Requiem For a Heavyweight
Most memorable characters/figures I have covered in 29 years following the NFL, not necessarily in this order (but it's close):
1. Lawrence Taylor
2. Sam Wyche
3. Art Modell
4. Brett Favre
5. Al Davis
6. John Randle
7. Bill Parcells
8. Jerry Jones
9. Jimmy Johnson
10. Deion Sanders.
Modell, who died in Baltimore Thursday morning, is so many things to so many people: TV pioneer, firer of Paul Brown and Bill Belichick, Browns killer, Ravens founder, hated in Cleveland, beloved in Baltimore, one of the funniest people ever put on the earth, heart of gold to the downtrodden, spender of money he did not have, benefactor who gave away millions that he did have. Unforgettable, in a word.
Modell was one of the most influential owners of his time, and certainly the most fun. I recall many league meetings when I heard an explosion of laughter from a circle of media people and figured, Art's in the middle of that. He married an actress, Patricia Breslin, and loved the Hollywood set. After one Cleveland game in the '80s, he invited coach Marty Schottenheimer and GM Ernie Accorsi to his box -- and there were Modell and Milton Berle in the box, seeing who could tell the best joke.
As much as he helped bring in $8.4 billion in TV deals over his time negotiating those contracts -- he and Commissioner Pete Rozelle were the key to the NFL becoming such a popular TV game -- I'll always think his greatest TV accomplishment was being such a strong proponent to the other owners of staging a weekly game on Monday night. Because Rozelle was brilliant, and I believe the TV deals would have gotten done, though it's clear, as long-time TV executive Dick Ebersol said Thursday, that the debt owed Modell for his TV efforts "is incalculable.'' The Monday night franchise was at least in part a triumph of Modell's persistence, and of the calculated risk that defined his career.
Before the 1970 season, Rozelle began experimenting with games on Monday night. The Packers and Lions played one in 1964, and they sold out Tiger Stadium for it. Between 1966 and 1969, Rozelle scheduled six more games on Monday nights, two on prime-time TV. But Modell wanted to make it a TV series.
Sports in the late '80s and early '70s were not dominated by football the way they are today. Modell and Rozelle thought football on TV could spike the sport's popularity. In early 1970, ABC was dead last in the network ratings, and Modell and Rozelle convinced it to put a game on in prime time every week. Some owners chafed, thinking their fans wouldn't want to go to a football game on a work night inside of the normal Sunday afternoon time.
"I'll take the first one,'' Modell said, meaning he'd put the Browns on the first week of the Monday night slate. "But give me Joe Namath for it.'' So the NFL scheduled Jets at Browns for the first Monday nighter on ABC, on Sept. 21, 1970. Three days before the game, Modell fretted that only 50,000 tickets had been sold; would the factory worker who had to be on the job Tuesday at 7 a.m. be downtown at a football game until after 11? But the crowd kept coming and coming Monday night. Modell had to rush extra ticket sellers to the stadium, and his biggest crowd of the year, 85,703, showed up ... including several thousand standing room fans.
"The only people angry that night,'' Modell said much later, "were the fire marshals."
Monday night became appointment NFL viewing. In high school, my favorite TV of the fall was the NFL halftime highlights; in those days, you had to wait until Monday night to see most of the highlights, and I always stayed up until those were shown. Modell and Rozelle made that happen.
In the mid-'80s, I got to know Modell, and he was always a great interview and source for information. But he was impetuous and maddening, at times, for those who worked for him. The Browns decided to hold the line in an ugly contract dispute with popular local nose tackle Bob Golic and got ripped on the talk shows and the papers for it. Modell didn't like the heat from his customers. "You're going to have to loosen up, kid,'' Modell told then-GM Accorsi.
In the Belichick years (1991-95), the joke around the office was that "ready, fire, aim" was Modell's motto. But he believed stridently in equal opportunity, promoting African Americans Ozzie Newsome and James Harris to GM and pro personnel director, respectively, after the franchise moved to Baltimore -- and giving Newsome a personnel job when he left the field in Cleveland.
My favorite Modell story: On a November Thursday night in 1995, I got a call around 10 or so from my managing editor at SI, Mark Mulvoy, telling me to check out a story he'd heard -- that the Browns were moving to Baltimore. That's the kind of story that makes the hair on your neck stand up. So I phoned Modell, who wasn't expecting a call at 10:45 on a Thursday night. But he picked up the phone.
"Sorry to bother you, Art, and I wouldn't call now if it wasn't important,'' I said. "But I hear you might be moving your team to Baltimore. Is that true?''
Pause. Two seconds, three. "I can't lie to you, Peter,'' he said. "The answer is yes."
I always appreciated that about Modell. First, that he gave out his home number; that's something owners used to do, and more than a few won't give out their cell or home numbers now. But he could have beaten around the bush or lied. Not his style.
From there, that was one of the craziest long weekends I've seen in nearly three decades covering the league. The Browns leaving Cleveland? Insane! The Packers leaving Green Bay would have been just as loony. The news spread like wildfire in pre-Internet days the next day. Modell found the financial situation in the old stadium in Cleveland untenable, and years later said he would have had to declare bankruptcy if he'd tried to stay.
I found out that in signing free agent receiver Andre Rison before the '95 season, he'd been turned down by two Cleveland banks when he tried to borrow the money for Rison's signing bonus -- and had to use personal collateral to get the $5 million loan.
I went to Cleveland for the game against Houston that weekend, and the crowd was vicious. I walked down into the Dawg Pound and found the unofficial leader of the fans, Big John Thompson, who was without his big dog mask that day. "You wouldn't wear a dog mask to your brother's funeral, would you?'' he said sadly. The fans congregated behind a stanchion outside the Browns' locker room postgame, and in a Barabbas-like chant, yelled "Bring us Modell!''
The next day, in a parking lot in downtown Baltimore, Modell stood uncomfortably with city and state leaders announcing he'd signed a deal to move the Browns to Baltimore. Part of his agreement with Maryland was he'd join in a lawsuit against the city of Cleveland or the NFL if either sued to stop the move. How incredible to consider the ultimate league man, Modell, in a legal tiff with the league -- and the league never did sue to stop him. As I wrote then, "The NFL suing Art Modell would be like Ward Cleaver suing the Beaver.''
After the announcement that day, I asked Modell what he thought of the view back in Cleveland -- the view expressed by Cleveland mayor Michael White, who said, "Like a thief in the night, our NFL franchise has been snatched from our community.''
The quote made Modell furious. "Thief in the night!'' he told me. "I'd better count to 10 before I respond to that. I've given my life -- my blood, my sweat, my tears -- to the Cleveland Browns and to Cleveland. They were too late!''
But the city never forgave Modell -- even though, after a four-year hiatus without football, the Browns got the shiny new stadium Modell had always wanted, and a fabulously wealthy owner, credit card scion Al Lerner, who lavished heretofore never-seen-in-the-NFL perks on his players. Valet parking at the stadium, free grocery shopping and dry-cleaning for the players, and pickup service at night if they'd ever had too much to drink.
The four years without football, and that the Browns haven't built a consistent winner since that fateful weekend in 1995, led to the Modell family, wisely, asking the Browns Saturday to have no tribute to Modell inside Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday before the season-opener against Philadelphia. It would have been a debacle, with 17 years of pent-up boos directed by some portion of the crowd -- who knows how much -- at the late Modell.
Cleveland and Baltimore are 375 miles apart. They're worlds apart, obviously, when it comes to feelings for Modell. There's the hatred in Cleveland, and there's this: On Saturday, the Ravens held a viewing of Modell's casket (the funeral is Tuesday morning, 12 hours after tonight's Chargers-Raiders game ends, fittingly) at M&T Bank Stadium, and about 3,000 fans came to pay their respects. One was an elderly man, who brought his son and grandson to Modell's son David. "I want to introduce my son and grandson,'' the man said. "I just wanted to say thank you. We didn't have football until your dad brought it here.''
That's why Modell is the most polarizing figure in modern NFL history. There will be time to debate his candidacy for the Hall of Fame, which I'll do this fall as the winnowing process for the Hall continues. But the history lesson with him is so deep and so interesting. That's where I wanted to take you this morning.
The Art Modell Memorial Quote Section
From his successor:
"Don't go. I don't know if I can do this without you.''
-- Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, to a fading Modell at his hospital bedside Wednesday in Baltimore, from a terrific piece by Ravens PR czar Kevin Byrne on baltimoreravens.com about the last day of Art Modell's life. The piece was spine-tingling. It included a passage about GM Ozzie Newsome rubbing Modell's hands the final time he would ever see his old boss and saying into his ear: "I want you to feel what good hands feel like.''
From his former boss atop the NFL:
"Absolutely. Absolutely killed him ... As time passed by, it was more difficult for him to satisfy himself that he wasn't responsible in some way for at least some of the harm there, some of the harm to the fans' passion.''
-- Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, to host Chris Russo on SiriusXM "Mad Dog Radio,'' about the responsibility Modell felt later in life for ripping the Browns out of Cleveland.
From the father of the Ravens head coach:
"Scribes and pundits who believe in fairness and honesty dropped the ball today in allowing Art Modell to pass from this Earth without being inducted into the Hall of Fame. In addressing this in Baltimore, you speak to the choir; in addressing this to those around the country, who grasp the contribution Mr. Modell made over five generations of being a pioneer and visionary in this great game and great league -- highlighted by his leadership in negotiating TV contracts and being an owner for two NFL Championship teams -- you speak to the choir. But, there is a narrow-minded corps of individuals who came up small today. Very small."
-- Jack Harbaugh, father of Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, slapping the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters across the face for not enshrining Modell.
From the man himself, about 10 years ago:
"Remind me not to have my bar mitzvah here.''
-- Modell, at a dinner with several NFL owners and officials, with his wife, Pat, in Florida. Art Modell booked a reservation at a restaurant in Palm Beach that served beer, but no liquor. Modell, ticked off about it, was asked by the waitress what he would like to drink. "Scotch on the rocks,'' he said. His wife told him, "How many times do I have to tell you there's no liquor here!'' Which prompted the dry-witted Modell reply.
From his former general manager:
"There is lots of laughter in heaven today. Art's arrived."
-- From Browns GM Ernie Accorsi, to me, on Friday.