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50 years later: legacy on the river

Posted Apr 20, 2017

With the Bengals kicking off their 50th anniversary season Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium, Mike Brown recalls how it is almost miraculous that it all came together in the late 1960s in Cincinnati. No generation gap then as Paul and Mike Brown proved to be a formidable father-son team that left their bond on the riverfront.

Fifty years comes down to 15 minutes.

Bengals president Mike Brown, framed by a riverfront he helped transform twice, has to navigate the mist like one of those steamboat captains in a bygone Ohio River. Only this time he is peering through the vapors of history for a moment plucked from 1967 in a corner of 2017 and Paul Brown Stadium.

Fifty years.

He’s not certain, but he’s pretty sure that when NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle knocks on the door with that ultimatum, he and Paul Brown are in New York City at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during a league meeting.

The return from exile for Paul Brown, the 58-year-old deposed pro football icon, has carefully been crafted by his 31-year-old son Mike, a former Ivy League quarterback and Harvard-trained lawyer. After coming within agonizing hours of deals for the Eagles and Broncos during this grueling climb back, the last two years have been consumed by steering his father to Cincinnati with an expansion team.

They have been bruised by the NFL’s decision to award the 16th franchise to New Orleans. Rozelle’s offer to give them the junior AFL’s tenth franchise doesn’t sit all that well with a coach that gave birth to the establishment’s first dynasty during the previous decade in Cleveland.

So a reluctant Paul Brown has delayed an answer for weeks because he doesn’t have one. He desperately wants to return after 17 years of inventing the modern game with the team they named after him.

But the AFL? The AFL of 4,000-yard passers, two-point conversions, and Broadway Joe, for goodness sake?

Rozelle needs an answer. The leagues have already decided to merge by 1970 and there are other issues steamrolling into the picture, not the least of which is that mother of all bombs known simply as realignment.

Rozelle, who would later say Paul Brown saw to it that he was named commissioner when Brown didn’t want the job, can talk frankly to his friend, a newly-minted Pro Football Hall-of-Famer.

“Paul, make a call,” is how Mike Brown remembers Rozelle dealing. “Either you do it or you don’t.”

He gives them 15 minutes.

“We’re sitting in the hotel room and I’m encouraging him to do it,” Mike Brown says. “I was pushing hard. I pleaded. ‘I think this can be made to work. Let’s do this.’ It was on a knife’s edge. But he went the right way.

“He called back Rozelle and he said, ‘We’ll go forward.’ It could not have been done except for him. The only thing I can say is he might not have done it except for me.”

It is that moment in the mist that probably best shines the light on how the Bengals ended up here Thursday. The father needed the son just like the son needed the father. Amid some of Paul Brown’s original Baby Bengals, other alumni, and a smattering of local officials in the PBS weight room that is a fitting site to salute the Herculean task of landing that tenth AFL franchise, the club unveils plans to celebrate its 50th season.

“Mike was the day-to-day businessman. Paul would make the decisions and want control, but Mike was his right arm,” says Bob Hackett, son of the late Bill Hackett, a former Ohio State All-American and captain and the other driving force behind freeing his old coach from an Elba in the hills of southern California’s Mission Valley.

“Mike was there every step. Paul did some, but Mike did so much of the groundwork … Mike did all the research on why it was Cincinnati. The fact it is in Cincinnati, Mike is huge reason for it. He knew that was an ideal area. Extremely ideal. So Mike was a pusher for Cincinnati from the start.”

In the beginning and the end, it’s the story of a father and a son. How the son helps urge the father back in the game. An age old tale, really. The kid is usually in a hurry. The old man, who has already been there, maybe always isn’t. With daughter Katie Blackburn running the club’s day-to-day operations and son Paul Brown and son-in-law Troy Blackburn vice presidents, Mike Brown has now been on both sides of the riverfront.   

“I’m the son. He was the father. He had the ultimate say,” Mike Brown says. “I would propose. I would initiate.  I would push. And he would listen and we did what he decided we would do … You see it here today with my kids pushing me.”

Both Paul and Mike Brown are coming into this venture with the scars of bitter disappointments, but that will serve them well in a 15-round heavyweight fight to stand on Cincinnati’s riverfront. Not only must a state-of-the-art multi-purpose stadium be negotiated with the city fathers, it gets off to a bad start when the Reds balk at being a tenant on an untired site even though crumbling Crosley Field has them talking to other cities. The Reds, baseball’s oldest team, will have to be sold before football’s youngest team takes life. Throw in that Paul Brown won’t return to an NFL that doesn’t have a merger agreement and no wonder Mike Brown calls it “a miracle,” 50 years later.

“It was an uphill battle to get that franchise,” says Bob Hackett, a state senator from London, Ohio. “They had to have Paul Brown and Paul Brown had to be protected. That’s the only way he came back.”

It begins with Bill Hackett making the pilgrimage to Paul Brown’s home in La Jolla, Calif., not long after Browns owner Art Modell does the unthinkable and fires Paul Brown in January of 1963. Hackett, the veterinarian at John Sawyer’s Orleton Farms in London, Ohio, and one of Brown’s Buckeye guards, tries to passionately convince him to get back into the game. He finds his old coach is depressed and tells him the best thing for him and football is to get back in.

Which is exactly what Mike Brown has been telling his father. Hackett has got the old coach’s ear and after he leaves he calls Paul Brown every morning to give him updates on bringing him back to the NFL. “Paul Brown had to be protected.”  If he comes back, he’s not coming back to be fired again. It has to be his team.

“I think he was depressed. How can you not be? You’re a legend and in the Hall of Fame and then?” Bob Hackett says. “Dad had a tremendous love and respect for his coach and Paul had more influence on him than anybody else in his life. He wanted him to get a team anywhere.”

Mike Brown has been nicked, too. Shortly after getting out of law school and Paul Brown’s firing, he thinks he has a deal to buy the Eagles and they’re all set. They’re back. Paul runs the team, maybe even coaches, Mike is his legal counsel and assistant, and …

“One guy bailed out,” says Mike Brown of the deal. “I was in my early 20s, just out of law school. I didn’t have  the wit about me to recover the way I could have if I had only worked at it. I was just jolted. It was right at the deadline. It would have required me to ask for a continuance from the other side. It would have showed I couldn’t get the deal done that I had indicated to them I could. I had it done in my mind.

“To come down here, it wasn’t my first swing at the ball. This one I hit. I had a little more perseverance in me.”

Jerry Jones sees it. He sees the perseverance and the scars and the will. Jones, a member of this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class and one of the game’s more original promoters in the mold of the founders, has been the Cowboys owner for the last three decades and the big-market schemer that has been a foil to Mike Brown’s small-market caution. But they have enormous respect for each other even though they sit on the other aisle.

“He was built for football. He won’t quit. He absolutely won’t quit,” Jones says. “He’s been a real asset to the league. We don’t have a smarter owner in the league. We do not. He’s not stubborn. On some issues he’s stood up and said, ‘Jerry, I’m changing my mind. I’m with you.’ He’s very strong-willed. Bright lines. He draws bright lines on many issues. But he leaves you and him in a feel-good spot. That’s very artful.”

His son’s bright lines mark Paul Brown’s road back. But he passes one up. Mike Brown also has a chance to buy the Broncos early on. All he has to come up with is a million bucks. Right. As in $1M. Make it $1,000,000. But Paul Brown wants no part of an AFL that isn‘t part of a merger and that is nowhere in sight. He simply doesn’t think a franchise can survive economically in a long-term in war with the NFL.

Just as well. Mike Brown’s research keeps coming up Cincinnati. In the fall of 1965 as the Ohio State marching band is hijacking The McCoys’,” No. 1 single “Hang on Sloopy,” straight from Dayton, Ohio’s Forest Park Plaza, the numbers are showing southern Ohio is far from a very bad part of town. Cincinnati is a blossoming top 15 market with an incredible reach into a buffet of markets.

“Just look at all the cities within (150) miles,” Bob Hackett says. “Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington, Columbus. Huntington.”

The numbers are as easy to compile as a third-grade book report.

“All I had to do,” Mike Brown says, ‘is walk across the street to the library and look at the comparisons.”

He’s doing more than that, of course. He’s wearing such a path to Hackett’s home in London from Cleveland that when Bob is back at Columbia playing guard and Billy Junior is playing linebacker for Woody at Ohio State, Mike Brown is sleeping in their beds. There are meetings with the governor, with Bill Hackett and Hackett’s colleague who has become one of the Brown’s group big financial backers, John Sawyer, the estimable Madison County businessman, Word War II pilot, and son of a former Secretary of Commerce.

Fifty years from now, Mike Brown will like to tell a story from those hectic times, this one taking place in the parking lot at Orleton when he is talking to Bill Hackett. Suddenly the door of Sawyer’s office in a trailer swings open. There is Sawyer holding what looks to be two rolls of toilet paper but it is actually the prodigious phone bill Hackett has racked up in his effort to bring pro football to Cincinnati.

It is almost like an Expansion Dream Team that has been put together to land the Bengals in Cincinnati. To go along with Sawyer there is Mike Brown, the legal mind and rough-and-tumble negotiator who grew up in the NFL. There is Bill Hackett, the tireless networker and loyal former player. There is Cincinnati vice mayor Eugene Ruehlmann, a savvy bureaucrat who knows his way around budgets as a key player in Hamilton County Republican Party circles and serves as the stadium point man.  Maybe the biggest non-football component of all is James Rhodes, Ohio’s longest serving governor, a Last Hurrah type who is a bricks and mortar politician and the classic right man at the right time.

“Gov. Rhodes played a major role in this,” Bob Hackett says. “He’s such a pro-business guy. He pushes, pushes, pushes. He wouldn’t let them give up. He said, ‘We can get this. We can get this.’”

Rhodes’ 2001 New York Times obituary is headlined “Gov. James Rhodes dies at 91; Sent the Guard to Kent State,” final proof he is defined by the four dead in Ohio on May 4, 1970. But The Times also reports he added thousands of miles to the state's highways network, nearly every county got an airport, and Ohio became a national leader in vocational education. He’ll say he made 22 trips outside Ohio to get the Bengals. Not only that, he convinces the devil himself, Modell, to back a Cincinnati bid with, of all people, Brown, the guy the Cleveland fans will never let him forget.

And it is Rhodes who hosts what amounts to the Bengals’ first birthday party on Dec. 14, 1965. Cincinnati officially gets the Bengals on Sept. 25, 1967, but nearly two years before in front of 125 Cincinnati businessman at the Sheraton-Gibson Hotel Rhodes unveils Paul Brown and the goal of landing a team and a 55-60,000-seat stadium.

“The National Football League and the American Football League both are expanding. Both would like to have Paul Brown,” Rhodes says.

Paul Brown is here even though New Orleans is courting him. His friend the commissioner is whispering to him about Seattle. One thing is for sure. Pete Rozelle wants Paul Brown back in the league. Anywhere. And the Californian thinks Seattle is an emerging power on the West Coast.

“The commissioner of the league told me to keep in a fluid state and be available for a franchise anywhere,” Paul Brown tells the group. “We have a small working organization already. We have to find out about a place to play.”

But Mike Brown has already decided Cincinnati is the place. His research surfaces in his father’s words this night.

“Surveys show the locale is good and there is a high per capita income. Within 150 miles there are millions of people. The economy is stable and doesn’t bounce around,” Paul Brown says. “Surveys show Cincinnati has a higher per capita income than New Orleans and has a bigger regional population.”

Mike Brown is banging home to his father that they know him here. Massillon. Ohio State. Cleveland. Ohio. As much as he likes and respects Jerry Jones, he knows who coached America’s First Team.

“Back in Cleveland my father started a TV network,” Mike Brown says. “The Browns had their own TV network. Most NFL teams had no television, never let alone a TV network. It ran across two-thirds of the country. Talk about America’s Team. They were America’s Team.

“Cincinnati was part of that network and people down here knew the Browns as their team. That tied into it. They knew my dad and the history of the Browns. Most were old Cleveland Browns fans.”

Mike Brown still bumps into people in Cincinnati that are Browns fans because of that old black-and-white network, a fifty-year validation of his homework.

And, like Mike Brown figured, it is P.B. driving it all. He is the ultimate coach of the Expansion Dream Team. For the next two years The Master (his nickname bestowed by the sportswriters) dominates headlines in both Cleveland and Cincinnati, drawing ink whenever he holds court on his back porch in La Jolla or at NFL meetings.

“Legendary Paul Brown Out to Bring Pro Football to City,” crows The Cincinnati Enquirer after the initial gathering.

“Steelers’ Rooney Supports Brown’s Bid,” banners The Cleveland Plain Dealer on Feb. 12, 1966 while disclosing that the day before at an owners’ meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., Art Rooney declares, “Paul Brown has been a great coach and general manager. He’s been good for our game. He’s the type of fellow I want to see running this franchise … And I don’t care whether it’s in Cincinnati, New Orleans, Seattle, or Nome, Alaska.”

More Cleveland Plain Dealer, this from May 17, 1966: “Paul Brown is Cincy Lobbyist.” “The Washington Post,” opines the day before, “Paul Brown Yearns For NFL Activity,” in a story he cites The Stanford Research Institute report that reaches the same conclusion as Mike Brown’s library trips: “(The report) said Cincinnati would draw the best. I stand on that.”

And The Cincinnati Enquirer finally trumpets from Los Angeles on Aug. 25, 1967, “Pro Grid Nod Goes to Brown,” but only after yet another last-minute obstacle. Paul Brown reportedly threatens to pull out when the league offers the Bengals only 11 players on each roster to draft, less than what Miami had when the Dolphins arrived in 1966.

“It was the worst package ever offered to a new team,” Bob Hackett says. “When the Bengals came in, the other teams were given the most (players) to protect. Because those people wanted to make it as hard as they could for Paul Brown. The fact he was able to get so successful so quickly is just amazing.”

The league relents. In the end, the NFL wants Paul Brown. Mike Brown wants Cincinnati. When Jerry Jones arrives as an owner 30 years later, two years before Paul Brown dies, he still senses the dynamic. After all, Jerry Jones one day is going to pass on the Cowboys to son Stephen Jones, who has already been the day-to-day point man for his father for years.

“With his background, his legacy with his father, I just wanted to be in the same room with that,” Jerry Jones says of Mike Brown. “I just wanted to sit at the table with those guys. There were three or four guys like that. Bill Ford in his way was a standard I wanted to be in the room with. Mike was a part of that feeling. I still have it today. I look over there, I look at the years and years and years we talked about the issues.”

They don’t agree on anything when it comes to business. Brown recoils at the corporate culture Jones introduces  into the league in the 1990s and how it puts markets like Cincinnati at a huge disadvantage. Meanwhile, Jones doesn’t view Cincinnati as a small market and believes capitalism of the board room make all clubs equal.

But when they serve together on the league’s competition committee at the turn of the century, they almost always agree on football.

“I give Mike Brown an A-plus for people skills. That might surprise some people,” Jones says. “That is being clear on where you stand. Knowing that’s where you are and you don’t have to worry about it when it leaves the room or behind your back. You know where it stands. Mike Brown has been an inspiration from the day I wanted to sit with the Brown family.”

Jones may have once challenged Mike Brown that he could go out that minute and get a lucrative naming rights deal for Paul Brown Stadium, but that doesn’t mean the architect of Jerry World doesn’t have admiration for a man that has had a hand in building two stadiums in the same town.

“I’ve watched how things have gone in Cincinnati relative to sports, relative to the stadium. My goodness, what a great sports town Cincinnati is,” Jones says. “I know Mike has made a serious contribution to that. The same thing. He has his critics in Cincinnati. I’m well aware of them. But the same thing you have with him in the room as an owner makes him very effective just as he got things done in Cincinnati.”

It harkens back to the birth of that second stadium, named after Paul Brown. The guy across the table in those negotiations, Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, taps the advice of Gene Ruelhmann, the first stadium point man: “Listen to Mike Brown. He means what he says.”

Mike Brown is here 50 years later and so are the bright lines. If he still can’t quite believe it came off, he sees the Reds’ Great American Ball Park and his office framing a teeming riverfront of bars, restaurants, high-rise apartments, and businesses on what was once a wasteland. Two football guys on the rebound who put their heads down and get it done.

“I am honestly proud of our role in that. I think it’s been good for the city,” Mike Brown says through the 50-year mist. “It was a father and son working together. I think I had his complete trust and he certainly had mine. It worked in this instance.”

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