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Coach of Coaches
Paul Brown dies at 82, leaving behind a legacy of innovation and inspiration
In 1984, as a rookie beat man covering the Cincinnati Bengals at their Wilmington, Ohio, training camp, I grew weary of standing on the sidelines for practice every day, hour after tedious hour. One hot morning, I was standing next to the man in the straw hat who ran the team, and I blurted out, "Boy, football practice can sure be boring. How can you take watching this, day after day?"
Rookie mistake. Paul Brown's sharp and wounded look told me that. "Boring?" he shot back. "This is...this is our lifeblood. This is how we build our business." Shaking his head, he left my side, presumably to watch the rest of the practice with someone who appreciated the sport.
Brown may have appreciated the game more than any other man who ever lived. When he died on Monday at the age of 82 from complications of pneumonia, football lost a great friend.
He started building champions at Massillon (Ohio) High in 1932, and from there, he went on to coach at Ohio State. In 1946 he formed the professional team in Cleveland that bears his name, and he coached the Browns to seven championships, four in the All-America Conference and three in the NFL. He lost control of the Browns to Art Modell in 1961, but in 1968 he started all over again, creating the Cincinnati Bengals, which he coached until 1975.
Brown brought myriad innovations to football. He invented the playbook, for instance. He was the first coach to signal plays from the sidelines, and in the mid-'50s he went so far as to put a radio transmitter in the helmet of Browns quarterback George Ratterman. He pioneered college scouting, training camps and game films.
Among his Browns were offensive guard Chuck Noll and defensive back Don Shula, and among his Bengals was the current Cincinnati coach, Sam Wyche. Weeb Ewbank, Bud Grant and Bill Walsh all coached under Brown. Students of Brown, in fact, have won 11 of the 25 Super Bowls.
In recent years, Brown was often the NFL's lone voice of dissent against the forces of expansion, television and commercialism. He despised instant replay, for one, but his arguments ("It just adds another layer of error," he said) fell on deaf ears.
The Bengals listened to him, though. Until his recent illness, he was spending six or seven hours a day with the team, offering suggestions and going over the films with Wyche and the coaches. Wyche never bristled at Brown's input. "Working under Paul Brown is like living next to a library," Wyche once said. "I'd be a fool if I didn't check books out."