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History lesson: The Cincinnati Bengals – the AFL’s Cleveland Browns

How legendary coach ended up in Cincinnati

Paul Brown with proposed Bengals helmets

Paul Brown was an absolute legend in the professional football universe. He coached Massillon High School in Ohio and captured six state championships. While head coach at Ohio State, the Buckeyes were national champions.

As head coach of the Cleveland Browns, his team’s won eight championships: four in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and four in the National Football League (NFL). In addition to the titles, the Browns took seven conference crowns and he was named Coach of the Year four times. His players were perennial All-Stars.

But Brown’s influence was far greater than simply X’s and O’s. Coach Brown invented stuff – stuff that today’s game still uses.

Like the draw play. Helmet face masks. Play calling from the sidelines. Helmet communications. Timing a player in 40 yards instead of 100 yards. First to hire full-time coaches with yearly employment. Game film to evaluate players and opponents. He introduced classroom instructions and the taxi squad – now called the practice squad. The first to keep his players at a hotel the night before a game. The West Coast offense. And he invented the playbook.

While in Cleveland, Brown was head coach and also general manager. He controlled all aspects of the team: roster, trades, draft picks, contract issues, plus owned 15 percent of the club.

The Browns were purchased by Art Modell in 1961 for $4 million. At the time, Cleveland had played in the NFL title game seven times and won three championships. The Browns had merged into the NFL from the AAFC in 1950 and had 10 of 11 winning seasons. Modell bought out Brown’s ownership percentage but gave him a new eight-year contract. The 1961 team went 8-5-1 while the following season the club slumped to a 7-6-1 record and missed the playoffs both years.

The following winter Modell shocked the pro football universe and fired Brown notwithstanding only one losing season in 17 years. The New York Times wrote an article which stated “the dismissal defies comprehension.” Despite the firing Brown collected his $82,500 salary for the remaining years until his eight-year contract expired. So he played lots of golf - and at the same time yearned for the pro game.

In 1963 Brown examined whether the NFL would entertain an expansion team in another Ohio city. The state had a long history of pro football with teams in Columbus, Canton, Cincinnati, Akron and Dayton. Cleveland at the time had a populous of over 876,000, so he wanted another large city to start a new team. He focused on either Cincinnati (population 502,000) or Columbus (471,000). The elder league had looked at Cincinnati, but no new franchises were planned.

In the meantime another pro football league had developed to compete with the NFL: the American Football League (AFL). Brown was well aware of the infant league during his final two years of coaching the Browns. He had experienced firsthand the AFL’s skill in snatching key rookies from the grasps of the established league and their ability to sign talented NFL players once their contracts expired. He had several offers to coach again, but most just wanted a coach; and he wanted total control of all aspects of the team just like he had in Cleveland. After several years he decided it was time to pursue grinding out a new season on the sidelines.

The AFL had already expanded into Miami in 1965 and were considering other site for another new franchise, one of which was Cincinnati. This city was not a stranger to pro football as a team competed in the second and third American Football Leagues as the Bengals in 1937 and also 1940-1941, the Cincinnati Reds (NFL) from 1933-1934, and the Cincinnati Celts (1910-1923).

Enter Bill Hackett. As a former player for Brown’s national championship team at Ohio State, the two men had retained a friendship throughout the years. Hackett, now a veterinarian, visited Brown at his home in California and during a conversation suggested that he should become the NFL commissioner if the job became vacant. Brown countered that he wanted to own a team and coach again - preferably in his home state of Ohio. He mentioned that Cincinnati had the population to sustain another major sports team as the baseball Reds were immensely popular.

Hackett contacted Ohio governor Jim Rhodes with Brown’s idea. This set up a meeting between Brown, Governor Rhodes, the mayor and over a hundred Cincinnati businessmen about the possibility of the city getting a pro football team. One of the main obstacles presented was that a new stadium must be built to accommodate the new football club as well as the Reds - which played at Crosley Field, built in 1912. There were issues such as the field configuration was not suitable for football, the stadium was old and antiquated, plus the surrounding areas were not suitable for automobile parking.

At this time, the NFL and AFL announced a merger with a common draft beginning in 1967 and one league launching with the 1970 season.

But Brown thought the AFL was inferior professional football and not even close to par with the NFL. As proof, one could look at the first two Super Bowls in which the NFL champion Green Bay Packers had killed the AFL champs two years in a row. The saving grace for Brown was the knowledge that the two leagues had agreed to merge for the 1970 season. Coach Brown realized that he could take on the new Cincinnati AFL expansion team and would only have to compete three seasons in that league before his new team would become an NFL club.

And that appealed to him. Plus, he was about to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. This would be a huge plum for the AFL - to actually have a legend either as a head coach or as an owner – or both.

Brown had an unusual ally - NFL commissioner (and friend) Pete Rozelle. With all of the AFL clubs merging into the elder league the war was over between the two entities. A franchise in Cincinnati was talked out for the NFL and if it began in the AFL instead so what. League officials in the AFL couldn’t be happier to have another team plus a legendary coach. What sealed the deal was the fact that Brown would become primary owner. Part of the agreement with Rozelle was that a suitable stadium would have to be built and ready for the 1970 season. In the meantime, the new club could play home games at the University of Cincinnati’s stadium.

On Sept. 26, 1967, Governor Rhodes had a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel to announce the AFL’s newest member: the Cincinnati Bengals. The name Bengals was selected to represent the heritage (and familiarity) of the two other clubs that shared the same name. The colors would be the familiar Browns orange and black to emulate a tiger’s skin. Also announced were plans to build a multi-use stadium that would be home to both the Bengals and the Reds.

In Brown’s autobiography with Jack Clary, he stated “When I assured Rhodes that I was serious enough to invest a sizable amount of my own money, he began setting up a series of meetings that really started the franchise on its way.”

The Bengals first season was 1968. Brown told reporters that he realized that a new team would certainly have to experience some tough times, but he was ready to do what he always loved – being a head coach. His new team’s first game would be the day after his 60th birthday.