8.5 million.“
Modell’s HOF bio indicates his last TV contract deal was in 1993.
We’ll see more of Art’s magical business acumen below.
But let’s just now and forever stop with the TV pioneer jive.
And about Monday Night Football..
Hubbuch also reminds us that MNF was not a Modell invention. It was created by Pete Rozelle and Roone Arledge:
“NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle approached Arledge about a Monday night game of the week. CBS and NBC had already turned down Rozelle, citing their well-established prime time line-ups, but ABC was a ratings wasteland on Monday nights. Arledge paid a hefty $25.5 million for the three-year, 39-game package, but it was easily the best buy of his career.“
Nor will you find Modell mentioned in the creation of NFL Films. Rozelle yes. Modell no.
And that famous first MNF game in Cleveland against the Jets? Blacked-out in Cleveland.
Cleveland Municipal Stadium: yours for $1/year
Hey! Mr. Modell! Cleveland here. We want to give you the stadium! We know your team plays in it only ten times a year. But we want to give it to you! You get to collect concessions and parking and advertising revenue not just for your Browns games but also for the 81 times the Indians play there! You can also schedule ‘other events‘ there! Can you charge the Indians rent? Of course! You can even charge the Browns rent if it works for you! It’s your 80,000 seat stadium! All you have to do is maintain it!
That is the pretend phone call that created the Cleveland Stadium Corporation.
[For the sake of accuracy, Modell's lease with Cleveland was $150,000/year. He in turn sub-letted it to the Browns for $150,000/year. Modell's lease with Cleveland called for $10,000,000 in improvements over the course of ten years; the sub-lease with the Browns called for the Browns to invest $10,000,000 improvements. Copy of lease to CSC here; sub-lease to Browns here.]
Corrupt Art emerges. Or “How to use your front Stadium Corp. to put $3,000,000 cash in your pocket.”
What’s the first thing to do after you’ve incorporated your new business whose existence is solely owed to a remarkable deal proffered you by Cleveland city government? Correct: you purchase 190 acres of land in Strongsville as Art Modell, private citizen, in 1972-3 for $800,000; then buy the same land as the primary owner of Stadium Corp. for $4,000,000 in 1975-76. (New stadium! Maybe.) And as citizen Art, you take your $4,000,000 disbursement as $3,000,000 cash, the rest as note.
Turns out Art is a good negotiator when he negotiates with himself.
Move forward to the 80s, Art wants the Browns to buy Stadium Corp. And citizen Art will forgive the $1,000,000 note he is due, provided the Browns purchase of Stadium Corp increases by $1,000,000.
I’ll cut to the chase: Art is a corrupt shyster and a bad one. (Here’s the court brief if you want to dig in; here’s an easier and more interesting read by Bartimole.) When Art tries to get the Browns to buy Stadium Corp. at an inflated price, swallowing Art’s corrupt land deals, Browns minority partner Bob Gries calls bullshit. Sues. Wins when ultimately the Ohio Supreme Court sided with Gries.
Thank you SeattleBrownsFan for the assist on Gries/Strongsville.
Art Modell: Landlord
So Art’s got his Stadium Corp. Art’s got two tenants and is assured of over 90 dates a year. Not too shabby. He puts in a scoreboard; that’s cool. Next move? Physical plant overhaul? Field improvements? Spruce up the clubhouses? HELL NO!! Luxury boxes my man! Art’s lease required he invest $10MM in the stadium over ten years.4 Art spent $8MM on luxury boxes. And hey Indians with your 81 games: you don’t get any revenue from my boxes on your games!
My goodness. This is surely a dick move but we’re not to get personal in this missive and anyway there are dicks in Canton. No, here’s where it gets fun. The Indians say: eff this, we’re out of here. This deal sucks and we’ve got options. This leads to Gateway. But first…
OPM, part 2: Andre Rison on Discover Card
At the same time, 1995, that Modell has lost his main tenant for his stadium, he signs free agent Andre Rison to a $17 million contract. Except he doesn’t have the cash to pay his bonus. And Rison wants cash. So Modell takes out bank loans. And taps out his shrinking cash flow even further. (This really happened.) Turns out both Modell and Rison would’ve benefitted from an annuity here.
Not for nothing, Rison averaged 47 yds/gm in 95. Three TDs. Didn’t we have the two smartest football minds ever on the staff there in 95? Was the Rison signing Modell or Belichick or Lombardi? If only we had the sources of info that Jim Nantz has.
The Indians are threatening to leave. God bless poor old rust-belty Cleveland: it’s really important to have the Indians downtown. Know they don’t draw a whole lot, but it’s major when a charter member of the American League leaves your city. Ok, says Cleveland, we’ll help build you a stadium. Mind you, a primary driver in the Indians’ dissatisfaction is their landlord, Mr. Art Modell.
Art wakes up and realizes his primary tenant is leaving. Art realizes that it’s hard to find tenants to use his stadium and consume his beer and look at his Marlboro billboards 81 times a year. My GOD!! DIDNT SEE THAT ONE COMING!!!
So now Art’s in a dither. But he actually passes up participating in the Gateway Project initially.5 So Cleveland takes care of the Indians and Cavs. And NOW Art looks around and is like wtf? The Indians really left? YES DUMBASS. YOU SCREWED YOUR TENANT AND THEIR LEASE RAN OUT AND THEY MOVED. Christ. This guy.
He asks for $175 million to refurb the stadium. It is put on the ballot. He puts a moratorium on stadium negotiations until after the 1995 season. At the same time, he is conducting negotiations in Maryland. Election day with the ballot initiative is coming up November 7. You know what happens next, Baltimore: your Hall of Famer gives the secret knock on the tarmac to your governor and announces he is moving the day before his requested $175 million is approved in Ohio. The Baltimore Browns had landed.
[Art did not magnanimously leave behind the Browns name, colors, and history.
The name-staying was mandated to settle a lawsuit Cleveland brought as a result of Art's non-compliance with his lease.]
And finally, not to be forgotten,
OPM, part 3: Screw your partner.
Ever heard of the Andrews Trust? Yeah, he was one of those guys who helped Modell buy an NFL team with $250,000 which turned into $600,000,000 but with which he still went almost bankrupt. Anyway, Mr. Andrews (now his heirs) had an agreement that if Modell sold, he would get a fee. Modell should be happily paying the heirs of the man who helped him win the lottery of lotteries. Nope. He held 1% in order to screw his partner’s family. That’s your Hall-of-Famer, Baltimore.
George Halas, Curly Lambeau, Wellington Mara, … and Art Modell?
Art Rooney and Ralph Wilson, the two owners who voted against moving the Browns, … and Art Modell?
Paul Brown, Jim Brown, … Art Modell?
Sorry, no. Sorry, no: Art Modell does not belong in a place of honor with these men.
And when those talking heads tell us in Cleveland to let it go?
Well do please note, that throughout this post, I haven’t even mentioned the emotional component to ripping a public trust away from a community that was unfailingly supportive for 50 years.
But that happened too.
And if some folks can’t take the time to review his record; we don’t need to explain ourselves to them.
Review; Concise Talking Points
- Modell’s football record without Paul Brown’s influence is pedestrian.
- What HOF owner drives off top 5 ever head coach and player within five years of taking over?
- Modell’s ‘TV legacy’ features leaving money on the table in the early 60s, maintaining home city blackout policy through 1973, attempting to give huge amounts money back to networks, and absence from MNF and NFL Films creation.
- Modell’s management of Cleveland Stadium featured abuse of his primary tenant and corrupt manipulation of its corporation.
- Modell’s bargaining with Maryland while not talking to Cleveland was deceitful toward fans who’d demonstrated great support averaging 70,000+/game in the nine years preceding the move.
- Comparisons of Modell to Al Davis fall down on Davis’ three SB wins, 12 HOFers, and iconic brand creation. (see here and here.) Redirect to ‘what are Art’s credentials?’
- Comparisons to Dan Reeves (moved Rams from Cleveland to LA) are lowest common denominator; the ‘High Pockets Kelly’ for football. (see 2nd section.) Redirect to ‘what are Art’s credentials?’
- Do NOT engage in debates about jealousy of Ravens’ success. Now is not the time to set straight any Ray Lewis idolatry.
- Use words like ‘betrayal’ sparingly.
- ‘Cleveland should let it go’ arguments should be met without emotion but with a challenge to the Modell fan to present reasons why Modell SHOULD enter Canton.
Other links on the subject:
¹ I’ve received challenges regarding Art’s non-HOF ‘civic contributions’ record. Yes Art contributed to charity while in Cleveland and in a significant way. However, I contend the removal of the Browns was magnitudes more devastating to the region than the giving to Cleveland Clinic was beneficial.
² I know this is beside the thrust of this post. Can’t help it. Love this play. If you go to 1:35 of the embedded video and watch closely you’re gonna see linemen beating their men off the snap like they’re statues. Here’s a cap.
³ Pluto makes the it-was-time-for-Paul-Brown-to-go case in Chapter 13 of Things I’ve Learned From Watching the Browns.
4 Page 88 of Glory for Sale, Jon Morgan.
5 The Naymik article linked quotes George Forbes (Cleveland City Council President at the time) and Tim Hagan (Cuyahoga County Commissioner at the time). Both state that informal offers were made by them to Modell to include a Browns stadium in the Gateway Project. Because this is at odds with Modell’s claims (and because Mike Florio has impugned Naymik on the report… because… I don’t know why), I’m choosing not to play this angle too hard.