Modell's exit ramp eerily close to Irsay's

November 07, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- The embattled owner was at war with the fans. The outdated stadium was a wreck. The political powers were slow to provide financial relief.

Finally, the owner caught all off guard and moved his storied NFL franchise, abandoning years of tradition. Gone, just like that.

The synopsis of the Colts' midnight flight from Baltimore 11 years ago?

Not exactly. This is the saga of the Baltimore, nee Cleveland, Browns and owner Art Modell, whose first move, unlike Bob Irsay, was not to call for the Mayflower trucks.

Irsay pulled the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night, in the middle of a snowstorm, barely beating the posse of civic leaders at his back. His final act punctuated years of acrimony and threats in Maryland.

Modell suffered silently, negotiated secretly, and announced his move to Baltimore in the parking lot at Camden Yards where his new stadium will be.

These are men with distinctly different styles. The curiosity is how Modell, a sophisticated, articulate loyalist in NFL circles, could ever come to share a common bond -- infamy -- with the crude, inarticulate Irsay.

"I know how hated Irsay is in Baltimore," said Walter Brownridge, chief counsel for the chief of police in Cleveland, who lived three years in Columbia, Md. "This guy [Modell] will be more hated."

Reality began to settle in like a bad hangover for Clevelanders yesterday, much the way it did for Baltimoreans on March 28, 1984. When Modell terminated Cleveland's 50-year love affair with the Browns, there were striking similarities to the Colts' departure 11 years ago:

* The stadium crisis. Both owners were beset with financial woes brought on by the ever-escalating economics of the NFL. Irsay's Colts played in dilapidated Memorial Stadium with bad plumbing, no luxury boxes and many bad seats. He asked the state annually for help to renovate the stadium, to no avail.

Modell said he has been seeking financial relief for those same kind of renovations to 64-year-old Cleveland Stadium for six years. During that time, civic leaders in Cleveland helped build a new basketball facility (Gund Arena) for the Cavaliers, a new baseball park (Jacobs Field) for the Indians and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for tourists -- but no football stadium for the Browns.

"We traded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the Cleveland Browns," said Ross Frisbee, a retired credit manager from Mansfield, Ohio, one of a minority of Browns fans who does not directly blame Modell.

* A deteriorating relationship with the fans. Irsay, an absentee owner his 12 years in Baltimore, was despised by Colts fans for his heavy-handedness and lack of commitment to win. In the Colts' final game in Baltimore, fans serenaded him with vulgar chants -- the same ones heard Sunday in Cleveland Stadium for Modell.

Until yesterday, Modell, who has owned the Browns since 1961, NTC was vilified in Cleveland for two public relations fiascoes -- the firing of legendary coach Paul Brown after the 1962 season and the clumsy dismissal of hometown hero Bernie Kosar two years ago.

* The solution. For Irsay, it was the Hoosier Dome (now the RCA Dome) with its extravagant ticket guarantee. For Modell, it is the $200 million, football-only stadium to be built alongside Oriole Park.

Instead of ticket guarantees, though, Modell will get permanent seat licenses, the NFL's rage of the '90s. He won't move into a new stadium right away, though. The Browns will have to play two seasons in refurbished Memorial Stadium while the open-air stadium is constructed.

Unlike the Colts, the Browns were well supported by their fans until the end. Even with nearly 8,000 no-shows Sunday, Cleveland's average attendance this season is still 66,772. Playing in one of the NFL's largest stadiums, the Browns have averaged more than 70,000 fans in six of the last seven seasons.

Many of those fans felt there was deception in Modell's game plan to solve his financial problems. Tim Kavalec, a financial planner and a Cleveland native, said he believes Modell orchestrated events to meet this end. Kavalec didn't care for Modell's brief reference to Cleveland yesterday, either, when he said he left a piece of his heart here.

"I don't see how he can separate himself from Irsay," Kavalec said. "This is a tell-it-like-it-is town. If it was a business decision, then say it up front, on Aug. 30, that you have to move the team. But don't say that you're leaving a piece of your heart in Cleveland, because we'll stomp all over it."

Also galling to Clevelanders was that Modell held clandestine meetings with Baltimore officials while a self-imposed moratorium on stadium talks was in place in Cleveland.

"We supported him all these years," said Pat Hanratty, who watched the televised news conference with Kavalec in a downtown bar. "What did we do wrong? He couldn't even face us; he had to lie to us. Right now, the people in Cleveland are really hurt."

Questions and answers

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