Sunday, June 13, 1999

Browns chase away the blues


Return of football completes Cleveland's big comeback

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[clock]
A clock in the Tower Center in downtown Cleveland counts down the days to the Browns' first game.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        CLEVELAND — Yes, this city on Lake Erie has experienced a renaissance.

        Yes, the gloom and despair of the 1970s are long gone, replaced by a vibrant downtown with gleaming office towers looming over the lakefront. There's a championship baseball team playing in a 14-carat diamond called Jacobs Field. There's a glimmering lakefront mecca for rock 'n' roll fans to come worship Elvis and the Stones. Yes, the smell of success is everywhere.

        But the picture has never been complete since the Browns football team left town. Cleveland's heart was beating, but it had lost its soul.

        For football fans, the rebirth of the Browns this year has generated an intense level of excitement, one that runs on a parallel track with the Indians' winning season at Jacobs Field, where every ticket for every game this season was sold months ago.

[stadium]
New 72,000-seat stadium will open in August.
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        Some of those fans followed their team into Cinergy Field for a three-game series against the Reds, which concludes today.

        But it's the imminent return of football that has captured the attention of Cleveland sports fans this year.

        It was four years ago when the owner of Cleveland's 50-year-old NFL franchise, Art Modell — true Clevelanders spit on the ground at the mention of the name — took the team from its home on Lake Erie to Baltimore, where Mr. Modell was offered a better deal. (Translation: more money.)Cleveland's beloved Browns became the Ravens and the town has not been the same since.

        But, when Mr. Modell and company left town in the dead of night, the NFL promised Cleveland a new football team, in the form of an expansion franchise or the transfer of some other city's team.

        As it turned out, it was an expansion team, and, as the “Browns countdown clock” in downtown Cleveland's Tower City mall says, the official return of the Browns is only 71 days away.

        “Of course, we missed it,” said barber Mike Ferek, snipping hair in his two-chair barber shop in Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood one day this week. “The Browns were Cleveland. It's not been the same without them.”

        Not the same at all. Not the same, especially on Sunday afternoons in the fall, when 80,000 or so of the faithful would gather in the city's old Municipal Stadium, with a bone-numbing 40-mph wind pounding in off the lake, to scream and shout for their Brownies.

        Municipal Stadium — once the home of both the Browns and Indians, invariably described by sportswriters as “cavernous” — is gone, replaced by a new 72,000-seat stadium that will open in August when the new Browns play the Dallas Cowboys in the annual Hall of Fame game.

        It will be the debut of a brand new team with a brand new owner — Al Lerner, chairman of Cleveland's MBNA Corp. — in a brand new stadium.

        “It will be the finest facility in the NFL, bar none,” said Carmen Policy, the president and chief executive officer of the new Browns.

        Mr. Policy, a Youngstown native, spent eight years as president of the San Francisco 49ers. He wears his resume as a builder of winning football teams on the ring finger of his left hand — the last of four Super Bowl rings he won with the 49ers, a huge nine-diamond piece of hardware that glimmers in the sunlight streaming in his office window at the Browns' training complex in suburban Berea.

        “There's our guy, Tim Couch,” Mr. Policy said as he looked out the picture window of the office to the Browns' practice field.

        On the field, Mr. Couch, the former University of Kentucky quarterback who was the Browns' first draft pick, tossed passes to receivers running downfield.

        “Great kid,” Mr. Policy said, watching his prize quarterback carefully as he threw. He paused and added: “Held on to that one a little long.”

        The expansion Browns have a history that goes back to 1946, when Paul Brown created the team that bore his name in the old blood-and-guts days of the NFL. It flourished for decades, from Otto Graham to Jim Brown to Bernie Kosar, until Art Modell took them away.

        “This team starts out with an identity,” Mr. Policy said. “You don't have to go deal with a bunch of marketing gurus to pick out the right team colors and uniforms. Everybody knows what the Browns are supposed to look like.”

        In Mike Ferek's barber shop, mention of the Browns always starts a conversation.

        “I remember the old days, back when Paul Brown was here,” said 72-year-old Bob Hayzaik, as he waited for a trim. “That was football. Once Paul Brown left, I wasn't interested any more. But this new team, this is good for the city.”

        Mark Wells, a 30-year-old Slavic Village resident, said that in the last few years before the Browns left, “they weren't that good. They didn't seem to care anymore. Everybody seemed to know they'd be gone.”

        By that time, Mr. Wells had already dropped his Browns season tickets. But, he said, as he had his hair cut by barber Ted Praskavich, “I'm glad they're back. Lot of people think they'll be terrible; they won't win more than five or six games, but I think this team could go .500 or better.”

        There are others who are not only fans but entrepreneurs, seeing the return of pro football as a good way to make a buck.

        Jeff Wade and Dave Davidson live in Lake County, just east of Cleveland. A year ago, after it was announced the Browns would return, the two sports fans and businessmen opened a store in a suburban shopping mall called “Football Town Again,” where they sell Browns and Indians merchandise, most of it licensed by the franchises.

        In April, they opened a second store in the Tower City Mall downtown, next to the Ritz Carlton hotel.

        “It has been huge,” Mr. Wade said.

       



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