Friday, December 10, 1999

Mike Brown's game planned by dad's past

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When it comes to running his football team, it looks like Mike Brown is never going to change.

        Mike Brown's game plan is all about control. Not because he's pig-headed. Not because he's cheap. But because of what happened 36 years ago to his dad.

        Paul Brown was a legendary coach and founder of two football teams, the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals. He lost control of the Browns in 1963 after an outsider bought controlling interest and fired him. It was more than a job: Paul Brown lost the family business.

        Mike Brown was 27 when his father was sacked. He idolized his dad and followed in his giant footsteps. What Mike Brown saw was his father lose control of the family business. He has never forgotten the humiliation his proud father suffered.

        Paul Brown had reason to be proud. He was an innovator, a man of ideas. He invented face masks and was the first to study films of his teams in action. As a coach and owner, he revolutionized the sport and helped build the National Football League. He won seven championships with the Browns and compiled a record of 167 victories and only 54 losses. His career accomplishments put him in the Hall of Fame. But when he was fired, the contents of his office were put in a cardboard box and dumped on his front porch.

        Mike Brown may be at the low point of his popularity in Cincinnati, reviled by football fans wearing grocery bag masks and vicious radio talk-show blabbers. But none of that comes close to hurting as much as the memory of what his father endured.

        A life-long student of history with a degree from Harvard Law School, Mike Brown lives by a line written by another Harvard man, philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

        Mike Brown is the Bengals' principal owner, president and general manager, so history can't repeat itself.

        Any attack on his leadership puts him into his goal-line stance. He digs in to resist changes in his control of the team and its business. That means not bringing in a hard-charging Jim Bowden-style general manager. That means not giving an inch in stadium negotiations.

        For many years the game plan worked. But as we've witnessed this season and for the past 10 years, it has cost him dearly.

        The Bengals are a laughingstock. They have the worst record of any NFL team in the '90s, losing 106 games in the past 10 years. Paul Brown coached for 41 seasons. All of his teams — from high school through the pros — only lost 135.

        Despite the Bengals' lousy record, Mike Brown still runs the team as is: No outsider in a position of true power. No changes in management style. Family control.

        Mike Brown is a modest man. He's not about money or power. He's about family. Push him and in some way he perceives a threat to the family. And he won't let what happened to his father happen again.

        In two days, the Bengals will play what is likely to be their last game at Cinergy Field, a game against the newly reconstituted Browns, the team that still bears his father's name. Watching from his box, Mike Brown will see both his past and the future.

        The Browns' orange, white and brown uniforms are the colors of the team his father founded and lost. Out of the corner of his eye he will likely catch a glimpse of the girders atop the new Paul Brown Stadium.

        Looking back and looking ahead, Mike Brown would do well to recall how his father took his teams up and down the field. They didn't just hold the line. They moved the ball and took risks with innovative plays.

        Mike Brown should consider adopting his father's style as much as he defends his legacy. Hire an idea man to be general manger. Give him enough control to turn the team around. Try some new things. Adapt. Change as a way to win.

        I think that's what Paul Brown would do.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.