Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Inner Life of Tyrants

When this blogger was a small boy first exposed to sports back in the late '50s and early '60s, Paul Brown was the most feared and despised man in pro football.

Everyone acknowledged Brown was the smartest coach of the time, probably of all time. The Cleveland Browns he founded played in 10 straight championship games in the All-American Football Conference and then the NFL, winning seven. Brown was a technical innovator like no other. He invented the screen pass. He was the first coach to call all the plays. He was also a quiet social pioneer, seeking out and signing African-American players in a sport that was as lily-white as pre-Jackie Robinson baseball, but just quieter about it. All Browns' decisions gave his team a huge leg up on his NFL competitors.

However, nobody but nobody liked Brown one bit, certainly not his players. Even the Hall of Famers (and the '50s Browns produced more than any teams but the '60s Packers and '70 Steelers) had no use for him. It wasn't so much that Brown was mean, although he was. Mean coaches had been around since the flying wedge. Brown was mean in a new and disturbing way.

Before Brown, the prototypical mean coach was a holler guy, a screamer who bullied his players with verbal abuse and punishment wind sprints. He was a Parris Island drill instructor with a whistle.

Brown was the football coach as Prussian general, icy, aloof, ruling with bloodless and ruthless intellect. He should have worn a monocle on the sidelies. Brown didn't scream at his team. He had other, crueler means of making them quake.

In Brown's time, teams brought up to 100 players to training camp. In one of Brown's most celebrated innovations, he was the first coach to begin camp by giving those players a written general intelligence test. The night after the test was handed in, Brown would immediately cut five or six guys.

This had nothing to do with the test or anyone's results in it. These were players Brown knew had no shot of making the team anyway. The purpose of the cut was simply to scare the shit out of all the remaining Browns. Worked like a charm. Some sweetheart of a boss, huh?

Karma's a bitch. Brown's tenure in Cleveland ended when he was saddled with one player couldn't intimidate, irreplacable superstar Jim Brown. The popular media image of Brown-the idea that he personified football science gone mad in the pursuit of victory, remained vividly stuck in the sports' memory bank of a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware.

Fast forward almost 30 years to January, 1989. Brown is now the semi-retired figurehead president of the Cincinnati Bengals, the AFC team in Super Bowl XXIII. The kid is now a sportswriter assigned to the game.

History's my favorite subject. There was no way I was going to grind out a week of Super hype without interviewing and writing about Paul Brown. Who wouldn't be curious about a real live goblin from one's childhood.

You may guess where this is headed. The panzer-driving coach of the '50s was as gracious and delightful an interview subject as I was to meet in three decades of newspaper work. Brown was generous with his serious insights and a superb storyteller. Many of the stories were funny ones, and more often than not, Brown was the butt of his own jokes. Reporters of the '50s hated Brown's brusque, non-communicate manner. In 1989, Brown spoke to some reporter he'd never heard of for over an hour. The Bengals PR staff had to drag Brown away so he wouldn't miss seeing practice and I wound up with more story than I could possibly fit into Herald space.

History is Bill Belichick's favorite subject too, and Brown is the past NFL coach the Pats' head man most reveres as a contributor to the game. And, of course, Belichick is the heir to Brown's public image. He's TODAY's Prussian general, only with a hoodie instead of a riding crop, a brilliant, driven, anti-social leader to be feared and despised from afar.

The image has some basis in fact. Belichick didn't exactly jump the net to congratulate Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning last Sunday night. Fair or not, the world expects someone's who's been a big winner to be able to accept defeat with better grace than he managed.

But as I learned in a Miami hotel function room many years ago, images are broken reflections of reality. Human beings have many sides, but can only show one at a time. Accomplished people have the most sides of all.

So as Belichick takes a certain amount of heat this week, I'm left to wonder about the future. There's some kid out there in America today who loves football and roots against the Pats because he fears and hates the team's coach in equal measure. Thirty years from now at Super Bowl LXXI, played at a domed stadium at Donald Trump's moon resort and casino, what if the same kid-turned-sportswriter sits down to talk with the terrifying legend of his youth? Will Belichick charm the pants off the reporter as Brown did?

I probably won't live long enough to find out. But it wouldn't surprise me in the least.


At 3:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a superb article detailing the realiites of both Coach Brown and Cosch Belichick.

You are perfectly corrrect. i'm sure that Belichick considers Brown and his intellect and innovations the greqatest professional football Coach, by far. In his view, Paul Brown is much more important than the verbal tyrant Vince Lombardi, who succeeded with one group of former first round draft choices that he reorganized and simply put square pegs in square holes.

When they grew old, his reign ended and he was smart enough to quit on top. And then Cancer took him before he ruined his reputation after returning to the Redskins.


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