The Baltimore Ravens are in the playoffs for the first time, meeting the Denver Broncos on Sunday at PSINet Stadium. A lot has been made of the Ravens’ record-setting defense, and rightfully so, but at the center of everything stands 75-year-old Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns/Ravens franchise for nearly 40 years.
It was Modell who in 1996 moved his team from Cleveland, setting off a firestorm of rage in one town and a torrent of appreciation in another. Modell is so vilified in Cleveland, which subsequently was given an expansion team that kept the old name and colors, that he has not returned to his former home for security reasons and because he does not want to cause a distraction.
Even after relocating the club and having a new stadium built for him, Modell faced grave financial problems in Baltimore. The franchise was hemorraghing money it was $185 million in debt and Modell’s business acumen was being widely criticized. So at the end of last year, he agreed to sell 49 percent to local entrepreneur Steven Bisciotti, with the stipulation that Bisciotti assume total control within four to six years. Time is running out on Modell’s involvement, although he hopes his son, David, will remain team president long into the future.
Meanwhile, the money problems of both the Ravens and Modell are easing. His deal with Bisciotti might be worth as much as $600 million not bad for someone who bought the Browns in 1961 for $3.93 million. Modell claims the title of the league’s most senior owner, explaining that although the New York Giants’ Wellington Mara has been with his team longer, brother Jack was considered the owner back then.
In many ways, largely because of his close relationship with former commissioner Pete Rozelle, Modell is part and parcel of modern NFL history. If he is known primarily for moving the Browns, he also should be recognized for having helped shaped the league’s first lucrative deal with television.
Wearing a purple sweater, seated in a spare office whose primary features were a pair of plastic folding chairs, Modell sat down with The Washington Times this week at the Ravens’ practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. Despite a bad hip and a weak heart, he looked robust and clearly was feeling chipper over his team.
The conversation started with Modell mentioning Ray Lewis, the All-Pro middle linebacker who was arrested on murder charges during Super Bowl week in Atlanta last year. Following a much-publicized trial, Lewis was acquitted, although he was found guilty of a lesser misdemeanor charge.
Modell: “Ray Lewis is the best defensive player I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen them all. My team has played against Joe Schmidt, Detroit. Dick Butkus, Chicago. You can go on and on, but I’ve never seen anybody with the skills, intensity, speed and strength and desire of Ray Lewis. Now maybe there’s a reason for it, because he was trying to eradicate a very horrible memory of last spring in Atlanta, and he became refocused and he’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
Times: “Did you go out on a limb proclaiming his innocence?”
Modell: “Listen, I never questioned his innocence for a second. I flew down to Atlanta and testified on his behalf. I was criticized by people in the league office and elsewhere: ‘You’re taking a chance.’ … ‘How do you know?’ … ‘It could boomerang.’ I said I believe what I’m doing. He is guilty of wrong associations, having all those sycophants around him, the freeloaders. That’s what he’s guilty of. But not murder. Impossible. Ipso facto. Impossible. So we got him out on bond, and the trial and the daily Court TV and the daily reports. It was a debilitating experience. But out of it came a very strong bond of friendship with [tight end] Shannon Sharpe and Ray in Atlanta. Shannon lived in Atlanta. This was before I even signed Shannon. I signed Shannon and I flew him back from Atlanta in my plane and in that three hours I told the pilot to put it in a steep dive till he said yes. But he worked with Ray, worked him out every day, got his energy going. Beautiful. Same thing with Rod Woodson. The three of them are like the Three Musketeers.”
Debt, relocation costs, settling lawsuits brought by Ohio officials, the sheer trauma of leaving Cleveland and having to sell part of the team it’s been a hellacious five years for Modell. Yet the Ravens are in the playoffs. Modell is loved in Baltimore. Stores can’t keep Ravens merchandise on their shelves. Has it all been worth it?
Modell: “I don’t think I would subject my family to the ordeal of the last five years … leaving the place we loved. Still do. Thirty-five years in that city. We were part of the social, civic and charitable fabric of that town. No family did more for that city, including the Rockefellers 200 years ago, than the Modells did. I served the last nine years before I left as president of the Cleveland Clinic. David was president of the Diabetes Foundation. [Wife] Pat helped raise the money and built the largest freestanding hospice installation in the country. We loved it. We had to leave precipitously.
“But I’ve got to say this: What makes it somewhat gratifying, in a subtle way, is that the new stadium here, with the revenue streams, gave me the economic wherewithal to compete and do business. I could not in Cleveland. Oddly enough, they ended up building a new stadium for somebody else, and I left my colors there, my name, my legacy, my heritage for the people of Cleveland. I did not take that with me. But the pure, pure unadulterated fact is, you’ve got to have money to compete in the free agency market, in coaching, in scouting, what have you. This gave me the economic well-being to build this team from scratch. We were a terrible team in 1996.”
They still hate Modell in Cleveland. Not everyone, of course. But a majority of the fans, inhabitants of the famed Dawg Pound, the average, blue-collar Browns rooter who sat there shivering in old Cleveland Stadium cheering Jim Brown and Ozzie Newsome and Bernie Kosar will never forgive Modell for taking their team away.
Columnists and commentators still crucify Modell. Truth be told, he did hurt a lot of feelings, and perhaps a better businessman might have swung the necessary deals to keep the Browns in Cleveland. Modell, however, insists he did all he could, that unlike the Indians and the Cavaliers, he was not given the new facility he needed to remain solvent and competitive.
Modell believes he is right. Yet he could not attend Newsome’s Hall of Fame induction, nor the recent funeral of former Browns great Lou Groza, fearing the spectacle his presence would cause.
Times: “How hard was it to stay away from Groza’s funeral?”
Modell: “I was very tempted to go back. But I decided I would be a distraction. I didn’t want to take anything away from the solemnity of the occasion. I didn’t want to do anything to hurt Jackie [Groza] and the kids. I got a beautiful note from Jackie the other day. I cried when I got it. But part of my heart is still in Cleveland.”
Times: “A lot of people who know you and have dealt with you say you’re a nice, well-intentioned guy. Why do people despise you so much?”
Modell: “You have to consider the source. It was principally the media and City Hall that engendered that passion, that created that passion, that hate against the Modell family. Unwarrantedly. They had their chance to do things as they promised they would, to give me the same treatment the Indians and Cavaliers had. I couldn’t get an answer to my phone calls. So time ran out, and I had to make my move. But they’re better off today than they were with me. New stadium, same colors, same name. All they lost was two years [without a team].”
Times: “Is there a sense of vindication now?”
Modell: “I don’t look at it as vindication. I look at it as confirmation of what we’re doing here. That’s doing the right thing, intelligently. This game could have been in Cleveland Sunday. The Army-Navy game could have been in Cleveland. It just wasn’t meant to be. Forces were aligned against my family and me. All I know is, if they had given me half of what they had given to [owner Al Lerner] and the new Cleveland Browns, I’d still be there. All I wanted to make sure was that the johns didn’t leak, particularly the ones over my office.”
Times: “Do you foresee going back to Cleveland?”
Modell: “Time will tell. I would love to go back and say hello to a lot of people and the public. I really love Cleveland. I love the people there. I really do. The people there gave me enormous support for 35 years. Enormous. But I’m welcome here. You should have seen the tribute they gave me before the San Diego game. It was so emotional people in the stands were crying. Shannon Sharpe and Ray Lewis came and escorted me out of the tunnel. Then all the players ran over to hug and kiss me. It was astonishing.
“People tell me I own the town. I don’t own it. Who would I sell it to? I want to deliver a product. They treated me well. They gave me a stadium. They treated me with open arms and warmly, and they’re deserving of all the rewards we can muster on the playing field. All the wins we can give them. The fans come first, and they came first in Cleveland for years and years.”
Times: “Are you prepared to ease out of the picture?”
Modell: “The reason I made the deal is that Steve Bisciotti agreed to my terms. My terms would allow me, at that time, to have a four- to six-year emotional meltdown. I could not possibly foresee just walking away and that’s it. It’s been part of my life for too long. It gives me a chance to settle down and see things develop. I do want to see my son stay in the business. He’s an extremely bright, talented young man. He’s learned very well. I taught him well. He’s as bright a young man as there is in this league. But what I’ve done is secure the financial security of my children and grandchildren forever. That’s gratifying. I’ve never had that security.”
As opposed to the Redskins, who brought in several high-priced free agents to help them get to the Super Bowl immediately (or try to), the Ravens have been a gradual work in progress. But progress was slow the first three seasons, when Baltimore went 4-12, 6-9-1 and 6-10. Then last year, the first under coach Brian Billick, the Ravens climbed to 8-8. And now there is this year’s breakthrough 12-4 mark. Modell said it has all happened by design, facilitated by an organizational structure that includes himself at the top, son David next as team president, then player personnel director Newsome and Billick.
Modell: “This football team is the result of brilliant, brilliant design by Newsome and his people, well-coached by Billick and his people, and I had the economic wherewithal to go out and get those people.
“It’s the right way to do it and, in my view, the only way. Obviously, you have to have the right people in place in personnel work, which I have here… . I’m so sure of my position on this that no one can repudiate this. The surest way to build a contender is draft adroitly, intelligently. Use selected free agents to fill in some holes. But most important is the development of second- and third-year players. That’s how you go.
“There are no quick fixes. No sir. I don’t care if it’s baseball, football. We had a plan. We attacked our needs in an orderly fashion. We knew we needed [cornerbacks] over two years, so we got Duane Starks and Chris McAlister. We knew we needed an offensive lineman of [Jonathan] Ogden’s caliber. Peter Boulware, Ray Lewis, Jermaine Lewis.”
Times: “Your team has neither a head coach who possesses all the so-called authority nor a general manager. Why not?”
Modell: “I believe in an organizational structure that does not empower one person. We have coaching, we have personnel. And they work together… . I don’t believe in a general manager. General managers are things from the past. I think Ozzie and Brian are getting along famously. They respect each other.”
Times: “What attracted you to Billick?”
Modell: “He had a very strong personality. And I think coaching is nothing but the ability to communicate. Teaching is communication. No more rah-rah stuff. Somebody who can get to a player, get to an assistant and be able to communicate, you have yourself a good man. To be a winner you have to be able to communicate and teach. In order to teach, you have to be a communicator. And that impressed me. The way he communicated with me impressed me.”
Although they compete in different conferences and play each other infrequently, signs exist of a budding rivalry between the Ravens and Washington Redskins. The teams met earlier this year at FedEx Field and even though the Redskins won, the big story concerned matters off the field. The teams were involved in a turf war over marketing to begin with. Then before the game, several Ravens buses, including Modell’s, were charged for parking and sent to a back lot. And the Redskins’ P.A. announcer was disciplined after crying out, “Ravens fans suck.”
Modell was asked about Redskins owner Dan Snyder. He had plenty to say off the record. On the record, he said much less. He was asked if he had any advice to offer.
Modell: “I wouldn’t give any advice because… . I’ll say this about Snyder. I met him at a couple of league meetings. We had a little problem with the Redskins and the Ravens and marketing our product, overlapping areas. I know he’s had difficulty. But I give him high marks for his courage and his daring. He paid an enormous price for that Redskin team. He went out and spent money, and only time will tell if it was right or wrong. But he has a daring streak in him, which I think is commendable. I can’t criticize him for that.”
Times: “Would you advise Snyder to make any changes in the way he handles himself or conducts business?”
Modell: “I can’t do that. Others have to tell him.”
Times: “If Ray Lewis is the best defensive player you’ve seen, who’s the best overall player? Jim Brown?”
Modell: “Jim Brown was the greatest football player of all. Jim Brown was spectacular. Spectacular. Strength, speed, awareness of things going on around him. He was an extremely special football player. And he won championships for us and kept us in contention. Great draw on the road, a great attraction. I marvel at his accomplishments. Then I made a mistake. I got him the role in that 20th Century Fox picture [“The Dirty Dozen”] in England. They ran into foul weather over there and kept delaying production. He was supposed to come back to camp. He said he couldn’t leave until he finished the picture. I said I have to fine you $100 a day to keep our discipline going. That was big money, $100 a day. So it got him angry, and he called a press conference and announced his retirement, even though he promised he’d come back. I spoke to the producer to let him go and move the schedule around to accommodate his obligation to me. I moved too quickly on that one. He might have given me another year, or two years.”
Lo and behold, the Ravens finally make the playoffs and look who’s waiting for them their old nemesis, the Broncos. The Browns reached the playoffs five straight seasons, 1985 through 1989, but never got to the Super Bowl. (Modell’s teams have won just one title, in 1964, when Cleveland took the NFL championship.) The main reason was Denver and quarterback John Elway, who three times led the Broncos over the Browns in the AFC Championship game.
Times: “Is is strange to be facing Denver again in the playoffs?”
Modell: “Very. But I’ll take it.”