Ed Driscoll

Ten Years Gone (From Cleveland)

Don Banks of Sports Illustrated has an exceptional piece on that dark day ten years ago when Art Modell announced the Browns were leaving the football-obsessed town of Cleveland:

Ten years ago this week, the unthinkable happened in Cleveland, and Ozzie Newsome still can’t quite fathom it. In that sprawling football-crazed city of a half million, there was nowhere to hide from the blast of the bombshell news that Cleveland’s beloved Browns were moving to Baltimore.

It was an experience that Newsome wouldn’t wish on anyone. There was no escaping the story night or day. The specter of the franchise’s relocation to Baltimore — announced by team owner Art Modell on Nov. 6, 1995 — and the anger it engendered in Cleveland loomed over everything the Browns did in the second half of that season.

The team complex was picketed by jilted and angry fans almost daily, and it became a fortress of sorts for the bewildered Browns employees, who knew little more than the fans did about what came next and how the team had wound up in this position to begin with. Delivery men refused to even drop off soda and snacks and other vending supplies at the team complex anymore, and Newsome found himself hesitant to risk a trip to the grocery store, the gas station or the post office, lest he venture into a community that was nearly blind with rage.

“Moving the Cleveland Browns was just unheard of,” said Newsome — who was the Browns director of pro personnel and is now Baltimore’s vice president/general manager.

And what was it like to be the lightning rod head coach of a contending NFL team consigned to franchise purgatory at midseason, soon to lose both home and hope?

“It was terrible,” said New England’s Bill Belichick this week, in his first extensive comments on the tumultuous closing chapter of his five-year Browns coaching tenure. “To walk into that building every day and have everyone in the entire organization wondering what are we going to do?”

Belichick’s role in the Browns’ sad saga seems like a couple lifetimes ago, but he’s still struck by the chaos and uncertainty that reigned in those early days, and just how helpless it felt to be a Cleveland Brown in November 1995.

“There’s no situation I’ve been in, before or since, that even would remotely approach that one for negativity and affecting the overall focus of the team,” Belichick said. “Not within 100 miles. It touched every single person in the building, every secretary, every ball boy. I felt badly for everyone involved.”

With the Baltimore Ravens now in their 10th season, and the “new” Browns seven years into their expansion experience in Cleveland, time has dulled some of the intensity of the painful events surrounding the franchise’s shocking departure for Maryland.

But not for Belichick, who you’d have to say has landed on his feet with the Patriots. The long, strange trip that was the Browns’ ’95 season remains vivid in his memory, and it will always hold a singular place in his coaching career when it comes to the art of weathering the storm.

The Browns were 4-4 and tied for first place when news of the team’s relocation plans began seeping out. They went into a 1-7 death spiral at that point, ending the season 5-11 and finishing a game out of last place in the AFC Central. Belichick was fired over the phone by Modell on Valentine’s Day 1996, a conversation that lasted maybe three minutes, and didn’t surface as an NFL head coach again until 2000 in New England.

“The first few days were kind of a shock,” Belichick said. “Your wheels were spinning. Everybody was kind of dizzy. But after about a week, when there was nothing coming our way in the way of support (from ownership) or even factual information about what was ahead, you felt just like a flag on a pole. You were just blowing with the wind, with no control over which direction you went.”

If you’re a football fan–even if you’re not particularly a Browns fan yourself–read the rest; it’s a pretty classy piece of writing.