Bill Livingston made a valid point in his recent PD column, talking about the dangers when an owner gets involved, the way Dan Gilbert is now with the Cavs. Livingston writes:
“It is the natural impulse of a wealthy, successful man to roll up his sleeves and decide he can do better. The method of choice is usually for such an owner to put himself into the decision-making process, front and center. Not just first among equals, but firstest with the mostest.
“The usual result of putting an owner in the middle of sports decisions, however, is more like putting a migraine in the middle of the head.”
He goes on to compare Gilbert with Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. It’s a fair comparison as both men are self-made, although Cuban makes more of a spectacle of himself at games – Gilbert sticks to the occasional, painful stint sitting with the TV broadcasters.
However there are examples in Cleveland’s sporting past of hands-on owners getting in the way and hurting their franchises in the process. Here are two cautionary tales for Gilbert to chew on.
In June 1966, Jim Brown was in London filming a movie. He wanted to come to training camp a little late so he could finish the film. He was coming off an MVP season where he rushed for more than 1,500 yards, scored 17 touchdowns on the ground, caught four TD passes and even through a TD pass.
But that wasn’t good enough for then-Browns owner Art Modell, who wanted to show everyone who was the boss. In a press release, Modell laid down the law:
“No veteran Browns player has been granted or will be given permission to report late to our training camp at Hiram College- and this includes Jim Brown. Should Jim fail to report to Hiram at check-in time deadline, which is Sunday, July 17, then I will have no alternative to suspend him without pay.
“I recognize the complex problems of the motion picture business, having spent several years in the industry. However, in all fairness to everyone connected with the Browns – the coaching staff, the players and most important of all, our many faithful fans – I feel compelled to say that I will have to take such action should Jim be absent on July 17.
“Lest anyone get the impression that suspension would be a token slap on the wrist, since the salaries of most professional athletes do not go into effect until the start of the regular season, I point out that we have several players, Jim included, who are paid on a 12-month basis.
“I am certain that Jim and all of our players are aware that under terms of their contracts with us they are expected to participate in all pre-season practice sessions and games.
“I have been asked what my attitude would be if Jim Brown fails to report to Hiram next month but returns to the United States in September and decides that he wants to play football.
“Our coaching staff cannot wait until such a late date to formulate our offensive plans for the 1966 season. If Jim were to show up in September, we would have to make an appraisal as to his physical condition, his ability to pick up quickly the new offense being prepared for the season plus the general personnel situation of our Club.”
Yes, we’re sure it must have been hard to formulate an offensive game plan when you had the greatest running back in league history on your team. We’re confident that even Brian Daboll could have come up with something.
Of course, we all know what happened: Brown walked away from the team, saying in his reply to Modell,
“I am writing to inform you that in the next few days I will be announcing my retirement from Football. … I am very sorry that I did not have the information to give to you at some earlier date, for one of my great concerns was to try in every way to work things out so that I could play an additional year.”
The second example involves the Indians under the ownership of Vernon Stouffer. In his fantastic book, Endless Summers: The Fall and Rise of the Cleveland Indians, Jack Torry details how a cash-strapped Stouffer was looking to unload the Tribe in 1971. Stouffer’s son, James, negotiated the sale of the team to a syndicate headed by George Steinbrenner while Vernon Stouffer was out of town. But both sides were confident they had a deal.
But Vernon Stouffer, who was in Arizona at the time, had other ideas.
When Steinbrenner telephoned Stouffer in Scottsdale, Stouffer was angry. He thought he was being taken advantage of and told Steinbrenner that the deal was off. People have speculated for years as to why Stouffer backed out of the deal, but one of the main reasons is that he believed the American League would approve a ridiculous idea he floated to have the Indians play 25 “home games” in New Orleans.
In other words, he knew best. Stouffer walked away from $9 million in cash from Steinbrenner’s group, and ended up selling the team to a group headed by Nick Mileti in a deal that was so shady that, at first, the league would not approve the deal. Mileti restructured the offer and was approved. While on paper Stouffer sold the team for more money, he only received $1 million upfront, with the rest to be paid over eight years.
Stouffer passed away before the final payment was received by his estate.
And of course Mileti quickly ran out of money and sold the team, starting a cycle of despair that wasn’t erased until 1995.
It’s fun to wonder how things would have been different with Steinbrenner as the owner of the Indians for the past 30+ years. In Terry Pluto’s book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, former GM Gabe Paul recalled that “this was a huge setback for Cleveland. The team George wanted first was the Indians, because he was from Cleveland. He planned to spend lots of money to revive the franchise, just as he did in New York.”
If only Vernon Stouffer hadn’t decided he had to show everyone how smart he was.
Which brings us back to Gilbert, the man with no head coach and the start of free agency only days away. After his failed courtship of Tom Izzo, who left Gilbert standing at the altar for a week while he circled the chapel before heading back to Michigan, Gilbert should realize that it’s time to turn the team back over to the basketball people and let them do the jobs they were hired for.
Something tells us Gilbert’s not ready to do that just yet. Let’s just hope he realizes he’s heading down a dangerous path before it is too late.
As Patrick McManamon wrote during Izzo’s courtship:
“Change can help. But change has to be made based on reason and logic and not frustration and emotion. Are the Cavs acting out of frustration at consecutive playoff losses, or are they acting because the people hired did not come through when it mattered? Time will answer.”