Modell's Baltimore run begins Putting Cleveland in his past, owner starts plotting future

Belichick not expected back

'I'm looking forward to adopted hometown

The Nfl Returns To Baltimore

February 10, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell finally could rest.

Or so it seemed.

Three months of agony had ended. His vote was secure, a legacy was maintained and a new tradition was ready to be born.

But instead of relaxing and stretching out on his hotel couch, Modell was busy, alternately looking to the future and then drifting back to the past.

He talked about needing to set season-ticket prices and select a practice site, and about the status of his head coach. He reminisced about his time in Cleveland, and about being America's Public Sports Enemy No. 1.

"The last three months have been torturous, the last three days down to the wire," said Modell. "I joke a lot just to unwind.

"I have been so focused with this move, vote and other owners, that I have not paid any attention to our football team," he added. "I expect to address a lot of concerns shortly."

One of the first will be a meeting with coach Bill Belichick, who has a 37-45 record in five years with the team. Belichick has denied reports that he expects to be fired this weekend. Yesterday, Modell did not shed much light on Belichick's status.

"Bill's the coach of the Browns for now, but I don't know what the future has in store," Modell said.

Modell met with former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula on Tuesday at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., but Modell said he doesn't expect the league's all-time winningest coach to replace Belichick.

"I'm not positive, but I had a strong sense he doesn't want to coach, at least not in the near term," said Modell. "He wants to get out of the rat race for a while and reflect on other things.

"But I would like to pursue other opportunities with him, and see if his mesh with mine," said Modell. "I have no agenda for Shula. He might see Baltimore as completing the cycle of his professional life. I will pursue him casually next week. I've known him for a long, long time, 33 years."

Modell spent a long time in Cleveland, owning the NFL franchise there for 35 years. He couldn't stray from his feelings for Cleveland very long yesterday. As he spoke, he transposed the names of the cities, referring to Baltimore as Cleveland, and vice versa. He became a little irritated when discussing Cleveland's new deal with the NFL, which includes $182 million in public funding for a new stadium to house a team that will move to the city by 1999.

"Somebody is getting one hell of a deal for an unknown team to go to Cleveland," said Modell. "If they had given me half of that, I would still be there. That's how outrageous it is."

And then Modell's voice started to trail off.

He said he doesn't want to leave Cleveland bitter. He talked about the legends such as Paul Brown, Jim Brown and the Kardiac Kids. But Cleveland was more than just football to Modell.

Even yesterday, he didn't blame Cleveland fans who vilified him during the Browns' last four games at Cleveland Stadium. He even congratulated Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White, who Modell had said failed to deliver on several financial promises.

"The same emotional loss I have suffered disassociating myself with the names and colors of the team, I now experience in separating myself from the place I have called home for 35 years, where I was active charitably and civicly," said Modell.

"I got used to the signs [at the stadium]. They started about four years ago," said Modell. "One night I woke up and my wife was painting one over the bed.

"I don't blame the fans for feeling the way they did. I have different thoughts about the media who fed the frenzy, and my own personal thoughts about the politicians who fed the passions of hate and vilification.

"Mayor White surprised me the way he mobilized his troops to get them out with petitions. Mike White deserves a lot of high marks; he served his voters well."

Modell came out a winner, too. He easily won the approval of the league's owners, with a 25-2 vote in favor of the move and three abstentions.

"I was always optimistic," said Modell. "There were not a whole lot of options to consider. The worst-case scenario was playing in Cleveland for three years. I was willing to do that."

It won't happen. Modell and the team that used to be called the Browns are on their way to Baltimore. Modell insisted there will be changes in his organization. He called Baltimore a chance for a new life, and the beginning of an era.

He also said the new team will build from the bottom up, pursuing no free agents and perhaps divesting itself of its most expensive players.

"We're starting from scratch," he said at one point.

Only team vice presidents Kevin Byrne, David Modell, Jim Bailey and director of pro personnel Ozzie Newsome appear to be secure in their jobs when the team moves.

They will huddle Monday in their downtown Baltimore offices to begin discussing season-ticket prices and availability as well as orchestrating a massive marketing campaign.

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