When he moved his beloved Browns franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore, Art Modell knew his legacy in Cleveland was changed forever. He never was able to return to the city that once adored him, but has since scorned him.
Modell died early Thursday, just three days before the new Browns kick off their 14th season since returning to the NFL. He was 87.
“A lot of Clevelanders wouldn’t believe this, but Art is one of the most loyal and trusting persons I’ve ever met,” former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar said. “Maybe that led him to some decisions that not everyone liked. But he was tough — always willing to take the brunt of things on his shoulders. He didn’t blame others. This is a sad day for me. I truly valued his friendship and will miss that.”
Modell was one of the league’s most influential forces for much of his four decades as an owner. He helped negotiate the league’s lucrative contracts with television networks, served as president of the NFL from 1967 to 1969, and chaired the negotiations for the first collective bargaining agreement with the players in 1968.
He was also the driving force behind the 1970 contract between the NFL and ABC to televise games on Monday night.
“I believe very strongly that Art Modell is one of the most important figures in the history of the modern NFL,” former NBC television president Dick Ebersol said. “He and [former NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle developed the magic formula that married the potential of television to the game. Those funds from this marriage propelled the game into what it is today.”
Despite all of his contributions to the game, Modell died before he was elected to the hall of fame. He was one of 15 finalists in 2001 and a semifinalist seven times between 2004 and 2011, but he never garnered enough votes for election. Most people around the league believe it’s because of his decision in 1995 to move the team to Baltimore.
He was preceded in death by his wife of 42 years, Patricia, who died in 2011.
“Art Modell’s leadership was an important part of the NFL’s success during the league’s explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “As the longtime chairman of the league’s Broadcast Committee, Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the league.”
Modell’s quest to refurbish or replace decrepit Cleveland Stadium began in 1984, when he supported Cuyahoga County commissioners’ proposal for a domed stadium. Voters weren’t interested in the property tax increase associated with the idea and voted it down, beginning Modell’s decade-long battle with the city over a new home.
Modell didn’t believe the Gateway complex, site of Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena today, was large enough for both a baseball park and a football stadium. On Aug. 16, 1989, he unveiled a design for a renovated Cleveland Stadium that would seat 72,000 for football and 52,000 for baseball, but Indians owner Dick Jacobs wasn’t interested.
Modell said in 1991 he would “stand aside” and allow the Indians to move into their new stadium upon receiving assurances the Browns would receive comparable treatment.
“I think what he did when he left Cleveland was not right, but there were others here who were wrong, too,” said Browns radio analyst Doug Dieken, who also was a Browns player from 1971-84. “It’s a shame that one decision hurt how some people think of him, because he did so much good.”
While city leaders debated the best way to raise funds for a new stadium, Modell made it clear in letters to the city he was out of money and had nothing to contribute to a new or renovated stadium. Additionally, the Browns needed an increased revenue stream if they were to compete in the NFL.
On Oct. 27, 1995, Modell flew in Al Lerner’s private jet to a secluded corner of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Flanked by his son, David, and Browns executive vice president Jim Bailey, he signed a contract with Baltimore officials to move the team the following season.
“This has been a very, very tough road for my family and me,” Modell said at the time of the move. “I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland. But frankly, it came down to a simple proposition: I had no choice.”
Modell was born on June 23, 1925, and grew up poor in a Jewish section of Brooklyn when his father went bankrupt with the stock market crash in 1929.
At 16, two years after his father died, he quit high school to help support his mother and two sisters. Working by day as an electrician’s helper in the Brooklyn shipyards, he finished school by taking classes at night.
Eventually, Modell became a self-made millionaire.
“I went to the school of hard knocks,” Modell said in a 1982 interview with the Beacon Journal. “I worked my ass off for what I got today. I didn’t have anything handed to me.”
At 18, Modell joined the Air Force and was discharged in late 1945. Under the G.I. Bill of Rights, he enrolled in a New York City television school and, by 1947, had formed his own production company with a fellow student. It was his first break in the business world.
In 1949, when he was just 23 and there were only about 5,000 TV sets in the New York metropolitan market, he launched one of the country’s first daytime TV shows. It featured cooking and decorating hints and was called Market Melodies.
Modell sold the idea, after many attempts, to the Grand Union grocery chain. Televisions, provided by Modell’s company, were set up in the aisles of the chain’s grocery stores, and thus the Big Apple had its first daytime show.
More important, in 1954 when profits in the TV industry began to fall, the Grand Union account Modell had won with his persistence helped him get a job as an advertising account executive with L.H. Hartman Co.
Formed after the Prohibition era, the company was primarily involved in liquor advertising.
Modell delved deeper into the liquor business in 1958 when he bought an upstate New York champagne maker, Gold Seal Vineyards Inc.
In 1960, when Hartman dissolved his firm, Modell used his Grand Union account to land a job as senior vice president of another big advertising firm — Kastor, Hilton, Chesley, Clifford & Atherton.
Within a year, a friend from Cleveland informed the rapidly rising Modell that the Browns were for sale, and he jumped at the chance to buy the team.
On March 21, 1961, after the deal nearly fell through when some of his investors pulled out at the 11th hour, Modell bought the Browns for $3.925 million. At that time, it was the highest price ever paid for an NFL franchise, and Modell was just 35.
Twenty months later, Modell fired the team’s founder and coach, Paul Brown, because of a personality clash. Under Brown, a hall of famer, the Browns had a 167-53-8 record, won four championships in the old All-America Conference (1946-49) and three NFL titles (1950, ’54 and ’55).
In 1964, three years after Modell bought the team, the Browns, coached by Blanton Collier, upset the heavily favored Baltimore Colts 27-0 to win the fourth and last of their NFL titles.
“One thing about Art, he loved his teams and his players more than anyone I met,” former Browns player and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. “He embraced his team with his whole heart and everything else he had.”
The Browns have never been to a Super Bowl, but came within a game of reaching it three times during Modell’s years as majority owner. He named Marty Schottenheimer the team’s coach midway through the 1984 season, and Schottenheimer guided the Browns to the AFC Championship Game after the 1986 and 1987 seasons. The Browns lost both times to the Denver Broncos, and Schottenheimer was fired following a playoff loss to the Houston Oilers after the 1988 season. The Browns returned to the AFC title game in 1989, but again lost to the Broncos.
“I loved Art Modell,” Schottenheimer said. “He was a man’s man, someone you wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with. He gave me my first head coaching job and we had the most fun working together. We didn’t win the biggest prize, but we were awfully close and we had a ball trying to get there.”
Modell finally won that elusive Super Bowl for the 2000 season as owner of the Baltimore Ravens.
Ironically, Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore because he was out of money and didn’t want to saddle his family with large estate taxes upon his death, which would force them to sell the team.
Yet that’s exactly what Modell had to do in 2004, when he sold controlling interest to Steve Bisciotti.
Those around the league remembered Modell on Thursday both for his contributions to the game and his tremendous sense of humor.
“The thing that always stands out for me when I think of Art is his sense of humor,” Dieken said. “He liked to laugh. We’d be angry at each other while negotiating a contract, would have our battles, and we would still find a way to bring humor into it.”
Added Goodell: “His skills as an owner and league contributor were matched only by his great sense of humor. Any conversation with Art included laughs. He always left you with a smile on your face.”
No call to the hall
Despite how he is viewed in Northeast Ohio, Modell remains one of the most revered owners in NFL history. His death on Thursday brought new cries throughout the league for Modell to be enshrined in Canton.
“I am so saddened with one thing: Art did not get to experience an induction into the hall of fame,” Ebersol said. “[The move to Baltimore] scarred some people on Art. I hope in death, Art is placed where he should be — in Canton in the hall of fame.”
Modell worked alongside other influential executives such as Lamar Hunt, Tex Schramm, Wellington Mara and Art Rooney. All of them are in the hall of fame except Modell.
“Hopefully, the hall of fame media selectors will rectify that oversight in the near future,” said NFL executive Joe Browne, the longest-serving employee in the league office. “Not as an emotional reaction to Art’s death, but as a rightful reflection of his longtime contributions to the NFL.”
Modell hoped one day the people of Cleveland would remember him for what he accomplished there. Long after the move, Modell pointed out that Cleveland ultimately got the new stadium he coveted, and that the expansion version of the Browns could draw on the history he helped create.
“I think that part of my legacy is I left the colors, the name and the records in Cleveland,” Modell said. “The fans in Cleveland were loyal and supportive. They lived and died with me every Sunday for 35 years.”
This article was compiled from wire reports and Beacon Journal archives.