(This was originally published as Chapter 4 of my 2001 book, Purple Reign – Diary of a Raven Maniac. It is the story of David Modell’s role in winning Super Bowl XXXV and how the Ravens wound up in Baltimore and the hiring of Brian Billick.)
A SILVER TROPHY BUT NOT A SILVER SPOON
“I can’t go back and explain it to everybody. But I did not move to Baltimore after 35 years (in Cleveland) for the crab cakes.”
Arthur B. Modell, Jan. 14, 2001, as told to the Cleveland Plain Dealer
OK, let’s go back to the beginning. The simple fact that the NFL ever returned to Baltimore is a miracle.
And, certainly, a miracle worth revisiting.
Forget about the snowy night in March 1984 when Robert Irsay pulled the Colts out of Baltimore in Mayflower trucks. Perish the thought that Bill Bidwill or Al Davis or Mike Brown or Georgia Frontiere or Bud Adams were ever honestly considering moving their NFL franchises to Baltimore. And expansion, as anyone who had any dealing with it at all will tell, was fixed from the beginning. The teams were going to go to the city that NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue liked the best.
Let’s make this very clear. From Tagliabue to Jack Kent Cooke to virtually every owner in the NFL, Baltimore was not a welcomed hamlet in the league’s lexicon. Because of its small TV market, because of its proximity to Washington and Philadelphia, because it was viewed as a “failed” football community with tiny crowds when it lost the Colts, it was a player simply because it possessed an internal will to keep fighting. There was money on the table in Baltimore, and owners could threaten to move from their existing base to Charm City because it was there and willing to be treated like a $20 hooker. The original Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herb Belgrad was a wonderfully kind gentleman, following the mandate of Governor William Donald Schaefer (who was the crushed mayor of Baltimore at the time of Irsay’s departure) to pursue an NFL team without breaking hearts. Belgrad was only to chase teams that were already set on moving, so as to not set up another broken-hearted situation like the one Baltimore endured in 1983.
Just like Mom told you, nice guys finish last.
Baltimore’s final hope for a run at an NFL franchise was put in the capable hands of John Moag, appointed by new Maryland governor Parris Glendening in February 1995. Moag wasted no time in utilizing his small window of opportunity to find a team before the money that Schaefer had left in the state coffers was redirected toward other projects in the budget. By the summer of 1995, Moag had identified several teams that were interested in moving their NFL teams to Baltimore, knowing full well that if the move wasn’t set by the end of the year, Baltimore might never be a player again. The money allocated for stadium funding in Baltimore could very well be used by the Washington Redskins to erect a stadium in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs. Houston was already committed and marching down the aisle with Tennessee. Arizona had already moved once but it was an obvious mistake. Cincinnati had indicated some interest. Tampa Bay and new owner Malcolm Glazer were getting antsy, wondering whether a lethargic NFL community would build them a palace. And, finally, the longest of all long shots, the venerable Cleveland Browns and Art Modell were having some cash problems on the shores of Lake Erie.
Many insiders would tell you the true catalysts in the move of the Browns to Baltimore were Jim Bailey, Modell’s Executive Vice President of Administration and Legal matters, and Al Lerner, a banker, entrepreneur and Modell’s best friend and part-owner of the Browns. Bailey had the most intimate knowledge of the debt that Modell had created in Cleveland. Lerner and Bailey knew of the inherent cash flow problems surrounding the Browns, Cleveland Stadium and its parent holder, the Cleveland Stadium Corporation, which Modell had taken on in the early 1970s, ironically, to try to save baseball and the Indians in Cleveland.
By 1995, the Cleveland Indians had departed Cleveland Stadium for swank new digs 10 blocks away at Jacobs Field. The NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers were playing next door to Jacobs at Gund Arena, another state of the art facility that was leading a renaissance in Northern Ohio. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened its doors in early October 1995, just four weeks prior to Modell signing the deal to move the Browns to Baltimore.
Modell had a huge financial stake in an aging, decrepit Cleveland Stadium that had just lost its largest tenant – 81 home baseball games per year – to a publicly financed, luxury-box laden Taj Mahal. To make matters worse, the Indians were riding the wave of newfound enthusiasm in the community in a march to the World Series, their first in more than 40 years.
Modell had tried privately for years to get relief in the way of a new stadium. Despite the Browns enormous popularity and success during the 1980s (three AFC Championship Game appearances in four years), he was last in line to be satiated because Cleveland Mayor Michael White and Governor George Voinovich never believed he’d move.
Modell had always been a hustler who played games with money, leveraging one company against the other. Despite playing with the big boys in the back rooms of the NFL in the early days, he was truly not a rich man. He bought the Browns in March 1961 for $4 million dollars and only put a fraction of that into the down payment. Many of his business interests over the next 35 years were followed with his heart and not his accountant.
He was the king of leverage and had been for nearly all of his adulthood. “Of course I can pay you back,” was the thinking. “I own the Cleveland Browns of the NFL.”
During 1994-95, more than five million people had seen Jacobs Field and its opulence. Modell was having a hard time selling tickets to his dump, let alone skyboxes that barely had running water. And as for perks, the valet service and champagne lifestyle that big business was getting down the street 81 times per year for baseball and 40 more times for the NBA on the club level was unmatchable. He needed a new stadium and needed it fast or he couldn’t compete.
Things got so bad for him financially that during the free agency period, in the spring of 1995, he had to borrow and personally guarantee a loan for $5 million so he could pay free agent wide receiver Andre Rison his signing bonus. The Browns had come 60 minutes away from playing in yet another AFC Championship Game three months prior and Modell felt as though he was one player away from going to the Super Bowl. His coach at the time, Bill Belichick, lobbied profusely to acquire Rison. Modell realized he could never get to a Super Bowl like this.
Enter Jim Bailey.
Bailey, a former football player at Florida State and longtime confidant of Modell from the 1970s, began planting two seeds: sell or move. The Browns could no longer compete in the NFL playing at Cleveland Stadium. Modell had always held out hope that he would be “taken care of” by Cleveland and Ohio politicians, but tension was beginning to rise as debt piled up.
The last straw came in mid-1995 when, instead of passing bonds to build a new stadium for Modell, the city and state enacted a referendum to be voted on by the public to renovate the “Mistake on the Lake.” Renovating a century old stadium was hardly feasible, and not intrinsically fair for a man who helped keep the baseball team in the city in the first place. Modell wanted at least equal treatment after two years of watching baseball become royalty in Cleveland under an unforeseeable stream of revenue.
Enter John Moag.
Moag’s mandate as an appointee of Glendening was to get a team and get one quickly or the money that was allocated for stadium funding would be pulled off the books. Glendening, for all of his posturing and embarrassing fake “homer-ism” in regard to the Ravens, was constantly trying to prove himself to Baltimore, where his popularity was extremely low for a Maryland governor. Glendening was and still is perceived as a Washingtonian with interests that lie more toward the Washington beltway than the Baltimore beltway. That said, he could always rest his hat in Baltimore if he were a key player in bringing the NFL back