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Who Dey Perspective: The Paul Brown Legacy Part II

Posted Apr 8, 2011

This week in our Who Dey Perspective, the Bengals present Part 2 of “The Paul Brown Legacy.”

Part 1 ran last week, but briefly for readers who may be starting with Part 2, we want to note that we take great pride in Paul Brown as our founder, and we don’t want his real story to grow fuzzy, particularly in the minds of younger fans. We believe that to this day, it remains a high-interest football read and carries an inspiring message.

And thus we offer this two-part series. As we said last week, we hope you’ll budget a few minutes of your reading regimen to give this piece a try. We think you’ll be glad you did, and that’s our “extra point.”

--Jack Brennan
Bengals public relations director

A breaker of barriers

Though it went largely unpublicized for many years, Paul Brown stands second to none in breaking the color barrier in modern American pro sports. In 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson’s debut in major league baseball, Brown’s Cleveland team featured Marion Motley and Bill Willis, the first African-Americans to become big league sports stars. They followed Brown into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Motley in 1968 and Willis in 1977.

“He just never made a big deal out of it,” Willis said of P.B. and the race issue, “not even to us.”

But P.B. was forced to make a big deal of it in January 1961, when the Browns were in Miami, scheduled to play Detroit in the NFL’s old Playoff Bowl series, a “consolation championship game” for the second-place finishers in the NFL’s two seven-team divisions. (In those years, the true postseason consisted of only one game, the league title match between the first-place clubs.)

And though the Playoff Bowl games are now largely forgotten, what happened before the 1961 contest is a story all should know.

When the team arrived at its Miami headquarters hotel, Brown was told that his African-American players would have to find alternative lodging. P.B. might as well have been told he’d have to coach the game blindfolded, and the rest of the story comes to us from wide receiver Bobby Mitchell, another of Brown’s black players whose bust is now in the Hall of Fame.

“He told the hotel manager that his team stays together or not at all,” Mitchell recalled. “You don’t break up the team. That was it. We were going home, and the manager could call the Commissioner if he didn’t like it.”

The hotel decided to decline that option.

“The guy had no choice but to let us stay,” Mitchell said. “I’m sure Paul had taken flak before, but this was the first time I saw it thrown in his face. He sure passed the test.”

Key figure in appointment of Rozelle

In 1960, Brown was instrumental in one of the NFL’s landmark moves -- the appointment of Pete Rozelle as Commissioner. Brown and L.A. Rams owner Dan Reeves proposed Rozelle, the Rams general manager and former public relations director, as a compromise candidate when owners deadlocked over other possibilities. Rozelle was chosen on the 23rd ballot.

“I didn’t think I was ready,” Rozelle would recall. "But Paul told me, 'Don’t worry, Pete, you’ll grow into the job.' "

Seldom has a prediction been more accurate. Rozelle served a remarkable 30-year term, retiring in 1989 after establishing a legacy as the premier commissioner in all pro sports. He moved the league office to New York -- it previously had been in Chicago and later in suburban Philadelphia -- and he directed explosive growth, including the 1962 signing of the league’s first national television contract. He led the way as the NFL rose to become clearly the most popular sports league in America.

So in a sense, the late Mr. Rozelle is yet another Paul Brown protégé in the Hall of Fame.

(There are, by the way, a total of 22 Hall of Fame members who played and/or coached under Brown. Besides those mentioned previously in this piece, the list includes Anthony Muñoz, Don Shula, Jim Brown and Bill Walsh.)

An infamous ouster; a Cincinnati rebirth

After the 1962 season, Brown shockingly was ousted as Cleveland’s coach. Despite his founder’s status, he had never been the majority owner of the Browns, and he was shown the door just a year after Art Modell bought the franchise. “This can never be my team,” Modell told Brown, “as long as you are here.”

It was a compliment, in a sense, to Brown’s already legendary status. But it stunned the football world and was a bitter personal blow to P.B.

Brown remained out of football for the next five years. He was offered a number of NFL positions, but resolved not to re-enter the game until he could do so on his own terms. He accomplished that in 1967, when he formed controlling interest in an ownership group that brought the Bengals to Cincinnati as an expansion franchise in the American Football League. The NFL and AFL had already announced merger plans, and it was known the Bengals would bring P.B. back into the NFL in 1970.

Just as Brown had entered the NFL with lightning success in 1950, he triumphantly re-entered the league 20 years later. His 1970 club finished the season with a seven-game winning streak to capture the first championship of the AFC Central Division.

Planting Cincinnati roots

Brown was the central figure in the construction and 1970 opening of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. He and sons Mike and Pete worked with civic and governmental leaders to turn the project from concept into reality. A key factor was Brown’s close relationship with Ohio governor James Rhodes.

The stadium would not have been built, however, without the Brown family’s efforts to bring together a group of prominent Cincinnatians to acquire ownership of baseball’s Cincinnati Reds.

Bill DeWitt, Reds owner during the 1960s, was unwilling to sign a 40-year lease at the new stadium. But he was convinced to accept an offer for the club from the new owners, who were willing to sign.

Brown coached the Bengals for their first eight seasons, through 1975. Three of his teams made the playoffs, and he stepped down as coach after a ’75 season in which the team posted an 11-3 record, compiling a winning percentage (.786) that still stands as the best in franchise history.

Legacy in place

Brown wasn’t able to win a Super Bowl with his fledgling Bengals teams, but 11 of the first 25 Super Bowls were won by head coaches who either played or coached under Brown. Chuck Noll won four, Bill Walsh won three, Don Shula won two, and Weeb Ewbank and Don McCafferty each won one.

Brown stayed on as Bengals general manager through the 1990 season, molding the teams that earned AFC Championships and Super Bowl berths in the 1981 and 1988 seasons.

The Bengals captured another AFC Central Division title in 1990, but Brown fell ill after the season. He died on Aug. 5, 1991, at the age of 82.

On May 29, 1997, the Bengals announced that a planned new football facility on the Cincinnati riverfront would be named Paul Brown Stadium.

“We like the fact that our stadium name honors the tradition of the NFL,” said Bengals president Mike Brown, who chose for the team to absorb lost revenue for potential corporate naming rights. “Many names now don’t have anything to do with the game.”

Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000 and has brought much national notice to Greater Cincinnati. It is a fitting tribute to one of football’s all-time greats.



PAUL BROWN’S REGULAR SEASON COACHING RECORD
Teams Years W L T Pct.
Severn Prep (Md.) 1930-31 16 1 1 .917
Massillon (Ohio) High School 1932-40 80 8 2 .900
Ohio State University 1941-43 18 8 1 .685
Great Lakes Naval Station (Ill.) 1944-45 15 5 2 .727
Cleveland Browns (AAFC/NFL) 1946-62 158 48 8 .757
Cincinnati Bengals (AFL/NFL) 1968-75 55 56 1 .496
CAREER 41 years 342 126 15 .724

 

(*Note: To see archived versions of The Who Dey Perspective, click here.)

 

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