Although he died in 1991 and stopped coaching following the 1975 season, Paul Brown's influence can still be seen all over football.
When Sam Rutigliano was hired as the coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1978, the first thing he did was go to a store in downtown Cleveland and buy a camel hair coat.
The reason? When he was growing up in Brooklyn, he used to go to New York Giants games against the Browns and Paul Brown always wore a camel hair coat.
“I didn’t tell (Browns owner) Art Modell,” Rutigliano said in a recent phone conversation. “I would have got fired.
“Art Modell went to his grave never knowing what I did.”
That’s the kind of sway Brown held — and still holds — over coaches. Although he died in 1991 and stopped coaching following the 1975 season, Brown’s influence on football can still be seen in everything from equipment (he invented the face mask) to film study (he was the first coach to use it to scout opponents) to playbooks (which he invented as a high school coach in Massillon) to diversity (breaking the NFL’s modern color barrier in 1946 when he signed Canton’s Marion Motley and Ohio State’s Bill Willis) to countless other innovations.
“Everything that he did as a coach, 50 years later, everybody is still basically doing the same thing,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in the recent NFL Network documentary “Paul Brown: A Football Life.” “I really think of him as the father of professional football.”
And it all started in the birthplace of professional football.
Although Brown was born in Newark, Ohio, he moved to Massillon at age 9 and became part of the school’s already storied tradition, going 15-3 as the Tigers’ starting quarterback in 1923-1924.
After playing college football at Miami (Ohio), he spent two years coaching at a Maryland prep school (winning a state title in 1930), then was hired as Massillon’s head coach in 1932 at age 24. He turned out to be a pretty decent coach, if you’re the type of person impressed by an 80-8-2 record, a 35-game winning streak, six state titles and three national titles.
Oh, and there’s this: From 1935-40, Massillon outscored its opponents 2,393 to 168.
Ohio State hired him away in 1941 and Brown won the Buckeyes’ first national title the following year. He left OSU in 1944 to become a lieutenant in the Navy, spent two years coaching the Great Lakes Bluejackets (which played other service teams and college football teams) and, in 1946, became the coach of the Cleveland Browns, a newly-formed All-America Football Conference team named after him.
During the next 10 years, his Browns played in 10 straight league championship games (the first four in the AAFC, then next six in the NFL) and won seven.
He became the first coach to win titles at the NCAA and NFL levels — Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Pete Carroll have since done it — and the only one of those four to also win a state high school title.
“When you look at a word like ‘icon,’ he is THE icon,” said Rutigliano, who, as a high school coach in New York, used to get the notes from Brown’s coaching clinics in Massillon from another coach because he couldn’t afford to attend. “You look at what he accomplished at Massillon High School, then at Ohio State, then with the Cleveland Browns, then the Cincinnati Bengals. Paul Brown changed the face of the NFL.
“I grew up in the same (Brooklyn) neighborhood as (former Penn State coach) Joe Paterno and (former Packers coach) Vince Lombardi. Those guys were great. But nobody is Paul Brown.”
Massillon, of course, had plenty of success after Brown, winning 15 more state titles and five more national titles between 1940-1970. But while the Tigers have had famous coaches since then — Chuck Mather (who later coached at Kansas), Lee Tressel (whose son, Jim, won national titles at Youngstown State and OSU), Earle Bruce (who later coached at OSU) and Bob Commings (who went direct to Iowa from Tigertown) to name four — none of them looms as large as Brown, literally (his face is atop the scoreboard in the high school stadium that bears his name) or figuratively.
“It’s humbling to know that maybe the greatest football mind ever, maybe the person who’s done the most for the game of football ever, was the coach here, played here and this was his home,” said Massillon coach Nate Moore, who went 4-6 in his first season coaching the Tigers after winning a state title at Cincinnati La Salle in 2014. “When you look back at everything that’s happened since he left, all the success through the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, you can’t talk about it and not think about Paul Brown.
“I look at it as an honor and a duty to add to the tradition that he started here.”
Brown died Aug. 5, 1991, at age 82. He has been in the Pro Football Hall of Fame since 1967. His name has adorned the Cincinnati Bengals stadium since 2000. Massillon unveiled a statue of Brown outside its stadium in 2012 and there has been talk of adding a Brown statue outside of Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium.
If you formed a “Mount Rushmore” of NFL coaches, Brown would be on it.
“Check the record. Then you tell me who’s the greatest coach of all time,” said former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth, speaking in the NFL Network documentary. “I don’t think we’ll see anybody have that great an impact. They’re not ‘The Green Bay Lombardis,’ as great as he (Lombardi) was.”
Of course, considering the Browns’ record since returning to the NFL in 1999, maybe Brown would rather they were named something else.
Since 1999, the Browns have had eight permanent head coaches. From 1946-1995, the Browns had eight permanent head coaches. Rutigliano was the fifth.
Quite a change for a franchise Rutigliano liked to call “the flagship of the fleet.”
“When I got fired, Paul Brown called me and said, ‘Art (Modell) said the same thing to you that he said to me,’ ” said Rutigliano, who is best known for leading the “Kardiac Kids” to the AFC Central title in 1980. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Can you imagine comparing himself to me?”
Then, with a laugh, Rutigliano added, “I love talking about Paul Brown. I could talk to you all night.”
Reach Joe at 330-580-8573 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @jscalzoREP