BALTIMORE – 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."