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The Suburbanite
  • Steve Doerschuk: Rest in peace, Mr. Modell, but not with a bronze bust here

  • On the day of Art Modell’s death, Browns writer Steve Doerschuk travels back to the day when Art Modell’s golf cart pulled up to the press box in Berea, the day before the blockbuster Baltimore story broke.

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  • Phil Dawson, the only Cleveland Brown who has suffered through the entire expansion era, is 37.
    Art Modell was 36 when the 1961 season kicked off. It was his first real game in the owner’s booth.
    Mr. Modell was 37 when he fired Paul Brown, 63 when he let Marty Schottenheimer go, 70 when he moved the franchise, 87 when he died Thursday in Maryland.
    He lived a long life whose impact on the Cleveland Browns was sweeping, incredible, catastrophic.
    In a football sense, he must be remembered that way, not just as a fortunate one who was 39 when the Browns won their last NFL title.
    He did preside over one excellent run that can’t be written off as simply drawing on the momentum of Paul Brown’s remarkable franchise building.
    Mr. Modell was 64 when the Browns finished a run of three appearances in AFC title games within four years.
    I believe Browns history would be different — he wouldn’t have or couldn’t have moved the team — had one of two things happened.
    • The team wouldn’t have moved had one of those AFC finalists made it to the Super Bowl.
    • The team wouldn’t have moved had Modell found a way to retain Schottenheimer, who resigned after the 1988 season, his fourth straight in the playoffs.
    Anyone who is old enough to have attended Browns games in the 1980s can attest to the unique, electric atmosphere that made old Municipal Stadium one of the most special places in the history of professional sports.
    That atmosphere alone spoke to the level of love and support this region had for the Cleveland Browns — rooted in the team’s run of 10 straight appearances in league title games from 1946-55.
    The flavor of those game days, when the team was worth supporting, was all anyone needed to conclude that as long as there was an NFL, it needed a home in Cleveland.
    A Super Bowl would have heightened an already incredible climate. No one in his right mind would have dared breathe even a peep about moving the Browns.
    The atmosphere eroded as a result of factors under Modell’s control.
    First, he imposed conditions on Schottenheimer that led to the coach packing his bags for Kansas City. True, Schottenheimer was headstrong and in some respects even unreasonable, but at the same time, he was the football brains behind a 1986-88 run in which the Browns went 12-4, 10-5 and 10-6. Modell was a great football fan, but hardly a born football man.
    Those teams bowed out of the playoffs with losses of 23-20 to the Broncos in overtime, 38-33 at Denver and 24-23 to the Houston Oilers.
    What happened next speaks to what made Modell colorful, ambitious, impetuous and football-flawed. His football instincts told him he could do better without Schottenheimer, that the Browns could get to a Super Bowl his way.
    Page 2 of 3 - Soon, the atmosphere eroded. On Sept. 10, 1989, the Browns kicked off a season under coach Bud Carson with a 51-0 win at Pittsburgh. One season later, after nine games, Modell fired Carson.
    I covered many Browns home games in the 1970s and 1980s but was not a beat guy per sé then and barely knew Mr. Modell. I met him a few times.
    One time in Baltimore, when I had been on the expansion-era Browns’ beat for a while, I was invited up to his owner’s suite in Baltimore, along with a few other writers.
    He was polite. He cracked a few jokes. But it was a weird atmosphere. It was the first time he had talked to Ohio writers face to face since the move.
    In subsequent years, other writers with whom he had been friendly during his Cleveland years were invited back up. I wasn’t among them.
    I recall forming an impression after one of Mr. Modell’s speeches at the Hall of Fame Luncheon Club in Canton Township. That is, he was personable, funny and full of himself.
    I respect the stories from people who heap praise on Modell for having been — in the words of one of my friends who was around him a lot — “a philanthropist second to none.” I respect the people who tell me Mr. Modell was “a really good guy.”
    Who am I to judge anyone?
    On the other hand, for all of the fine things Modell did for Cuyahoga County, the same would be expected of any owner of the Browns. It was expected of the Lerners. It is expected of Jimmy Haslam.
    What can never be expected nor tolerated is the robbing of an asset as broad in scope as an NFL franchise — especially one like the Browns.
    Judging Modell’s humanity is way above my pay grade. Rest in peace, sir.
    However, it has seemed fair to judge — as I have in numerous conversations and columns in recent years — that moving the Browns should close the gates to our little museum in Canton. Permanently.
    The Browns prospered under Modell through the 1960s, crashed in the 1970s, revived in the 1980s, then eroded in the 1990s.
    That Modell hired Bill Belichick in 1991 was a fantastic break for the New England Patriots — Cleveland gave Belichick invaluable on-the-job training — but fatal for us.
    Even then, Belichick had some local supporters, but he had too many enemies, and his mostly dull teams were not loved. Even his 1994 playoff team was not wildly popular.
    The Browns who prompted fans to write songs everybody knew — you still hear them — weren’t Belichick’s Browns.
    Mr. Modell knew full well in his latter years, I think, that he never should have moved the team. The dull years under Belichick, though, gave him a false sense of security, a rationale for thinking the move was defensible.
    Page 3 of 3 - Sure, the politicians probably did him no favors, but his play would have been so easy. Simply tell Ohio that the team was gone if he didn’t get a stadium deal. He never said a word. The move was one of the all-time sucker punches.
    He couldn’t handle the truth. A friend who was on the beat then tells me Mr. Modell came around on his golf cart late in the week the awful news broke.
    Everybody piled out of the press box that used to face the practice fields so they could talk to the owner. One of the writers took a seat right next to him in the cart.
    Modell was asked about rumors the team might move. Everything was fine, he said, according to my friend. The team wasn’t going anywhere.
    That was a Friday. The story broke the next day. The Browns played the Oilers at the stadium on Sunday. I wrote a column, talked to a lot of people in the stadium. No one could believe this was happening.
    They’re different Browns now. The outgoing owner, Randy Lerner, has done a fine thing in writing a contract that requires the new owner, who seems glad to do so, to keep the Browns where they belong.
    It will be interesting to find out whether Mr. Haslam decides — and make no mistake; it is his call — whether a moment of silence should be observed for Mr. Modell before Phil Dawson places approaches the football Sunday in Cleveland Browns Stadium.
    Probably, Mr. Haslam’s response will have been contained in a statement placed beside our laptop as we typed this:
    “The Cleveland Browns would like to extend their deepest condolences to the entire Modell family.”