“Art had the greatest sense of humor of anybody I ever met,” Wilson said. “When things would get tense in a meeting, he'd come up with a quip and break the tension.”
Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, recalled how Modell would engage then-Minnesota Vikings owner Max Winter in story-telling at league gatherings.
“He was vying with Max over who would tell the best stories,” Rooney said. “There was a lot of fun in the league in those days.”
There would be no joking about the two biggest events in Modell's Cleveland era. In 1963 he fired legendary coach Paul Brown. In 1996 he moved the team.
“The year I fired Paul Brown, we came in second [in the NFL's Eastern Conference] and played in that runner-up bowl game [against the Green Bay Packers] down in Miami,” Modell said last fall. “Vince Lombardi called it the game for losers. We won the world's championship in 1964 [beating the Baltimore Colts, 27-0].
“Then the year when I moved the team, I was derided for that, unbelievably so. I finally found out who my friends were and who my friends were not. But the important thing is – I say this without any braggadocio – four years later we won the Super Bowl. The move had something to do with it. It gave the whole organization a feeling of optimism for the future.”
It was a decision Modell could not live down, however. Now it may be what he is most remembered for after 43 years as an owner.
“Unfortunately, that might happen, I don't know,” Rooney said. “If you look at it, two of his best friends were against him, Ralph and me. I thought being in a division with Cleveland was so important [to the Steelers].”
“I was sorry that Art moved, but I didn't know the circumstances,” Wilson said. “I don't think the people in Cleveland knew he was in such dire shape that he had to move. ... I'm sorry he didn't give the people a little more notice that he had problems.”
Will the move be his enduring legacy?
“I don't think it will be the lasting memory of those of us who know him who have any sense of history,” Accorsi said. “But unfortunately, that'll be something of an image. He'll never be forgiven in Cleveland."
Jon Morgan contributed to this article.