HAVANA -- What a world. When I heard that Paul Brown had died, I was staring at a 40-foot-tall painting of Che Guevara. The huge mural, honoring the late Cuban revolutionary hero, hangs over the basketball floor at the main Pan American Games sports arena. Monday afternoon, someone broke the news to me. Paul Brown was dead of pneumonia, at age 82.
"You knew him, didn't you?" the guy asked.
"Sort of," I answered, because I believe very few people really knew Paul Brown. But every football person I ever met respected him. This sounds irreverent, I realize, but if pro football were a revolutionary country like Cuba, an immense mural of Paul Brown would be hanging over every NFL field in every NFL stadium. That's how influential the man was.
And that is why I have decided to ignore the Pan Am basketball players and gymnasts today and write about Paul Brown instead. First, because in a previous job I covered and knew the man for six years, during which he constantly fascinated me. And second, because he deserves it. Brown forever changed the way football people think.
A gross overstatement? Hardly. Paul Brown may not have invented pro football, but he invented the modern pro football operation, both on and off the field.
Let me give you one small example. In 1948, Paul Brown created the Cleveland Browns franchise in the old All-American Conference. He both coached and ran the front office. A local television station said it would be coming out to broadcast one of the team's games. Not so fast, Brown told them. He would need a few hundred dollars per game.
"All the other teams were letting their games be shown for free, just for the publicity and attention," he once told me. "I wanted to get the idea established that our games were worth something."
Some 40 years later, each NFL team receives tens of millions of dollars in TV revenue. And when the NFL goes to a pay-per-view system for the 1999 Super Bowl, remember the man who invented the original concept.
Before him, the NFL was a part-timer's league, for coaches who blew whistles and told their men to grunt and hit people. Brown was the first man to dissect the game like a science experiment. He was the first to use game films as strategic tools. He thought too many players were getting broken noses, so he invented the face mask. He was the first to hire full-time assistant coaches.
One of those assistants -- for the Cincinnati Bengals, the other NFL team Brown coached -- eventually was Bill Walsh. Brown made that hire in 1968 when Walsh was basically unemployed after the semi-pro franchise he was coaching went belly up. You might say that hiring changed the course of NFL history.
The memories I have of Paul Brown are mostly those of standing alongside him on the sidelines during Bengals practices in the early 1980s, which he would attend as the team's general manager. He would relate stories about players he had coached, tell an occasional joke and educate me on his philosophy toward the press.
"I tell the players, 'When you lose, say little, and when you win, say less,' " he would say.
"That's fine," I would say. "It gives me more time to ask questions."
From time to time, he would disagree with something I'd write and fix me with his patented icy stare. But he was the only sports figure to send us a card when our first child was born.
Brown had the image of being a stone-faced taskmaster. He actually was more of a principled person with old-fashioned values who had trouble understanding why modern athletes weren't more grateful to be paid for the privilege of busting up their bodies. Once, Brown fired a punter at halftime, telling him to take off his uniform and leave the stadium. Another time, he walked onto a Bengals charter flight before takeoff, sniffed alcohol on the breath of a player and had him tossed off the plane.
In the last six months of his life, knowing he was ill, he tried to close some old wounds. Last season when Walsh went to Cincinnati to broadcast a game, he paid a courtesy call on Brown. During the visit, Brown acknowledged that passing over Walsh as the Bengals' head coach in 1975 was one of the larger mistakes of his life. His last instructions, knowing he was dying, were that the Bengals not interrupt their workout schedule for his funeral.
I'm changing mine, though. After I finish writing these words, I plan to take a stroll up a nearby hill. The University of Havana is located there. I have heard that in the 1940s, the school had an American football team that played against schools from Florida. There is a small stadium on campus that, from the configuration and construction, looks suspiciously like it once contained an American football field. I want to go up there and think about Paul Brown for a few minutes. I figure that's the least I can do.