clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hall of Fame question: Why does Art Modell belong in Canton?

As HOF season nears, this writer is baffled by the Art Modell controversy, but not for the reasons you might think.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers
Art Modell and Dan Rooney at Three Rivers Stadium, 1978
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Disclaimer: this article deals with the Pro Football Hall of Fame but isn’t Steeler specific at all. If that’s not interesting to you, please be advised of that ahead of time and save yourself the trouble.

Apparently the “blue ribbon panel” assembled by the Pro Football Hall of Fame met this week to vote on the 15-person Centenary Class. There has been a significant amount of controversy about the process, which bypasses the usual route wherein journalists from across the country (mostly from NFL cities) meet, argue, and vote on inductees individually. Instead, for the Centenary Class, this new panel will affirm or negate the entire class as a whole — inducting either all 15 of them or none of them.

I know this is a Steelers site, so I should probably be writing about Troy Polamalu or Donnie Shell (both of whom deserve entry this year), but I find myself more interested in one of the flash-point figures in the election story – a guy who has been repeatedly denied in the past, but might get through under the current model: Former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell.

You probably know the narrative around Modell. In 1996, he moved the Browns out of Cleveland (where they were so beloved that the city sued to retain the name and team colors), and therefore the Cleveland contingent of voters would never allow him through the Hall’s pearly gates. Some say it’s fair game (he mortally wounded a great football city to enrich himself, and shouldn’t get rewarded for it). Others say it’s overkill (he’s been kept out for long enough and deserves to be recognized).

That’s all fine, I guess. But I have a much more basic question: Why does Art Modell belong in the Hall of Fame in the first place? What did he ever do to deserve it?

This is really a question about what the Hall of Fame means and what enshrinement there ought to celebrate. The Pro Football HOF exists primarily to recognize historic greatness on the field or on the sidelines. In that sense, inducting team owners is a strange move to begin with. No one, as far as I’m aware, goes to a game to see what the owner has in store, and writing checks is hardly a measure of excellence. (See also: Dan Snyder.) There are currently 13 Hall of Famers whose primary role was “team owner”; that’s less than 4% of the total enshrinees. The message seems to be this: if an owner never coached or played (where we can see and appreciate brilliance within the lines) they should have done something significant — something that goes beyond hiring a good GM for their team or negotiating TV deals to enrich their fellow owners — to merit such an honor.

What, then, are the reasons to immortalize an owner? I’d say there are five. To be Hall of Fame worthy, I’d argue that an owner should be:

  • a founding/cornerstone member of the league. Tim Mara comes to mind, where he built a stable and successful operation in New York that still exists today, and the stability of which probably helped the fledgling NFL keep going through the early years.
  • a well-known and beloved figure, who functions as a face for the sport. Art Rooney might be a good model for this. The Chief was visible and well-liked nationally, and built an admired “family” culture in Pittsburgh even before the Steelers were winners, creating a model for what an organization can/should look like.
  • a successful front-office football man. I’m thinking of Jerry Jones or Al Davis, for example, both of whom spent decades as de facto GMs for consistently competitive teams.
  • a visionary that develops the game in a positive way. Lamar Hunt might be a good example — a driving force behind merging the NFL and AFL, and the man who conceived of, and ultimately named, the Super Bowl.
  • a force that makes the NFL community better. Dan Rooney is the model for this, where he didn’t merely build a winner and a model of sustainability in Pittsburgh, he was also a giant in the cause for civil rights in the sport – recruiting at HBCUs in the 70s, supporting Chuck Noll as he started a black QB in 1974 (Joe Gilliam) and hired one of the league’s first black coordinators in the 80s (Tony Dungy), and then proposing the head-coaching equity rule that bears his name, the Rooney Rule – thus making the NFL healthier on the field, at the assistant coach level, and the head coach level.

Not one of these things describes Art Modell.

Perhaps I’m being a little biased. Though I was never a Browns fan, I did grow up in Canton, Ohio (a few miles from the Hall of Fame itself, and deep in Browns country for sure), and I suspect there are positive marks on Modell’s CV that I’m not aware of or fully crediting. But I do love the history of the game, and everything I know about Art Modell says he was a nightmare.

Consider this resume:

  • Modell bought the Browns in 1961, and two years later fired Paul Brown, one of the most successful and visionary coaches in pro football history, who had taken the team to league championship games in 10 consecutive seasons, including winning the NFL title in the Browns’ first season in the league.

Brown went on to found and coach the AFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, where he was twice named Coach of the Year (once in the AFL and once in the NFL), and where he taught offense to a young protege you might have heard of, named Bill Walsh. That is, he wasn’t exactly washed up when Modell dumped him.

(And not to put too fine a point on it, but how do you fire the “Brown” that the “Browns” are named after?)

  • Three years later, he got into a training camp standoff with Jim Brown, arguably the best player in NFL history, which resulted in Brown retiring from football at 29. Modell threatened to suspend Brown without pay if he missed the offseason workouts to finish filming the Dirty Dozen. Brown had intended to play at least one more season (perhaps two), but when Modell tried to strong-arm him with fines, Brown had enough, and simply quit.

Lest anyone believe Brown was starting to decline as he approached 30, here is an idea of how dominant he still was in his final season: he led the league in rushing that year with 1,544 yards, a total which nearly doubled the second place finisher, Gayle Sayers, who had 867. Brown’s 1,544 would have also led the league this year (the past three years, in fact, and four of the last five) despite the fact that he amassed that number in a 14 game season. It was the second highest total ever recorded at the time – second only to his own 1,863 from two years prior (that is, discounting his own 1963 season, Brown’s final year in the league was the highest rushing total in NFL history, and would have remained as the record for another eight years). It’s safe to say Jim Brown had plenty of gas left in the tank when Modell forced his hand and he walked away.

  • After Modell’s teams muddled through the 70s and early 80s (with a staggering zero playoff wins from 1970-85), he promoted Marty Schottenheimer, who completely changed the Browns’ culture, taking over a 1-7 loser midway through the 1984 season and bringing them to the playoffs in 1985, and then a heartbeat from the Super Bowl the next two years (thwarted only by The Drive in ’86 and The Fumble in ‘87). Schottenheimer won 10 games in 1988 and led the team to the playoffs for a fourth straight year… and then Modell fired him.

Marty’s replacement (former Steelers defensive coordinator, Bud Carson) stuck around less than two seasons before Modell fired him as well. These are Jimmy Haslam levels of patience and judgement.

  • A couple of coaches later, lest anyone forget, he hired, and then fired, Bill Belichick, one of the most successful coaches of all time, and the winningest coach of the Super Bowl era. Belichick was not great in Cleveland, but his team was on the rise, making the playoffs in Belichick’s second-last season (Sports Illustrated’s Dr. Z even picked them to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXX that year). When Modell dropped his bombshell the following year (see below) the team collapsed, and Belichick was fired — though many believe it wasn’t his record but his lack of charisma (which wouldn’t sell tickets and merchendise in Baltimore) that cost Belichick his job.
  • Finally, of course, the bombshell, when he moved the team out of Cleveland purely for financial gain. After new venues cut into his monopoly on all profits from Cleveland Municipal Stadium events, he demanded a new nine-figure state-of-the-art renovation, paid for by taxes. Believing the city of Baltimore would fund this dream, he took the team to Maryland. (In a final slap in the face, he announced the move one day before election day 1996 – on which Clevelanders voted to approve the very stadium appropriations Modell hadn’t waited around for.)

More important than stadium money, though, Browns games were still wildly popular, and the fans were still rabidly loyal. They didn’t just approve the stadium measure, they (as noted above) sued to retain the naming rights, insignias, and colors of the Browns – the only time that’s ever happened in sports history (as far as I can tell). That’s loyalty. We may roll our eyes at the Browns’ ineptitude today, but Cleveland is a football city. If sports have any communal value, that value comes from the way teams bring communities together. The Cleveland community was still aggressively supportive of the Browns; it’s just that Art Modell wasn’t making enough money.

In sum:

He fired three of the most successful coaches in league history, all before their time.

He froze out perhaps the best player in the history of the sport, and drove him into retirement at his peak.

His teams won two titles in 50 years, despite having appeared in 11 championship games in the 14 years before he bought the franchise.

And he gave the finger to a city that loved its team solely for personal enrichment.

What on earth is the argument for this guy?

I understand irritation from those who believe one city’s fan base is holding a worthy candidate hostage. But what I can’t understand is why anyone thinks Art Modell was ever a worthy candidate to begin with.

Okay, back to writing about the Steelers. Sorry for the interruption; this has just been bugging me.