TDBH: P.B.’s New Year’s surprise: Brown steps down and appoints Johnson as new coach

Posted Dec 31, 2017

This Day in Bengals History - January 1, 1976

Bengals founder Paul Brown can keep a secret. Four days after his best Cincinnati team loses a heartbreaker to the Raiders in an AFC Divisional game in Oakland, the American sports icon disappears like a rookie backup. His terse, simple statement that he is stepping down as coach, staying on as general manager, and appointing offensive line coach Bill Johnson as his replacement is released at 11 tonight with the cameras of the sports world whirring at the college bowl games and sports departments throughout the media observing the holiday. There is no news conference heralding Paul Eugene Brown’s coaching career that professionalized football with innovations ranging from playbooks to full-time coaching staffs. It turns out that Brown, 67, caps a 41-year run from high school to the Hall of Fame in these last eight seasons he makes the Bengals the best expansion team in sports history.

The news that the only coach the Bengals have ever had is spread by a phone call from Bengals director of public relations Al Heim to various outlets and everyone in the organization is floored, especially his coaching staff that had met with him just the day before yesterday and didn’t have an inkling. When the press asks for comments from Brown and Johnson, Heim says only, “Out of town.”  “I was really shocked,” says quarterbacks and receivers coach Bill Walsh, who along with Johnson and backfield coach Jack Donaldson has been with Brown since he started the Bengals. “Bill is a wonderful guy and I’m happy and elated for him. I’m sure he will do a great job. This has caught me completely by surprise.” Walsh, who has molded one of the league’s top passing games with two-time NFL passing champion Ken Anderson, is also seen as a bright head coaching candidate and he’ll go on to a Hall-of-Fame coaching career that includes  two Shakespearean Super Bowl wins over the Bengals. Critics will look back to tonight and call it Paul Brown’s biggest mistake. But that’s not the mood tonight when players are contacted at the end of their New Year’s Day. “If you polled the 43 players I’m sure they would pick Bill Johnson as the man they wanted to replace Paul Brown,” says Pro Bowl tight end Bob Trumpy. “He’s a player-oriented coach. He listens to suggestions. Paul tried to stay clear of the players.”

Johnson, 49, a relentless Pro Bowl center with San Francisco who earned the nickname “Tiger,” has kept the same tenacity as a coach. Tackle Rufus Mayes recalls tonight that the only time he ever left the club’s practice facility at Spinney Field before Johnson was one Christmas and Mayes, an early riser at times, never beat him to work. “He loves football,” Mayes says. “No one watches more film,” says center Bob Johnson, the club’s first draft picked tabbed by Brown and Johnson in 1968. “If they hired Vince Lombardi’s ghost he’d have to convince the players. Bill Johnson doesn’t have to do that. We’re convinced. He was the man most universally respected by the team.” But the great question remains. Why now? The only club employee who appears to know it before it goes down, Mike Brown, Paul’s son and assistant general manager, says only it was not a quick decision. He thought it out, Mike Brown says, before Ted Hendricks sacks Anderson in the final two minutes Sunday to end the Bengals’ bid in Oakland. Looking back on it, Bob Johnson says it is logical. “Paul is not the type to step down after a bad year. He has too much pride for that.” Offensive lineman Pat Matson knows Brown isn’t going away and the Bengals are still his team. “Retiring? Paul Brown’s not retiring. He’s still the general manager. He’s still got the last word. He always said he runs the ship. He’s always drilled that point across. He can’t change now.”


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