Thursday's death of former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell has rekindled mostly bad memories for Browns fans.
Modell is still reviled in Cleveland for moving the team to Baltimore in 1996. But he remains a beloved figure in Charm City. Kabir Bhatia of member station WKSU in Kent reports.
Art Modell died in the place he’s called home since 1995, Baltimore. That city’s sportswriters, like Aaron Wilson, are filling the papers with testimonials to his philanthropy, his humor, and the Raven’s consistent playoff appearances.
“Art brought the NFL back to Baltimore and brought a Superbowl title here. In Maryland he didn’t really have a lot of enemies. He had a lot of support. And he was known as a guy that really would give everyone a square deal. He was a friendly guy, a funny guy, and he was remembered that way today.”
In Cleveland, things were a bit grimmer.
For years, Modell was vilified for moving the Browns to Baltimore.
But it’s been 17 years since then, and fans have become more forgiving – even forgetting.
Art Modell was born in Brooklyn in 1925, into the family that started the East Coast sporting goods chain, Modell’s. After serving in the Air Force, he got into television production and advertising, and bought the Browns in 1961 for $4 million. Only $250,000 of that came from his own money; the rest came from partners and loans.
At the time Modell took over, Chuck Schodowski was a fresh-faced cameraman at WJW, the TV home of the Browns.
“We had like the oldest equipment in the world. He called us the last of the wood-burning TV stations. But that was him. He could [have] biting humor.”
Schodowski recalls Modell’s controversial firing in 1963 of head coach Paul Brown, who was from Massillon and led the team to seven championships in 17 seasons.
“It was a shock. Cleveland loved Paul Brown. And Paul Brown was from this area. When he first constructed the team, I would say over 90 percent of the players were from this area. I mean, this was really a hometown team: Akron-Canton area, Massillon and Cleveland. Obviously, it was a big ego thing. Paul Brown was getting all the press, and Modell loved the press, so I guess he just wanted him out of the way.”
Modell was president of the NFL from 1967 to 1969, and he helped negotiate what has become one of the most lucrative sports broadcasting deals in the world: Monday Night Football. In 1970, his team hosted the first “Monday Night Football” game.
Pro Football Hall of Fame spokesman Joe Horrigan says the marriage of TV and football is a big part of Modell’s legacy.
“It was a gamble; it was a risk. They had to have some foresight in looking at prime-time sports on television. And it was probably not an easy sell, and absolutely wasn’t to the networks. So it was one of those things where it became a challenge not only to convince the network to do it, but then to change the culture of football. And it became such a part of pop culture that obviously we’re still feeling the positive effects of that today.”
Still, Modell’s Browns – and its successor—haven’t won a championship since 1964.
Since 2001, Modell has been a finalist or semi-finalist for the Hall of Fame eight times. But the controversial move to Baltimore is often cited as a key reason he’s never been inducted.
The move followed more than three years of battles between Modell and the city over improving or replacing Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Modell always defended his position.
“What is required, and what we have here, was far beyond the capacity of the community in Cleveland. I was not going to put myself in the position of demanding something, and then being accused of, time and time again, being an extortionist or shakedown artist. I’m just not gonna do that.”
Cleveland sued to enforce the Browns’ lease, and the NFL negotiated a deal for the team colors and history to stay in Cleveland. Doug Dieken played for the Browns from 1971-84, and has been part of the team’s radio and TV broadcasts ever since.
“He was a good boss. He was a man that did a lot of good things for the community when he was here. Unfortunately he did one thing that was bad, and it’s unfortunate that we only remember the bad. But I can see the good things he did, too. You know when players had financial problems and they needed some help, because they didn’t make the money they do today, Art would always help them out. He was generous in that way.”
In 1996, Modell set up shop as the Baltimore Ravens. That team’s dismal inaugural year gave way to a Superbowl win five seasons later.
By 2004, Modell had sold 99 percent of the Ravens to current owner, Steve Bisciotti.
Art Modell was 87.