Modell addresses repercussions of move Browns owner talks of 'trauma' he faces in leaving Cleveland

November 05, 1995|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell yesterday stopped short of confirming that he intends to move his team to Baltimore. But he talked about building on the traditions of the old Colts, and about the possibility of leaving Cleveland.

"To be honest with you, it's not an easy thing for me after 35 years," Mr. Modell said from his home here. "I've made a lot of friends here. I can't describe the trauma."

Mr. Modell, 70, conceded that the negotiations over the proposed move have been a strain, but he said he's in good health.

"I'm feeling pretty worn out," said Mr. Modell, who has survived two heart attacks and has an artificial hip. "I'm emotionally and mentally exhausted, but I had an exam a few weeks ago and I'm in good shape."

Mr. Modell said he needs to move the team out of Cleveland Stadium because the 64-year-old structure does not produce enough revenue. According to projections, a team playing in the $200 million stadium proposed next to Camden Yards would make an estimated $30 million in annual profits, compared to the $6 million a year the Browns now make in profits.

Mr. Modell said that if he moves, it'll be a matter of "need, not greed."

"Some people in the league want to make more money," he said. "I want to stay alive."

Mr. Modell said that he owns 91 percent of the team, and that Alfred Lerner, a former Maryland banker, owns the other nine percent. Mr. Modell is expected to move to Baltimore with his family.

"I've never been an absentee owner before, why start now?" he said.

The Baltimore deal can be one of the league's most lucrative, but only if the team can sell all the premium tickets in the new stadium.

And Mr. Modell sounded like his own best salesman.

"I'll be knocking door to door with my valise. Do you want to buy a loge? How about a pair of sneakers?" he said, laughing.

He already is so well-versed in the tradition of Baltimore football, he would be right at home at a Colt Corral meeting.

"Let me tell you about my last memory of Memorial Stadium," Mr. Modell said. "It was my wife, Pat, being stuck in an elevator for an hour alone with Bob Irsay. I told her she deserved the medal of honor."

Mr. Modell reminisced about the Browns' 27-0 victory over the Colts in the 1964 National Football League championship game and the Colts' 34-0 win over the Browns in the 1968 NFL championship game.

"I have great memories of the Baltimore series," he said. "I go back to Unitas, Donovan, Marchetti and a whole bunch of guys. Those were the glory days for Baltimore. I know that market.

"We had some great games in Baltimore, not just the 1964 championship game but in 1968, we beat them in the regular season [30-20 for the Colts' only regular-season loss that year], but they in turn knocked us out big in the championship game," he said.

Mr. Modell is a self-made man. He was 15 when his father died, and he dropped out of high school to help support his family. At 18, he joined the Army Air Force during World War II and then enrolled in a New York City television school on the G.I. bill.

He launched one of the country's first daytime television programs in 1949, when he was only 23 and there were just 5,000 TV sets in the metropolitan New York market.

In 1954, he joined a New York advertising firm and became a vice president in 1958. In 1961, he bought the Browns for $3.9 million, most of it borrowed money.

Under Mr. Modell, the Browns have been one of the more competitive teams in the league. They've played in 20 playoff games in 15 different seasons.

But in his 35 years as an owner, the team has won only one league championship -- over the Colts in 1964 -- and has yet to appear in a Super Bowl.

"I never got the big enchilada," he said. "That's a top priority for Art Modell, to erase this albatross around my neck," he said. "We've been competitive, exciting, entertaining, but haven't gotten the big prize."

He hasn't always won the fans' affection in Cleveland, either.

Some fans have never forgiven him for firing Paul Brown in 1962. Brown virtually invented modern pro football, founded the Browns in 1946, named the team for himself and went to the championship game 10 years in a row in the All-America Football Conference and the NFL, winning seven times.

The fans supported Mr. Brown -- especially when he founded the Cincinnati Bengals and the team went to the Super Bowl twice in the 1980s, a quest that still eludes Mr. Modell.

Mr. Modell refers to the firing as an "unpleasant episode" and RTC said he regrets he and Mr. Brown didn't have more of a rapport.

The fans were enraged again two years ago when popular quarterback Bernie Kosar was released by coach Bill Belichick. Mr. Modell backed the coach.

He also has had bitter partings with some of his former team executives, including former general manager Peter Hadhazy, who served for five years before being fired in 1981. Mr. Hadhazy later said that one of his problems was that he got too much credit in the newspapers for the team's success.

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