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Art Modell, 1925-2012: He was a sportsman, a showman and a survivor

Sep 06, 2012 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi


When he shocked the sporting world and plunged a dagger through the hearts of Cleveland and generations of Cleveland Browns fans on Nov. 6, 1995, announcing he was moving the bedrock NFL franchise to Baltimore, Art Modell wrote his epitaph as Northeast Ohio’s biggest villain of all time.

Modell was 70 at the time and already the victim of two major heart attacks, two multiple bypass surgeries, and two hip replacements.

I thought Modell would never see his renamed team play a game in the stadium built by Maryland taxpayers. I thought the immense emotional toll of the legal controversy that ensued and the avalanche of national outrage, frankly, would kill him.

But not only did Modell witness his Ravens christen their new stadium behind Baltimore’s Camden Yards, he watched them claim the Super Bowl championship and reached the pinnacle of his career five years after his move.

A survivor, that’s what Art Modell was.

He was a showman, a sportsman, a fascinating figure in Cleveland sports history. But above all, the man was a survivor, a high school dropout who bought one of the most famous franchises in all of sports with just $25,000 of his own money. He became a civic benefactor and community leader, so popular that he was asked to run for governor of Ohio and other political offices.

He survived the unfathomable firing of legendary Browns founding coach Paul Brown in 1963 and captured the NFL title in 1964 in a stunning upset over the Baltimore Colts under Brown’s top assistant, Blanton Collier. It remains Cleveland’s last major professional sports championship.

Transplanted in Baltimore, which hailed him as a civic hero for bringing an NFL team back to that deserving city after a 13-year absence, Modell later suffered another heart attack, a serious staph infection after a fall, and a debilitating stroke.

But it was the loss of his beloved wife of 42 years, Patricia Modell, which Modell struggled hardest to survive. Sources said Modell never recovered from Pat’s death last October.

Modell reportedly passed away early Thursday morning of congestive heart failure. He was 87. 

At his bedside were sons John, 52, and David, 51, whom he adopted upon marrying the former Patricia Breslin, an accomplished Hollywood actress, in 1969. Modell had six grandchildren.

From outcast and back: Modell’s life and legacy changed dramatically when he moved the Browns – provoking the wrath of NFL executives and some of the league’s most respective team owners who were powerless to stop him.

He was vilified by national commentators and politicians, received death threats and employed two bodyguards. He cut off one of the great pleasures of his life, kibitzing with national reporters, and became a reclusive figure. Once a league kingpin, considered in the 1970s as the second most powerful man in the NFL next to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Modell became a league outcast.

He never returned to Cleveland after moving the team to Baltimore.

By the time his Ravens reached the Super Bowl five years after his move, Modell reacquired his gregariousness and famous humor. Through his associations with wife Pat, who appeared in several Alfred Hitchcock movies and the soap opera General Hospital, Modell regaled in dropping the names of famous actors such as Charlton Heston, Lawrence Olivier, and Lucille Ball.

Relaxing in the stands of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on the Tuesday before Super Bowl XXXV, Modell reveled in the glory of finally reaching what he often called “the Big Enchilada.”

"I don't look back with any regrets," Modell said on that day. "I'm grateful for my life. My life was nip and tuck too many times and I was able to survive. If I'm a survivor, I want to be a survivor health-wise, and I want my family to survive, my grandchildren. I live for my family. My wife, my sons, their wives and above all my grandchildren."

“I have no vindication,” he said of reaching the Super Bowl after his franchise move. “Let me say one statement about Cleveland. I am simply delighted, on behalf of my family, ecstatic that there is a football team in Cleveland called the Cleveland Browns, and they wear uniforms with seal brown and burnt orange colors, and they have the legacy of Jim Brown and Otto Graham and dozens of others, and above all playing in a new stadium.

“That's all I can say. Anything beyond that, I'm not going to do it.”

Plunging into near bankruptcy: The move was ultimately brokered by the NFL after the city of Cleveland, led by former Mayor Michael White and lead attorney Fred Nance, sued Modell for breaking a lease to play Browns games in the former decrepit Cleveland Stadium through 1998.

A “global settlement” reached in February of 1996 allowed Modell to move his team to Baltimore. Modell had to pay Cleveland $11.55 million to buy out the three remaining years on the stadium lease and pay the city’s legal fees. Cleveland was promised a replacement team named the Browns if it built a new stadium partially funded by personal seat licenses and high-priced club seats.

The replacement team was decided to be a start-up expansion franchise in 1997. A year later, it was awarded after a formal bidding process to Al Lerner – Modell’s former business partner and minority stakeholder in the old Browns – at a pricetag of $530 million.

Modell later confessed that he moved the team to avoid personal bankruptcy and be able to hand it down to his sons. But he was not able to crawl out of from under a mountain debt, which reached a reported $185 million after his move.

He was forced by the NFL to sell the team in 1999. He found a buyer in Maryland businessman Stephen Bisciotti. The two-phased sale called for Bisciotti to take over full control in four years for a total price of $600 million. Modell retained a token 1 percent stake in the franchise, an office in the team’s headquarters and a stadium suite. He attended most home games but declining health prevented him from traveling.

At the time of the close of the sale in March of 2004, Modell said to a group of reporters, “I’ll tell you one thing which I’ve never said before at any time. If I didn’t move my team to Baltimore, my family would have gone to bankruptcy.

“I had to (move). I couldn't afford it. You declare bankruptcy in the NFL, and it's an automatic revocation of your license. They strip you of the ballclub.”

It was quite an admission for a proud man. Had he come clean in 1994 and leveled with the city and his team’s fans about his severe financial problems, he may have generated the sympathy to be taken care of. Instead, he declared, “I will never move this team,” and burned as the city built a new stadium for the Cleveland Indians, a new downtown arena for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the lakefront.

Mover and shaker: Modell bought the Browns in 1961 for a then-record $3.925 million. When he moved in 1996, the franchise’s value was estimated at $163 million. In his time, the Browns made the playoffs 17 times, won 11 division titles and reached the AFC Championship Game three times in the 1980s. But the Browns never made it to the Super Bowl, which came into being in 1966.

Modell’s experience in the burgeoning television industry as an advertising salesman and then show producer in New York gave him a prominent seat in Rozelle’s inner circle in the 1960s and ‘70s. In 31 years on the league’s broadcast committee, Modell helped negotiate network TV contracts that totaled $8.4 billion. Those deals made team owners rich men and the envy of all professional sports leagues.

He conceived preseason doubleheaders at Cleveland Stadium, often pairing a Browns game with a rock concert. He volunteered to host the league’s first “Monday Night Football” game in 1970 when other owners feared it would be a box-office disaster.

The game against the New York Jets drew a Cleveland Stadium-record 85,703 – convincing other owners to buy in. When the NFL agreed to merge with the American Football League, Modell helped break an impasse and agreed to move the Browns to the newly created AFC and convinced Pittsburgh and Baltimore to join him.

Despite his controversial move, Modell and his family hoped to some day join other NFL movers and shakers in the Pro  Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

He made it to the finalist round of 15 in 2002. After a lively debate, Modell failed to receive enough votes to advance past the first cutdown to 10 and never reached the finalist round again.

Modell remains eligible for selection and is on the preliminary ballot for the Class of 2013.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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