It was not the best of beginnings for the Cincinnati Bengals of the AFL. Playing their first exhibition game—and their first game ever—the Bengals looked pretty much the way most new franchise teams look, ragged and outmanned, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs 38-14. In brief, it was not a game to remember. What made the occasion noteworthy, however, was the presence on the sidelines of the Cincinnati coach, a small, slim man wearing a neat business suit, a straw hat and a grim expression familiar to anyone who followed the great Cleveland Brown teams of the '50s and early '60s. After an absence of five years, Paul Brown was back in pro football.
Brown (see cover) had not anticipated a miracle from his new team in its first game. "It was about what we expected," he said later. "We have no complaints." After Kansas City had marched for a touchdown in the first quarter, Cincinnati's Warren McVea made a good return of the ensuing kickoff, only to fumble. The Chiefs then ground out a second touchdown, thus consuming the rest of the first period. "That's the first time I can ever remember going a full quarter without the ball," Brown said after the game.
About the only moment of excitement for Bengal rooters among the 21,682 fans occurred in the second quarter when Defensive Back Sol Brannan scooped up a Kansas City fumble, hurdled one tackier, shook off another and went 75 yards for a touchdown to make the score a respectable 14-7. But after that it was all downhill. "I knew it had to be," said Brown, "but I was thinking all the time it might not be so bad."
Brown is part owner, coach, general manager and the absolute boss of the Bengals. The years he was away from football were years in purgatory, and he looks forward to coaching with all the enthusiasm he had when he began at Severn Prep, 38 years ago. And he is the same Paul Brown. Bengal practices have been indistinguishable in routine and atmosphere from the old Cleveland practices: only the names of the players and their skills have been changed. Brown is a master organizer, with each minute of each practice planned and timed. The fact that the Bengals, new and untried, cannot assimilate his instructions as quickly nor execute them as adroitly as the veteran Brown teams he once coached, does not disturb him. He feeds them football knowledge in smaller doses and then patiently goes over and over assignments with them."
August 11, 1968
"Patience with this club is an easy virtue," Brown was saying just a few days before the game with Kansas City. "There is no fierce pressure on you to win."
The coach, at 59, looks much the same as he did 10 years ago. He weighs 160, a weight he has kept for 30 years, and his face, tanned evenly, is unlined. When you first look at him, you are surprised by his eyes. They are big, almost luminous, and candidly direct. He looks like a forceful man. He is exactly that.
Psychologically, as well as physically, Brown seems unchanged. When he first assembled the college draftees and veteran rejects from other AFL clubs who make up his expansion team he made the same speech he used to make to the Cleveland Browns before each season, and, as usual, he invited the local press to sit in.
It is not a long speech, but it is notably direct. Brown tells the players what he expects of them, on and off the field, what sacrifices they will have to make to win and what penalties they may expect if they transgress his rules. The rules are reasonable and strict.
"The other day a writer came to camp to see me," Brown said. "He was from the East and I did not know him very well, but I could sense immediately what he was after. He had come to do a story on the 'new' Paul Brown. After a while I think he went away disappointed. There is no new Paul Brown. I see no reason why there should be. I think my record stands up well enough.
"You know, when my wife Katy and I were in La Jolla," he continued, "I was reading the paper one morning after George Allen had won eight games and lost six in his first season as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. The papers were full of praise, and they hailed him as a miracle man. He is a fine coach, a really good one, but I pointed out to my wife the irony of the situation: for almost exactly the same record in 1962 (7-6-1) I lost a job in Cleveland and nearly had to sneak out of town. I suppose it's all in what people are used to."
At Cleveland, of course, the people had been used to almost unbroken success. During his four years in the old All-America Conference and 13 seasons in the NFL, Brown's teams won 167 games, lost 53 and tied nine. In 11 of his 17 pro seasons, Brown's clubs played for a championship. They won seven.
The break in Cleveland came after a strong clash of personalities between Brown and Arthur Modell, the new owner. A small coterie of Cleveland Brown players, headed by All-Pro Fullback Jim Brown, indicated to Modell that they would not play another season under Paul Brown. Their reasons were rather vague: some accused Brown of having let modern pro football pass him by, others said he was cold and distant. In any case, Brown was out as coach.
The end of his connection with Cleveland came after the 1962 season; he never saw his old team play again until last year. Brown was in Canton, Ohio, being inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, and the Browns were playing the traditional game for the ceremony. He could not very well avoid seeing them then.
"Katy and I did all the things we have always wanted to do," Brown says of the intervening years. "We traveled. We played golf, bridge and gin rummy. The people in La Jolla were friendly. Sometimes during the season I'd go up to Los Angeles to see the Rams play, especially if they were playing a club I was interested in, like the Packers."
During his enforced vacation from football, Brown did not suffer for money. He still owned some 10% of the Browns and drew his salary on a long-term contract estimated at $80,000 a year. Actually, he was still working for the Browns; each year he would submit a list of players he recommended for the draft and, often as not, his suggestions were accepted.
He and Katy took trips to Europe, South America and the Orient. Brown, always a competent golfer, brought his scores down to the high 70s. "But after a while," he said, "it began to seem pointless." And after that, his whole life began to seem pointless.
"It was terrible," he said. "I had everything a man can want: leisure, enough money, a wonderful family. Yet, with all that, I was eating my heart out."
Brown seemed a lost man. At a Packer-Ram game a few years ago he came down from his seat in the stands and called to Vince Lombardi and a writer who were on the field before the game. He talked to them briefly, and then Lombardi had to leave to complete pregame preparations for his club. And the writer, seeing the hunger in Brown's eyes as he watched the players warm up, said, "Is it that bad?"
Brown is not an openly emotional man but for a moment his eyes were wet, and then he nodded. "I can't tell you how bad it is," he said. "I can't tell you."
Brown shook his head at the recollection. "I suppose if I had known that I would be sitting at this desk today, back in football, I might have enjoyed it. But I didn't know that. I still felt I had much to contribute, and for a long time it seemed as if I wasn't going to have the opportunity to do it. In one way, I guess, we were lucky, Katy and I. While we were still young enough to take advantage of the opportunity, we were given time and money enough to do everything we wanted to do. And I suffered through it for five years."
During that time, Brown had several offers to return to the NFL as a coach, but he turned them down. Almost every time a coaching vacancy occurred, Brown was mentioned as a possible replacement. Often, he had actually been approached.
"I couldn't go back unless I was in complete charge," he said, spreading his hands as if appealing for understanding. "I had had it both ways—when the Browns started—and for a long time after, I was in complete charge. The players knew that I was the only man they could appeal to. There was no one over my head that they could see. And that is the way it must be. If it is done any other way, in time you will see the whole structure begin to crumble, and all at once a good team will begin to slide. It is inevitable. The history of all successful teams shows authority concentrated in the coach."
Brown, of course, has all the authority he deems necessary with the Bengals. Although he does not own a majority of the stock, he, in effect, votes a majority.
"The players can't go beyond me," he says. "That's the way it should be."
With the Bengals—as with the Browns—the coach will devote all his time to football once the season starts. He will not lay a hand on a golf club or a dry martini from now until after the Bengals play their last season game. Judging from the way last Saturday's exhibition game went, a martini may tempt him grievously before this season is over.
Brown was not generously stocked by the other owners in the AFL. He does not complain, since he knows very well the facts of life in professional football; he knows well, also, that this will probably be the second losing season in his 17 years of pro coaching.
While he was sequestered in La Jolla, three new football teams were born—in New Orleans, Atlanta and Miami. The Saints, youngest of the trio, trained in San Diego last year, virtually in Brown's backyard, and he spent every afternoon he could watching their labor pains. By the time the Saints began working out in San Diego, he was almost certain that he would be back in pro football under terms he could live with.
"In the summer of 1965, Bill Hackett came to visit me," Brown said. Bill Hackett is Dr. William Hackett of London, Ohio, who played for Brown on the 1943 Ohio State football team. He is now on the board of directors of the Bengals. Brown's son Mike had made a study of the area around Cincinnati and had decided that it was, considering the concentration of population, potentially a much more attractive site for a new club than almost any other location in the country. "Bill and I talked it over and the next day he called me," Brown said. "He said he could not sleep thinking about the possibility of a pro club in Cincinnati. We decided then to see if we could get it off the ground."
With Brown's name as lure, it was not difficult to find backers. During the next two years, with his usual meticulous care, Brown screened possible assistant coaches, training sites, administrative assistants and even publicity directors. His Bengal staff represents the result of this careful selection.
The staff put together extensive offensive and defensive play books in preparing for the season, but the books were severely curtailed soon after camp opened. "We had a meeting and I said, 'Let's call time out,' " Brown said, and laughed. "We weren't coaching the Cleveland Browns with maybe two rookies a year breaking in. This was a team of rookies."
The Bengals are, indeed, a young club. Brown, unlike Tom Fears of the New Orleans Saints, did not opt for veterans, hoping for early success. Whenever there was a choice among the players made available to the Bengals by the other clubs in the expansion draft, he went for youth.
"The Saints wound up with veterans in 18 out of the 22 starting positions," he said. "They traded away draft choices for players like Jim Taylor; and they worked hard early. Tom Fears is a fine coach; and he did a remarkable job winning five exhibition games with a new club, but we're going to take it easier. We know this is a long haul, but we have time."
But Brown did trade two draft choices to the Miami Dolphins for Quarterback John Stofa. Stofa, before he was injured last year, had shown himself capable of handling a No. 1 quarterback's job. "You have to have the quarterback," Brown explained. "And then you have to have a top center." His first college draft choice was Bob Johnson. A 6'5", 250-pound center from Tennessee, who meets all of Brown's demands, Johnson was an All-America, an exceptionally fine student, a leader and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Then Brown brought 125 athletes to Wilmington and—in the first 10 days—weeded out 50. Unlike Fears, who had his hopefuls knocking heads on their second day in training camp, Brown did not scrimmage his team until after the 50 were gone.
"We tested them on the four things you can determine absolutely by testing," he explained. "Intelligence, pure speed, agility and ability to learn football. Those things, plus size, you can determine without scrimmage. We put all the players through our tests. The ones who were lacking were sent home. There is no point in scrimmaging a boy you know is not going to make your team. There is no need to bruise him and no need for you to waste time on him. I would rather concentrate my time on the players who will be with me during the season."
The players in camp are learning slowly and thoroughly, as did the old Browns. He gives the squad only two new plays a day—a running play in the morning, a passing play in the afternoon. "One school of thought is give them as many plays as you can as quickly as you can, then polish them," Brown says. "I'd rather go slow, make sure they can execute each play, then polish."
He started his training camp a week later than Fears did with the Saints. He had consulted Fears and talked on the phone to Norb Hecker, who coaches Atlanta, in trying to work out a schedule for his expansion team.
"Tom told me he thought he had started a week too early," Brown explained. "By the time the season was half over the players and coaches couldn't stand to look at each other."
The Bengals' daily routine is the same as the old Brown routine at Cleveland. Brown probably works his players less physically than any other coach in the business. He is the only man in pro football who gives his players Monday and Tuesday off after a Sunday game. "I'll do it with the Bengals, too," he said. "I want them fresh and alert." By the same token, he works his players mentally more than most coaches do, giving them written tests on assignments.
Sherrill Headrick, 31-year-old middle linebacker who came to the Bengals from the Kansas City Chiefs, finds the Brown regime a welcome one. "It's much better organized here," he said, resting on the sideline after a scrimmage. His face was streaming sweat and he thirstily gulped a lime drink. "I don't want to seem to be knocking the Chiefs, because they were good to me. But here you know just what you're going to do all the time, and I like that. There's no wasted motion."
He mopped his face with a towel and looked out on the field. "With the Chiefs, it was bang, bang, bang, right from the start," he said. "My legs would give out from under me. Here we don't go that hard. At Kansas City last year we won our first four exhibitions and ran out of gas before the season ended. Here we're getting ready for the ones that count."
Stofa, after the scrimmage had ended, was a happy young man. He is dark, tall and rangy, and he had passed well and stood up coolly under the blitzes the defense had thrown at him. On the last play of the scrimmage he had handed off to Tom Smiley, a big fullback from Lamar Tech, and the 235-pound Smiley had rumbled 40 yards for a touchdown. Stofa beamed and called out to Brown.
"If I had known you wanted to quit on a touchdown I'd have called it sooner," he said, grinning. "That was good today. Real good. The fellows didn't make any big mistakes out there and the offensive line was good. It sure felt fine."
Dewey Warren, the rookie quarterback from Tennessee, had looked good, too. He is a sturdy young man, not tall (6 feet) for a quarterback, but husky and courageous.
"He looks them in the eye," Paul Brown said later, relaxing with an orange drink in his conference room. "The players look for that. That's the first thing they notice."
Brown called the scrimmage to a halt after the touchdown. "They had gone about an hour," he said. "They ran about 45 plays. I wanted the offense to get a feeling of accomplishment. That's why we went over every play so carefully in the huddle."
Brown had called the plays and had movies taken of the scrimmage. He called the plays quietly, with the young faces around him intent and listening, then reminded key players what their assignments were. Once he told Smiley, "Look at the linebacker, Tom. Even before you sway, look to see if he's coming. You have to pick him up."
Smiley looked for the linebacker on the play, saw him coming and stood him straight up with a shattering block. He came back to the huddle with a broad grin splitting his face.
"Now, all of this is new to him," Brown explained, sipping his drink. "He didn't have to worry about blitzing linebackers in college. He got as big a kick out of picking up that linebacker as he did from the touchdown." He finished his orange drink and stretched.
"We're all teachers," he said. He held up a thick black notebook. "You have to be. When I came back I got a message from Luke Johnsos, one of the Chicago Bears' assistant coaches. He told a friend of mine, 'You tell Paul the offenses haven't changed much. His problem will be defense.' Well, he was right. The defenses are much more sophisticated—is that the word?—complex, complicated. Whatever you want to call it. This is our defensive book and it's almost as thick as the offensive book. And we've got a bunch of kids from all different systems, using different terminologies and numbering systems being taught by coaches from different systems. It creates some interesting problems."
Brown grinned and did not look at all dismayed by the problems.
"You know they used to ride me for sending in plays," he said. "I remember one year, we experimented with a mike in the quarterback's helmet so we could communicate with him. It didn't work. So we quit it after a couple of games. Then we went into New York and lost to the Giants, and all the writers had stories about how the Giants were intercepting our wave length. And we didn't even use the mikes.
"I'll still send in plays," he said. "The quarterback always has the right to change them. Otto Graham used to complain about my sending him plays but, now that he's a coach, he understands. And with defenses as well hidden as they are now, audibles are practically useless, anyway. Even a quarterback like Johnny Unitas says so. So I'll send in plays. I haven't changed."
He put on the black baseball cap with an orange CB on the front, feeling his head as he did.
"Maybe not as much hair," he said. "That's about all. As I said, I feel like I haven't been away. I came back because this is my life, this is what gives me pleasure. I wouldn't have come back if it wasn't fun. I'm going to have fun. I like this. You can see how interesting and stimulating it is. The problems. It keeps you alive."
Brown looked around the small room and drew a deep breath as if he were smelling the perfume of football life. "Once, during the five years when we were traveling everywhere, Katy and I were taking off from Hong Kong," he said, reflectively. "Just as we got up, Katy looked out the window and said, 'We're on fire!' The whole wing was burning, and it looked pretty bad. Some of the passengers put on their life vests and inflated them, because we were over water, and Katy and I decided what we would do and got ready to say goodby. The captain came on the intercom and said he was going to bank to keep the burning wing high so the flames would keep away from the fuselage. It was pretty tense for a long time, until he finally put it back down on the runway and we got out."
Brown looked out at the peaceful campus cooling off under a setting sun. "I said to myself, 'Old Paul, it looks like you're going to get another chance,' " he said. "And I am."