Does Art Modell deserve to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
The short and easy answer is clearly no.
Of course, there are those who think the easy answer is yes.
Ozzie Newsome is one of those people.
Newsome has a unique perspective on the situation. He spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Browns playing for Modell, and is currently the general manager of the Ravens – a job that Modell hired him for.
Newsome made news this week when he told Baltimore season ticket holders that Modell deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. Modell hasn’t been a finalist for the Hall of Fame in a decade. He didn’t make the cut to the finalists again this year.
“I don’t know what we can do,” Newsome said. “My biggest fear is once he passes away then he’ll get the opportunity to go in. I don’t think that’s fair. He deserves to be in there He deserves to go in before I did.”
We can understand Newsome’s feelings toward Modell. The two have a relationship that dates back to 1978, Newsome’s rookie year. Modell hired Newsome as vice president of player personnel after he retired and made him general manager in 2002, a position that Newsome has done quite well in. And Newsome is certainly entitled to his opinion
But once you take out personal feelings – on both Newsome’s part and on the part of Browns fans – and look at Modell’s body of work, you realize that, other than being a longtime owner of an NFL franchise, Modell doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, even if he hadn’t moved the Browns.
In his book, Things I’ve Learned from Watching the Browns, Terry Pluto lays out a solid argument against Modell. The Browns remained highly competitive in the 1960s under coach Blanton Collier, but once he retired following the 1970 season, the wheels pretty much fell off for the Browns. Consider that:
- From 1971 to 1995, the Browns were 187-188.
- The team had 12 winning seasons during that span.
- The Browns were 4-10 in playoff games post-Collier
- Modell hired seven coaches during that 25-year stretch and only two left the team with winning records: Nick Skorich (30-24) and Marty Schottenheimer (44-27).
- After moving the team to Baltimore, the Ravens were 63-64 while Modell still owned the team – but did win a Super Bowl in 2000.
Those are Hall of Fame credentials?
To be considered for the Hall of Fame, Modell would be put in the Contributors wing, which includes, among others:
- Wellington Mara, former owner of the NY Giants. The team won six titles during his tenure.
- George Halas, one of the founding member of the NFL and a six-time champion with the Bears.
- Curly Lambeau, who spent 30 years as a player, coach, general manager and founder of the Green Bay Packers. He won six titles during that time.
- Al Davis, former AFL commissioner and three-time champion with the Raiders.
- Lamar Hunt, founder of the AFL. He came up with the idea of shared ticket revenue and made sure the AFL had a national TV contract that each team shared in equally. And he thought of it before the NFL.
- George Preston Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins from 1932 to 1969, he is credited with convincing his fellow owners to adopt a standard schedule and play a championship game.
The funny thing is, Al Davis moved the Raiders from Oakland to LA and back to Oakland, he has also sued the league on several occasions.
George Preston Marshall was openly racist – the Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate, in 1962 – and Marshall had the team sing Dixie every year at the season-opening luncheon (even after the team integrated).
Despite all that, they are both more deserving than Modell.
So just looking at Modell’s on-field accomplishments as an owner is enough to keep him out of the hall. But when you factor in that he took the Browns away from Cleveland, that seals the deal for keeping him out.
And the worst part is, he didn’t have to do it.
Modell was a lousy businessman; it’s hard to argue otherwise. Despite owning a team that Financial World magazine ranked in 1995 as the fifth-most valuable franchise in sports, and playing in a league where the annual TV revenue covered the payroll and playing almost every home game before 70,000 paying fans, Modell was constantly in debt. Remember how Modell had to borrow the $5 million to cover Andre Rison’s signing bonus in 1995? (Maybe that’s a memory better left buried).
And while the city of Cleveland certainly played a role in some of Modell’s financial issues – that side of the story is well told in Michael Poplar’s book, Fumble! The Browns, Modell and the Move – the one constant through everything was Modell.
Even after moving the team and receiving a sweetheart deal from Baltimore, Modell mismanaged his finances so poorly that he ended having to put the team up for sale after just three years in Baltimore.
‘The principal reason I sold my team is to put my estate in order and provide for my children and grandchildren so they won’t have to worry a day like I did growing up,” Modell said in a New York Times article in 2003. ”During my father’s time, the Depression was brutal and it wiped out his business, a chain of radio stores. During my time as owner, I’ve done many deals and made millions and lost millions, but this is the first time in my life I’ve been economically free. I’m out of the debt and out of that pressure.
“It’s something every man works for and I worked 43 years for it, to build that for my family.”
So why couldn’t he have done that in Cleveland? Al Lerner clearly had the money as he ended up buying the expansion Browns when they returned in 1999. Why didn’t Modell just sell the team to Lerner, keeping a small stake for himself, and remain what we once thought he was – someone who always had the Browns and Cleveland first on his priority list?
That’s the biggest question and that we will probably never get a true answer to.
Modell was a public relations man when he came out of New York to buy the Browns in 1961. And like any good PR man, he was able to spin his legacy to make it appear more than it really was.
For being an average owner, a lousy businessman and the man who took the Browns from Cleveland, the only way Modell should get into the Hall of Fame is if he buys a ticket.
Sorry Ozzie. You’re still one of our favorite Browns ever, but you are off base on this one.
For more on Modell’s legacy and what went on behind the scenes of the Browns move, check out Jon Morgan’s Glory for Sale, Fans, Dollars and the New NFL; Michael Poplar’s Fumble! The Browns, Modell and the Move; and Terry Pluto’s Things I’ve Learned from Watching the Browns.