Paul Eugene Brown (September 7, 1908 - August 5, 1991) was a coach in American football and a major figure in the development of the National Football League. A seminal figure in football history, Brown is considered the "father of the modern offense," with many claiming that he ranks as one of if not the greatest of football coaches in history. Such claims are backed by significant evidence: Brown dominated as a gridiron general on every major level -- high school, college, and professional.
Born in Norwalk, Ohio, Brown's family moved to Massillon when he was nine. His father Lester, a dispatcher for the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad, was described as "very meticulous, serious-minded and highly-disciplined," all of which characterized Brown's later approach to coaching. Brown graduated from Washington High School in Massillon, Ohio in 1925, having played varsity quarterback in the wake of Harry Stuhldreher (one of Notre Dame's legendary Four Horsemen).
Enrolling at Ohio State University as a freshman quarterback, Brown (also known as Bruno/Pot) found his 145-pound frame would not stand the rigors of major college football, and transferred to Miami University in Ohio, losing a year of eligibility in the process. Under Coach Chester Pittser, Brown played two years and was named to the All-Ohio small college second team by the AP at the end of the 1928 season. In 1930, he graduated from Miami with a B.A. in Education. He would complete his academic career in 1940 when he received an M.A. in Education from Ohio State University.
As his academic credentials indicate, Brown was as much a teacher as he was a coach. He qualified for a Rhodes Scholarship in 1930, but he had married Katie Kester, his "high school sweetheart", in 1929 and with the coming of the Great Depression, he needed employment. His coaching career began in 1930 when he was hired as a teacher/coach at Severn School, in Severna Park, Maryland, at the time a Naval Academy prep school.
Tasting success with a 16-1-1 mark in two seasons at Severn, Brown gave up a brief attempt at law school in 1932 to become at age 23 the head football coach of his hometown Massillon Washington High School Tigers. In his nine years at Massillon Brown posted an 80-8-2 record which included a 35-game winning streak. After his first three years, he had improved the fortunes of the Tigers, but still had been unable to defeat the team's bitter rival, Canton McKinley High School, losing all three meetings by at least fifteen points per game.
Brown not only ended that frustrating losing streak, but also won the next six games with McKinley, and an overall total of 58 of the next 60 contests, tying one, and was voted to six straight Ohio poll high school football championships. (1935 through 1940) for Massillon. The Tigers outscored their opposition 2,393 to 168 during those six years. The 1940 team outscored its opponents 477 to 6, with the lone score against them made by Canton McKinley. During this period, Brown's achievements also helped build a new stadium for the high school that seated 20,000 people, and drew crowds that surpassed every football program in Ohio except Ohio State University.
Brown had achieved this success by implementing a system at Massillon based on techniques developed by Dr. John B. "Jock" Sutherland, head coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Sutherland had played professional football for the pioneer Massillon Tigers club when Brown was a boy and had gone on to success as a coach. Brown planned every phase of his program, detailing practice schedules, assigning assistant coaches (which he dubbed "position coaches") specific duties, and installing his entire system in Massillon's junior high schools so that players would already know his system when they reached high school.
With avid support from influential groups including the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association and future Purdue University head coach Jack Mollenkopf of Toledo Waite High School, Brown moved into the college ranks by becoming head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes on January 14, 1941. Under Brown, the Buckeyes went 18-8-1 (1941-43). Brown's players were known for speed, intelligence, and contact; his teams for execution and fundamentals; and he was dubbed "Precision Paul" at Ohio State.
In his first season at Ohio State Brown went 6-1-1, losing to Northwestern University and their running back Otto Graham (Who would go on to become his quarterback for the Browns for 10 seasons, reaching the championship game every season and winning 7 of them), and tying Michigan. The Buckeyes tied for second place in the Western Conference, finished 13th in the AP poll, and Brown was voted fourth place on balloting for National Coach of the Year behind Frank Leahy, Bernie Bierman, and Earl Blaik.
The following year, despite losing 18 lettermen to graduation and to military service in World War II, Brown led the Buckeyes to the university's first National championship, using a team of 3 seniors, 16 juniors, and 24 sophomores. Among his players were senior Les Horvath and four former Massillon players, two of whom (Lin Houston and Tommy James) would play for the Cleveland Browns. The only loss in 1942 was on the road to Wisconsin in a game that came to be known as the "Bad-Water Game," because most of the team came down with dysentery from unsanitary water during their travel to Madison by railroad.
Brown had recruited what was reputedly the finest freshman team in Ohio history in 1942 but lost virtually all of them to military service. In 1943 Ohio State was handicapped when the school affiliated itself with the U.S. Army's ASTP officer training, which did not allow its trainees to participate in varsity sports, while schools such as Michigan and Purdue became part of the Navy's V-12 program, which did. Although the Big Ten promulgated a special wartime exemption in 1943 allowing freshmen to play varsity football, Ohio State found itself in competition against older and larger teams (both military and college) featuring players such as Elroy Hirsch. The 1943 "Baby Bucks" had only five returning players and one starter from the national champion team, six from the 1942 freshman team, and 33 17-year-old freshmen, going 3-6.
After Brown was re-classified 1-A in February 1944, he was commissioned April 12, 1944, as a lieutenant (junior grade) in the United States Navy. He served at the Great Lakes Naval Station as head coach of its Bluejacket football team, which competed against other service teams and college programs, putting together a mark of 15-5-2 during the final two years of World War II. One of those five losses was to Ohio State on October 9, 1944.
After the war, despite still being Ohio State's head coach in absentia, Brown chose instead to go to Cleveland as part-owner, vice president, general manager and head coach for Arthur B "Mickey" McBride's entry in the upstart All-America Football Conference. He signed his contract February 8, 1945, while still in the Navy. A name-the-team poll taken in the Cleveland Plain Dealer initially yielded the nickname "Panthers." However, Brown found out that the "Panthers" name had previously belonged to a semipro team in Cleveland with a long history of losing. At his suggestion, the team sponsored another name-the-team contest which resulted in the name "Brown Bombers," after heavyweight champion Joe Louis. The name was quickly shortened to "Browns," which led to speculation that the team was named after Paul Brown himself--a myth which persists to this day.
Until 1951 Brown retained an interest in coaching the Buckeyes. Despite his success as a professional head coach, he let it be known following the resignation of Wes Fesler that he would entertain an offer to return to Ohio State, and he received an immediate show of strong support from many of the same organizations and people who had supported him in 1940. However Brown had also alienated many of his supporters within the Buckeye alumni ranks for failing to return to the coaching position reserved for him at the end of World War II, and within the athletics department by signing Buckeye players, Lou Groza chief among them, to professional contracts before their college eligibility had ended. Brown strenuously denied breaking any rules, claiming that the Browns were allowed to sign those players because they had all completed World War II military service and their college classes had already graduated, as allowed by the rules then in place. Although he interviewed with the university's athletic board on January 27, 1951, with tumultuous campus support, the board unanimously rejected Brown in favor of Woody Hayes, who was unanimously endorsed by the board of trustees.
While the AAFC lasted only four seasons, the Browns served as the gold standard for the league, winning all four championships and losing only four games during the league's four-year existence.
Brown put together the most extensive player recruitment network that had ever been seen in pro football at the time. The great majority of the early Browns teams came from Massillon, Ohio State and Great Lakes. One key move came when he tapped Otto Graham, a single-wing tailback during his days at Northwestern University, as his quarterback, providing the team with a signal caller who would lead the team to the league title game in each of his 10 seasons. In addition, Brown ignored the gentlemen's agreement that barred African-American players from the league, adding future Pro Football Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis.
Following the merger between the NFL and AAFC, the Browns, along with the San Francisco 49ers and the first Baltimore Colts franchise, moved to the NFL in 1950. Critics had predicted that the overall weakness of the AAFC would expose the Browns. However, in their very first official NFL game, the Browns dismantled the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Eagles 35-10, putting up 487 yards of total offense, 346 of them in the air. They won the NFL Championship in their first year, defeating the Rams in the title game on December 24 on a last-minute field goal by Lou Groza. The Browns went on to appear in the next five title games, winning back-to-back titles in 1954 and 1955.
Brown was a great innovator during his time in Cleveland. He was the first to use intelligence tests to judge players, establish a game film library, instruct players in a classroom setting, use a radio transmitter to communicate with players on the field, and install face masks on helmets. Another innovation was the use of "messenger guards" to relay plays from the sidelines after the radio proved problematic due to the technology then available. The offense directed by Graham was the predecessor of the West Coast offense made famous by Bill Walsh, a protégé of Brown.
He was also a person known for his stubborn approach to criticism. In 1950, Eagles head coach Greasy Neale dismissed the Browns' shredding of his Eagles' vaunted defense in the season opener by saying, "All they do is pass the ball." In the team's subsequent meeting a few months later, the Browns set an NFL record that still stands by attempting no passes in a 13-7 win over the Eagles.
By 1959, Brown was respected enough in the NFL that efforts were made to draft him for the league's commissionership, which was vacant following the death of Bert Bell. Brown declined, and Pete Rozelle was eventually chosen.
Brown was terminated as coach on January 9, 1963 by majority owner, Art Modell, who had purchased the club in 1961. Controversy developed over the timing of the decision, coming in the midst of a local newspaper strike, which limited discussion of the move. Cleveland sportswriter Frank Gibbons said the firing was "Like toppling the Terminal Tower", which was then Cleveland's tallest building.
Modell and Brown were at odds from the start. Shortly after Modell took over the club, Brown made a trade with the Washington Redskins in December 1961 without Modell's knowledge. Brown's deal secured the rights to 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, star running back from Syracuse University. However, the trade marked the beginning of the end of Brown's Cleveland career. Davis was diagnosed with leukemia during his first training camp in 1962. The feud between Brown and Modell was exacerbated when Brown chose not to play Davis, despite assurances from doctors that Davis could withstand the physical demands of NFL action. Modell, conversely, saw no harm in playing Davis. Ultimately, the relationship between coach and owner was never repaired, and Ernie Davis never played in a professional game, dying of the disease on May 18, 1963.
In exile after more than 30 years of coaching, Brown spent the next five years away from the sidelines, never once attending a Browns' contest. While he was secure financially, receiving his paycheck from the Browns for the duration of the final five years his contract, as well as retaining approximately six percent of the team, Brown's frustration grew with each passing year. He later recalled, "It was terrible. I had everything a man could want: leisure, enough money, a wonderful family. Yet with all that, I was eating my heart out." Because Brown was still receiving his annual salary and liked to golf, it was said (in jest) that the only two people who made more money at golf than he did were Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Just months after his dismissal, Brown was rumored to be part of an ownership group to buy the Philadelphia Eagles, but no deal was ever officially signed. In May 1966, Brown sold his stake in the Browns and traveled with Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes to make a presentation on behalf of Cincinnati for an American Football League franchise.
On September 26, 1967, Brown officially returned to football as principal owner, general manager, and coach of the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL's rival American Football League. The team would join the NFL with the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. He would coach the team for eight seasons, leading the team to three playoff berths, including one in the team's third year of operation in 1970. In each of those seasons, as well as a number of preseason clashes, Browns' Bengals took on his former Browns team, reigniting the bitter rivalry between Brown and Modell. Brown was criticized for failing to shake Browns' coach Collier's hand after the first Browns/Bengals games in 1970.
Brown stepped down as coach on January 1, 1976, but remained as team president. Under him, the Bengals made two trips to the Super Bowl, losing both games to Bill Walsh 's San Francisco 49ers. Following his death in 1991 of complications from pneumonia Brown was succeeded by his son Mike as Bengals' team president.
Ironically, Walsh, who was a Cincinnati Bengals assistant for seven seasons under Brown, was passed over in favor of Bill "Tiger" Johnson when Brown retired in 1975. In a 2006 interview , Walsh claimed that during his tenure with the Bengals, Brown "worked against my candidacy" to be a head coach anywhere in the league. "All the way through I had opportunities, and I never knew about them," Walsh said. "And then when I left him, he called whoever he thought was necessary to keep me out of the NFL." Michael Lewis confirmed Walsh's argument (cf. "The Blind Side," pp. 96-7, W.W. Norton, 2006): "Brown had several times refused other NFL teams permission to interview Walsh for their head coaching jobs, without bothering to mention their interest to Walsh. Instead Brown had told Walsh that he didn't think he'd ever make a good NFL head coach."
Brown was honored in 1967 by his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In addition to that accolade, two stadiums bear his name: Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon Ohio, and Paul Brown Stadium, current home of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Brown's first wife, Kathryn "Katie" Brown, died in 1969 and in 1973 he married his former secretary, Mary Rightsell. He died in Cincinnati on August 5, 1991, and is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Massillon, Ohio.
The following coaches either coached under or played for Paul Brown and were influenced at least to some degree by him and his football knowledge and offensive system: