Art Modell

  • Born: June 23, 1925
  • Died: September 6, 2012
  • Location: Baltimore, Maryland

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This Dec. 28, 1998 file photo shows Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell listening to a reporters question during a news conference at the Ravens training facility in Owings Mills, Md. Former Ravens owner Modell has died. He was 87. The team said Modell died of natural causes early Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had been admitted Wednesday. (AP Photo/John Gillis, File)

Former Ravens owner dies at 87

DAVID GINSBURG, The Associated Press

BALTIMORE (AP) — Former Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell died early Thursday, the longtime NFL stalwart who incurred the wrath of Cleveland fans when he moved the team from Ohio and admittedly tarnished his own legacy as a civic leader.

He was 87.

David Modell said he and his brother, John, were at their father's side when he "died peacefully of natural causes."

Modell was among the most important figures in the NFL as owner of the Cleveland Browns and a league insider. During his four decades as a team owner, he helped negotiate the NFL's lucrative contracts with television networks, served as president of the NFL from 1967 to 1969, and chaired the negotiations for the first the collective bargaining agreement with the players in 1968.

He also was the driving force behind the 1970 contract between the NFL and ABC to televise games on Monday night.

Modell, however, made one decision that hounded him the rest of his life. He moved the Cleveland franchise to Baltimore in 1996 and Ohio fans never forgave him for it.

"It's a shame that one decision hurt how some people think of him, because he did so much good," said Doug Dieken, a Browns offensive lineman for 14 years.

Practically overnight, the man who was one of Cleveland's most notable civic leaders was a pariah in his own community.

"I have a great legacy, tarnished somewhat by the move," he said in 1999. "The politicians and the bureaucrats saw fit to cover their own rear ends by blaming it on me."

The move was also believed to be the main reason why Modell never made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was one of 15 finalists in 2001 and a semifinalist seven times between 2004 and 2011.

The Ravens won their lone Super Bowl in January 2001, less than a year after Modell sold a minority interest of the team to Steve Bisciotti. In April 2004, Bisciotti completed purchase of the franchise but left Modell a 1 percent share.

"He worked alongside Lamar Hunt, Tex Schramm, Well Mara and Art Rooney, and all of those men are in the Hall of Fame," former Browns guard John Wooten said. "He worked with them in all of those meetings. He was there. It is indeed a shame that he is not in the Hall of Fame."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell praised Modell's work within the league as it was gaining momentum a half century ago.

"Art Modell's leadership was an important part of the NFL's success during the league's explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond," Goodell said in a statement. "Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the NFL."

Goodell also appreciated Modell's sharp wit.

"Art's skills as an owner and league contributor were matched only by his great sense of humor," he tweeted. "Any conversation with Art included laughs."

Modell's Browns were among the best teams of the 1960s, led for a time by legendary running back Jim Brown. Cleveland won the NFL championship in 1964 — Modell's only title with the Browns — and played in the title game in 1965, 1968 and 1969.

But his early years with Cleveland also were marked by controversy when he fired the team's only coach to that point, Hall of Famer Paul Brown, after the 1962 season. Brown then went on to co-found and coach the Cincinnati Bengals.

Modell said he lost millions of dollars operating the Browns in Cleveland and cited the state of Maryland's financial package, including construction of a $200 million stadium, as his reasons for leaving Ohio. The Baltimore Colts had left Maryland for Indianapolis in 1984.

"This has been a very, very tough road for my family and me," Modell said at the time of the Browns move. "I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland. But frankly, it came down to a simple proposition: I had no choice."

The cost of the move to Baltimore left him financially strapped and with no choice but to put in motion the chain of events that enabled Bisciotti to assume majority ownership.

Bisciotti has since poured millions into the team, financing construction of a lavish practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. As a tribute, Bisciotti insisted that a huge oil painting of Modell be hung above the fireplace at the entrance to the complex.

"He was my friend, my mentor. We will miss him so much," Bisciotti said. "... How fortunate I am to have had him teach me about the NFL."

Modell wasn't the kind of owner who operated his team from an office. He mingled with the players and often watched every minute of practice.

"Art talked with me every day when I played in Baltimore," former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "He knew everything about what was going on in my life. He showed real concern. But, it wasn't just me. He knew the practice squad players' names. He treated them the same. He was out at practice when it was 100 degrees and when the December snows came. I loved playing for him."

Born June 23, 1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Modell dropped out of high school at age 15 and worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard cleaning out the hulls of ships to help out his financially strapped family after the death of his father.

He completed high school in night class, joined the Air Force in 1943, and then enrolled in a television school after World War II. He used that education to produce one of the first regular daytime television programs before moving into the advertising business in 1954.

A group of friends led by Modell purchased the Browns in 1961 for $4 million — a figure he called "totally excessive."

"You get few chances like this," he said at the time. "To take advantage of the opportunity, you must have money and friends with more."

Modell's work as a civic leader included serving on the board of directors of several companies, including the Ohio Bell Telephone Co., Higbee Co. and 20th Century-Fox Film Corp.

Modell and his wife, Patricia, continued their charity work in Baltimore, donating millions to The Seed School of Maryland, a boarding school for disadvantaged youths; Johns Hopkins Hospital; and the Kennedy Krieger Institute. The couple also gave $3.5 million to the Lyric, which was renamed the Patricia & Art Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric.

Patricia, his wife of 42 years, died last year.

"'Poppy' was a special man who was loved by his sons, his daughter-in-law Michel, and his six grandchildren," David Modell said. "Moreover, he was adored by the entire Baltimore community for his kindness and generosity. And, he loved Baltimore."

Art Modell hoped one day the people of Cleveland would remember him for what he accomplished there. Long after the move, Modell pointed out that Cleveland ultimately got the new stadium he coveted, and that the expansion version of the Browns could draw on the history he helped create.

"I think that part of my legacy is I left the colors, the name and the records in Cleveland," Modell said. "The fans in Cleveland were loyal and supportive. They lived and died with me every Sunday for 35 years."

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BALTIMORE (AP) — "Art Modell made extraordinary contributions to the National Football League during his decades as an NFL owner. When he stepped away from operating the Baltimore Ravens in 2004, his 43 seasons in the league represented more than half of the NFL's history." — former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

"Anytime you lose a father, a leader — the way he was to not just his kids but to many men — it's always hard. The greatest thing that life offers is the real opportunity to help someone. The only reason I'm in Baltimore is because of him. The only reason the Ravens have a team is because of him. The only reason a lot of sacrifices have happened throughout this league is because of him. ... He is one of the most awesome men I've ever met in my life." — Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

"Our game is what it is today in large part due to the exemplary ownership and leadership of Art Modell. His work over the years with our first-ever collective bargaining agreement, numerous network TV contracts and the 1970 NFL-AFL merger helped propel the NFL to unimagined heights of popularity. We all are forever indebted to him." — Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr.

"Art was a giant in our industry. He was my boss — but he wouldn't let me call him that — my mentor, and most importantly, my friend. He was the most caring, compassionate person I've ever known. The opportunities he gave me are historic, and I will be forever humble and grateful." — Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who played for Modell and then worked for him.

"I can't remember what Monday nights were like during the fall before Monday Night Football, nor could I imagine them without football today. Football fans everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude for that alone." — New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

"When you look at those most responsible for the growth and tremendous popularity of the NFL, Art Modell has to rank high on that list. The backbone of that success has been the league's relationship with network television, something Art was instrumental in shaping. Personally, when I think of Art, I will always remember his great stories and sense of humor, his generosity and civic leadership, and his passion for the game of football." — Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill.

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DAVID GINSBURG, The Associated Press

BALTIMORE (AP) — The NFL became America's game under a collection of shrewd businessmen that included some of the biggest names in league history: Pete Rozelle, Vince Lombardi, Dan Rooney and arguably the most influential of all — Art Modell.

Modell's insight thrust the struggling league into the public eye and onto the country's television screens on Sundays and Monday night.

Modell, who helped transform the NFL into America's pre-eminent sport, died Thursday. He was 87.

"His legacy is spectacular," St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "When things like this happen, it takes you back historically to where you ... actually have a sense of appreciation for what he did and where we would be without him."

Modell spent 43 years as an NFL owner, overseeing the Browns from 1961 until he moved the team to Baltimore in 1996. Modell served as league president from 1967-69, helped finalize the first collective bargaining agreement with the players in 1968 and was the point man for the NFL's lucrative contracts with television networks.

"The game of football lost one of its all-time greats," Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. said. "Art's contributions to the NFL during his five decades in the game are immeasurable. I believe that Art did as much as any owner to help make the NFL what it is today. Art was a pioneer, a visionary and a selfless owner who always saw the big picture and did the right thing.

"Our game would not be what it is today if it weren't for Art Modell."

Long before his Baltimore Ravens won the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2001, Modell teamed with Lombardi, Rozelle and others to lay the foundation for the league's success.

"Art Modell was a most influential member of Commissioner Rozelle's 'Kitchen Cabinet' for many years, along with Dan Rooney and the late Tex Schramm," said Joe Browne, the longest-tenured player in the league's front office. "Ironically, Art is the only member of that group who is not enshrined in Canton. Hopefully, the Hall of Fame media selectors will rectify that oversight in the near future — not as an emotional reaction to Art's death, but as a rightful reflection of his longtime contributions to the NFL."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell praised Modell's work within the league as it was gaining momentum a half century ago.

"Art Modell's leadership was an important part of the NFL's success during the league's explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond," Goodell said in a statement. "Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the NFL."

Modell's reputation took a hit from which it would never recover when he pulled the Browns out of town following a round of secret negotiations with Baltimore city officials. The move was made not because of poor attendance in Cleveland, but because Baltimore provided him with a better business opportunity.

His perceived abandonment of Cleveland is the main reason why Modell died without gaining entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984, Baltimore went 12 years pining for another team. After the Browns left, Cleveland got an expansion team, a new stadium and retained its team colors and history, thanks in no small part of Modell.

But from the day he left to the day he died, Modell never got much love from Cleveland.

"I have a great legacy, tarnished somewhat by the move," he said in 1999. "The politicians and the bureaucrats saw fit to cover their own rear ends by blaming it on me."

Browns fans became even angrier after Modell won his only Super Bowl.

"If Art could have given the trophy to Cleveland, I believe he would have," former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano said.

After that Super Bowl win, Modell did a little jig as part of an agreement with linebacker Ray Lewis, the second player selected by the Ravens in their inaugural draft in 1996. Lewis considers that moment to be among his most memorable over his 17-year relationship with a man he considered to be an owner in name only.

"Us on that stage, I told him that if we win it, he's going to have to try to do my dance," Lewis recalled Thursday, his voice cracking with emotion during a somber day at the team complex in Owings Mills. "We got on stage and he did the dance. It capped off exactly the way it was supposed to end. We were able to bring him what his true dream was, the Lombardi Trophy."

Brian Billick, coach of that Super Bowl team, said of Modell: "It was a joy to come to work for him. He accomplished so much as an owner: championships, playoffs, the TV contracts, the leadership in the NFL. They are all great and deserving of the Hall of Fame. Those who worked with Art will all say the same thing. He was a Hall of Fame person."

Modell's Browns were among the best teams of the 1960s, led for a time by Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown. Cleveland won the NFL championship in 1964 — Modell's only title with the Browns — and played in the title game in 1965, 1968 and 1969.

Modell said he lost millions of dollars operating the Browns in Cleveland and cited the state of Maryland's financial package, including construction of a $200 million stadium, as his reasons for leaving Ohio.

"This has been a very, very tough road for my family and me," Modell said at the time of the Browns move. "I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland. But frankly, it came down to a simple proposition: I had no choice."

Some NFL owners have several other sources of income. Modell had his football team. Period. And although the move to Baltimore helped keep him afloat for a while, he ultimately had to broker a deal that made Steve Bisciotti a minority owner. Part of the arrangement was that Bisciotti could assume majority ownership, and that's what happened in April 2004.

Bisciotti has since poured millions into the team, financing construction of a lavish practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. As a tribute, Bisciotti insisted that a huge oil painting of Modell be hung above the fireplace at the entrance to the complex.

Modell had an open invitation to come to camp, and although his health was failing in recent years, he occasionally dropped by to watch practice, toting around the field in a golf cart.

Lewis never failed to come by and say hello, and their relationship was so tight that they spent a few emotional moments together Wednesday in the hospital.

"The things that I shared in his ear, I will also keep that between me and him because it's like a son and a father," Lewis said. "I loved the man dearly."