Paul Brown, Revisited


The Cincinnati Bengals are often criticized as a cheap, mom ‘n’ pop operation run by an owner whose sole qualification for the job is his last name. There’s more than an ounce of truth in that, but Andrew O’Toole’s new biography, Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football’s Most Innovative Coach, makes it clear that the current owner wasn’t the first Brown to pinch pennies, muck up contract negotiations, and complain incessantly about the changing nature of the business, all while fielding a mediocre team. These days, this has been obscured by the passing of time and the justifiable burnishing of Paul Brown’s legend, but in tracing Brown’s career O’Toole makes it clear that where the Bengals are now…is pretty much the same place they’ve always been.

As a biography of Paul Brown, The Person, Rise fails, primarily because it tells us little about what made Paul Brown tick. The first chapter of the 440-page tome, “Paulie Boy,” rushes the reader through not just Brown’s childhood, but also his high school, college and early coaching years in a scant 15 pages. Oh, and he gets married in there, too, but don’t blink or you may miss those three paragraphs. We get hints of what made the man: his meticulousness is credited to his father, a railroad dispatcher; his competitive instinct to his mother and her love of board games. And his marriage: Brown had met his future wife Katy in high school, but she went on to nursing school in Cleveland while Brown attended first Ohio State in Columbus and then Miami in Oxford. In Brown’s junior year, the two would marry — but secretly, as both their schools forbade marriage before graduation.

But these brief glimpses at the man behind the legend serve only to (barely) prevent the opening chapter from descending into caricature. Brown is portrayed as being all but born with a football in his hands. In Rise, the young Paul Brown isn’t simply obsessed with the sport, he’s painted as practically pathological about football, to the point of hanging around the local fire station for the sole purpose of mooning over pictures of football players hanging on its walls. And the bit about how his high school coach would often come by, pick the teenaged Brown up and take him for car rides around the county while discussing “football and game strategy” is downright creepy.

However, as a biography of Paul Brown, The Football Coach, Rise is worth its $24 cover price, chronicling Brown’s exploits in Massillon, Ohio, then at OSU and in the Navy, and finally his years in the pros in Cleveland and Cincinnati. As in the first chapter, events “off the field” occasionally intrude and threaten to give a wider insight into Brown — examples include Brown’s insistence on turning down a deferment during WWII and how he ran his cocktail parties like his practices — but each time O’Toole quickly and firmly redirects the narrative back to football.

In similar vein, while Rise claims to be about “football’s most innovative coach,” it doesn’t talk much about those innovations. Many are peppered throughout the book, such as his introduction of playbooks as coach of the Massillon Tigers, but O’Toole is oddly reluctant to connect Brown’s innovations with his success on the field. Probably the most sustained effort to do so comes at the beginning of chapter seven. Here, we find Paul Brown as the newly named head coach of the new Cleveland Browns, explaining his methods to the city’s sportswriters. Classroom work, IQ tests, the 40 instead of 100-yard dash as a benchmark, the 90 minute practice, film study, were all among the innovations Brown was bringing to the club and which would quickly propel the start-up squad to, and keep it on, the pinnacle of the All-American Football Conference.

But readers looking for an explanation of exactly how Brown’s approach differed from the standards of the day, and precisely why they worked so well will be disappointed. And those in search of any mention of what was arguably Brown’s (and Bill Walsh’s) biggest innovation — the short-pass, ball-control offense that would later be known as the West Coast Offense — won’t find much more than a few sentences about how it inverted the conventional run-first mentality.

So, if Rise doesn’t provide a great deal of insight into the “real” Paul Brown or much discussion of his many innovations to the game, what does it do? One answer is: it tells the story of the evolution of football, and the rise of the National Football League, as experienced by Paul Brown. And in this, O’Toole does an excellent job of capturing snapshots of a sport growing in complexity and popularity — and growing increasingly away from the game that Paul Brown loved.

It’s also a story about Paul Brown, control freak. Rise makes it crystal clear that what Brown thought on the subject of how a team ought to be coached and managed depended on one thing: what role Brown himself had. Because whatever it was, that was the guy who was supposed to be running the show.

When Brown was a high school quarterback, he routinely ignored the plays called by his coach and instead ran what he wanted to run. However, once he became coach, any such freelancing could be cause for dismissal from the team. Even in the pros, his teams feared his postgame verbal wrath so much they rarely deviated from the instructions brought in by Brown’s “messenger guards.”

As a coach, Brown demanded total authority, up to and including the ability to spend ownership’s money without so much as a by-your-leave. As an owner, Brown didn’t hesitate to cross his coaches or to refuse their requests for money to sign players or assistants.

And finally, Rise is at its heart, a tragedy. From a very early point in his life on, Paul Brown’s best days as a coach — and perhaps, the best days of football — were behind him. In many ways, it would never get any better for Brown than it was in the 1930s, when he was the Mayor of Tiger Town, and his Massillon team dominated high school football both in Ohio and throughout the country. There would be other, increasingly larger stages: the Buckeyes, the Browns and, finally, the Bengals. But with each of those steps up, the game changed in ways that went against Brown’s ideals, particularly in the pros.

And that is why the Cincinnati Bengals are what they are, because the team Paul Brown brought to the Queen City in 1968 was founded on, and remains rooted in, principles that even then were rapidly becoming outdated. For example, when Brown returned to the game with the Bengals, he flatly refused to deal with player agents, a species that had appeared on the scene since he was let go in Cleveland. “I’ve never dealt with an agent and I never will,” Brown said. “If a boy insists on having an agent in on the talks, we simply wish him well and send him on his way.” He held to that position even after talks between the NFL and the Player’s Association enshrined the right to an agent in a collective bargaining agreement.

O’Toole points out that the Bengals always operated on a shoestring. At first, this was understandable since the league denied the Bengals any TV revenues for the first two years of the teams’ existence. This was the initial impetus for using coaches to double as scouts in Cincinnati. Personnel director Al LoCasale had been promised three full-time scouts. He got Mike’s brother, Pete. Brown was quick to complain any time players or the Association wanted more money, decrying demands that the league increase its contribution to the players’ pension fund as selfish and, shortly after the league negotiated a new $188 million TV contract, dismissed calls for a $12 per diem in training camp as a “tax dodge.”

Like his son after him, Paul Brown ignored his own advice about a coach needing complete control. The words of his first head coach, Bill “Tiger” Johnson, regarding Brown’s role in the 1977 draft were little different from Marvin Lewis’ recent comments about the Bengals re-signing Chris Henry: “We sit down and we discuss things and the final decision is made by Paul.” Forrest Gregg, who took the Bengals to their first Super Bowl, reported having a good working relationship with Brown and often asked his advice on a range of issues, but also clashed with Brown over his refusal to spend money as well as his firing, over Gregg’s objections, of offensive coordinator Lindy Infante. Infante had angered Brown by signing a contract to coach the USFL’s Jacksonville Bulls after his deal in Cincinnati expired. He pushed his own practice routine on the more laid-back Sam Wyche. Wyche also ended up paying for a team-wide YMCA membership — the Y had better weight room facilities than the Bengals — after Brown refused to pay.

And finally, for Paul as for Mike, loyalty was everything. Players that mouthed off in the press or, worse, did things like sign a futures contract with a USFL team, could expect retribution. Even former players like Bob Trumpy, who blasted Brown on his radio show, found themselves blackballed by the club. The idea of free agency was anathema to Brown because of this, though late in life he acknowledged it would eventually arrive, and allowed that the game would survive.

And so it has, after a fashion. I have to think Brown would be appalled (no pun intended!) at the game today. He’d still love the game itself. There would be no changing that. But the diva players and head cases and guns-for-hire, the clubs strictly circumscribed as to discipline, the all-powerful Player’s Union and the continuing issue of the next CBA…well, one might think that, looking upon all this, Paul Brown would have just one comment.

Told you so.