I’ll admit. I was an ass about Art Modell’s death last week. After all, this was a man who forced me, a man from Cleveland living in Cincinnati, to root for the Steelers for four years. (OK, Bengals owner Mike Brown deserves a share of the blame.) I said that Modell died because Satan had finished gnawing on the bones of late Colts owner Bob Irsay. Why pick on Irsay?
Because he did to Baltimore what Modell did to Cleveland: steal their football team.
I won’t get into the long story about how Art postponed giving up the crumbling slum he owned known as Municipal Stadium. I never resent Baltimore for taking the team. If any city deserved a new team, it was Baltimore. The Browns gave Cleveland a few months heads-up before moving out. The Colts left in the middle of the night. And Modell had to leave the teams records, name, and colors with Cleveland.
I do have to give Art Modell props, though. For decades, he was one of the NFL’s most admired owners. Modell was a driving force behind the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 and the NFL’s television empire. Ever wonder why some of those other leagues never caught on? You had the NFC on CBS, AFC on NBC, Monday Night Football on ABC, and no Fox, no ESPN, no TNT to show anything else. College football got whatever was left, and the NFL and NCAA were in cahoots to monopolize your eyeballs when it came to that flavor of football known as gridiron. You had to go north of the border to see any pro football worth mentioning outside the NFL. Art Modell was one of the owners who made that happen.
Before he pulled up stakes, the worst thing Modell did was fire Paul Brown, the team’s founding coach and the man for whom they were named. Cleveland’s loss was Cincinnati’s gain as Brown helped create the Cincinnati Bengals a few years later, still owned by the Brown family. Although Modell’s Browns never went to the Super Bowl, they came awfully close, like one Drive or one Fumble away from the big dance. Modell cultivated rivalries with the Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers (‘cuz Clevelanders deserve to dine on Parmanti Brothers big ass sandwiches while making fun of a team on its home turf. Pittsburgh and Cleveland are only two hours apart.) When the Ravens landed in Baltimore, Modell wisely kept them in the AFC Central, the the North with the new Browns and the former Central Division teams. Why? “They hate us. It’s a rivalry.” It was a brilliant bit of marketing.
So yes, I give the late Art Modell credit where credit is due.
But he still screwed the City of Cleveland.