Art Modell: A First-Hand Account Of A Man Of Many Contradictions

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 25: (FILE PHOTO) Owner Art Modell of the Baltimore Ravens speaks during the Ravens press conference January 25, 2001 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Tampa, Florida. Modell died on September 6 of natural causes at the age of 87. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

"We're 26 Republicans, and we run our business like socialists!" That's how Art Modell liked to describe the NFL's revenue sharing agreement.

He was a Brooklyn kid who never got over Walter O'Malley's decision to move the Dodgers to LA,
and he vowed he would never do anything like that to Cleveland. But he did.

Art was a tough, often tight-fisted businessman, but he and his wife Pat were civic leaders, renowned for their generous giving and support for local charities and the artsm.

Modell was a key player in the NFL's growth and in the merger, and was both liked and respected by his fellow owners. But he is reviled and will never be forgiven in Cleveland.

Art Modell was a man of many contradictions.

He was born in Brooklyn in 1925, and dropped out of high school at age 15 to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Three years later, he joined the Army Air Corps. After the war, he went back to school, and took a course in the brand new field of television production. He got a job in TV, eventually moving on from production into advertising, and did quite well for himself.

In 1961, he bought the Cleveland Browns for four million dollars - mostly borrowed money or that of co-investors. For years, he howled about overpaying for the franchise.

Modell was a man of no small ego. Neither was Paul Brown, the legendary coach and founder of the franchise. In 1963, Modell fired the man for whom the team was named.

The Browns, led by a pretty decent running back also named Brown, won the NFL title in 1964. Those were glory days for the franchise, and Modell was on his way to becoming a community leader in Cleveland.

He married Pat, a television star, and they were inseparable. together 42 years until her death in 2011. They were patrons of the arts, supporters of local charities. Art was on the Boards of several major corporations, and active in GOP politics in Cleveland.

Modell was a huge backer of the AFL-NFL merger, and agreed to a major realignment that brought instant parity to the two new conferences. There were more NFL teams than AFL teams, and it was Art Rooney and Art Modell who agreed to move their teams from the NFL into the new AFC - along with Paul Brown's Cincinnati franchise. They were joined by the Houston Oilers to form the AFC Central Division. It strengthened the new conference, enhanced the Steelers-Browns rivalry by adding nearby Cincinnati, and there was also a financial cash windfall paid to both Rooney and Modell.

The two Arts had the foresight to see the benefits of a move that many other owners feared was risky, at best.

Modell's expertise in television and advertising provided insight into new possibilities for growth.

Modell supported the idea of Monday Night Football, and even offered his team for the first home game of what was, at the time, a controversial experiment. He also supported the idea of Thanksgiving Day doubleheaders, again offering up a Browns home date for the first late game.

Modell's contribution to the NFL during the period 1965-75 cannot be overstated. The league began that decade hemorrhaging money in a bidding war with the AFL. Franchises were in financial trouble.(The Steelers may still have been practicing in South Park) . Modell helped engineer the merger, and the actual merging for the two new conferences. He then worked closely with Pete Rozelle and network executives to come up with the deals that resulted in Sunday doubleheader packages and MNF. In ten years, the NFL went from financially troubled enterprise to America's Game and money making machine. He also was owner who provided the strongest backing for the establishment and expansion of NFL Films.

I went to work for an all-news radio station in Cleveland in 1975, and had the opportunity to meet Art Modell on a few occasions. He was a genuinely nice guy, who actually told me (and my boss) that he listened to my business and financial reporting and liked my work.

The last time I saw him in a football setting was on a particularly awful Sunday afternoon when a guy named Turkey Jones slammed Terry Bradshaw into the ground at Municipal Stadium.

Modell had the reputation of being a hands-on boss. He attended practices, knew his players, and could be a tough negotiator. He has numerous highly-publicized contract disputes, including one involving several Black players negotiating together. He had endless disputes with local officials over use and upkeep of Municipal Stadium. And those disputes eventually escalated into demands for a new stadium, and then to secret negotiations that led to Modell moving the franchise to Baltimore.

Baltimore fans, who had seen their beloved Colts moved out of town in the middle of a snowy winter night, now saw the Cleveland franchise moved to Baltimore by an owner who once had his heart broken when his beloved Dodgers left Brooklyn. Crazy world, ain't it?

I remember going through Cleveland Hopkins Airport in December, 1995, when it became known that the Browns were leaving. Believe me when I tell you that you could feel the anguish and sense of betrayal of a city that had just had its heart ripped out.

Art said he had to do it for financial reasons, and that tax laws were such that without the new stadium or the windfall gained from moving,, he would not be able to pass the franchise on to his son. That was his story. Clevelanders never bought it. I'm not sure Dan Rooney bought it entirely, either. If I remember correctly, Dan Rooney was the only owner who voted against the move.

In Vegas, for the (three?) years the franchise was dormant, more than one sports book listed "Cleveland" as having a "bye" week every week during those seasons. Cleveland fans never lost hope, and finally got their Browns back. And a good thing, too, because we missed those SOB's.

In Baltimore, Art and Pat quickly assumed roles as civic leaders, and patrons of the performing arts. Art's franchise, renamed the Ravens, continued their rivalry with the Steelers, bringing to it even greater intensity. His Ravens put together such a defense that they were able to win a Lombardi Trophy with a guy named Trent Dilfer running the offense. People like Ray Lewis make such accomplishments possible.

And yet, in 2001, Modell was eventually forced to sell the Ravens.

Modell was nominated for the Hall of Fame and made the finalist list on several occasions, but has missed the final cut each time so far. Some will neverforgive him. Others may not know how important a role he played in the league's history.

Pittsburgh fans owe Art Modell a grat deal. The merger that he so strongly supported, and the realignment that he agreed to, helped his friend Art Rooney put the Steelers on strong financial footing. It kept alive and expanded the rivalries that live on to this day.

Modell had a special fondness for the Chief. As Tim Gleason recalls, he once said of Rooney, "if there's a flood, I want to be next to that man. He stands on higher ground."

RIP

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