By Jon Morgan
November 6, 1996
When he announced a year ago today that he was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, team owner Modell transformed himself from an elder statesman of pro football to its Benedict Arnold.
Longtime friends shunned him. Community leaders who once courted him vilified him. He was bashed from Capitol Hill to the World Wide Web. His nomination to the Hall of Fame failed, and his legacy as an NFL builder was dashed.
Then, when he got to Baltimore, a rebellious Maryland General Assembly threatened to revoke the deal, leaving him and his franchise homeless.
Oh, and he almost died.
In April, he contracted a blood infection, possibly from a cut. The infection sent his blood pressure plunging, his temperature up to 105 degrees, and pushed his kidneys to the brink of failure.
Doctors administered five antibiotics intravenously and Modell, 70, gradually recovered.
In a wide-ranging interview in his Owings Mills office, with its panoramic view of the team's practice fields and the colorful fall foliage beyond, Modell reflected on his first year as a Marylander.
"It's been a year that will never be forgotten. A memorable year in more ways than one," Modell said.
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Modell was a young Madison Avenue ad man in 1961, when word came to him that the Browns were for sale. He assembled an investment group that paid $3.9 million for the team, and he moved to Cleveland.
He soon became a member of former commissioner Pete Rozelle's inner sanctum, at the center of every policy decision made during the league's boom years.
Although he has long maintained a summer home in Florida, Modell was a dominant figure in Cleveland affairs for more than three decades. He hasn't been back since he took the podium at Camden Yards last Nov. 6 and made the announcement that would break the hearts of the legions of loyal Browns fans.
Overall, he said, it's been the most traumatic year of his life. But also the most rewarding.
His reception in Baltimore has been warm, he said. The response of the fans -- who've sold out every Ravens game -- has been heartening. Even the team, which has turned in a lackluster performance on the field, has shown promise, he said.
"We lost some friends in Cleveland, although I'm beginning to realize they might not have been our friends," Modell said.
One relationship that suffered is his long-standing friendship with Cleveland billionaire Al Lerner. The two became close in the 1970s, when they jointly invested in some radio stations. Lerner -- who started out in business in Baltimore and ran Maryland National Bank before selling it to NationsBank -- bought into the Browns in the 1980s, helping Modell through a financial bind.
But the man who used to fly Modell to every away game and was a fixture in the Cleveland Stadium owners box has not made it to a Ravens game. And the two have talked about Lerner's cashing in his 9 percent share of the team to spearhead a drive for an expansion franchise in Cleveland, Modell said.
The NFL agreed, in a settlement of lawsuits sparked by the Browns relocation, to put another team in Cleveland by expansion or relocation by 1999 and name it the Browns.
"I think there is a good chance he will divest," Modell said. If so, Modell said, he may seek local investors for that share of the Ravens. But he's not sure he favors expansion for Cleveland, with so many existing teams needing better stadiums.
"There are a lot of people in the league who oppose expansion. Having the experience of moving, I would like to explore every possibility. I think we have to look at our own first before we look at expansion," Modell said.
He and Lerner are still friends. "But it doesn't have the intensity of friendship it once had. But it's not cold," Modell said.
Modell declined to discuss the reasons for their drifting apart. Lerner did not respond to requests for comment.
Mutual acquaintances say the two men were surprised by the outcry provoked by the Browns' move. Lerner, who played a crucial role in Modell's decision and was the initial go-between for Modell and Maryland, found himself in a place he generally shuns: the spotlight.
Lerner responded by trying to distance himself publicly from the decision. This angered Modell, according to friends.
As for his own legacy, Modell said it has unquestionably suffered in the controversy over the past year. In this, he finds irony: The popularity of the Browns and their relationship with Cleveland were due in part to his stewardship, he said.
"People will judge me as they judge me," he said.
But he holds out hope the rancor will fade.
He insists, as he has for the past year, that he was forced to move because community leaders failed to fulfill promises to renovate his decrepit stadium. Clevelanders say that they were making progress and that Modell never adequately informed them of his situation or that he was considering moving.
A referendum to fund part of the work passed the day after Modell announced he was moving the team. The league has agreed to kick in up to $48 million to help with the construction of a new stadium.
If he could do anything differently, Modell said, he would have pushed harder in 1991 for a firm commitment from Cleveland officials on his stadium before work began on new facilities for the American League Indians and NBA Cavaliers.
"The only regret that I have is that I shouldn't have taken them at their word in 1991. I took them at face value," he said.
He almost found himself in the same position in Maryland, after the NFL had approved the move. Stadium opponents in Annapolis pushed to rescind the deal.
"I was horrified. I had a binding agreement signed by the governor," Modell said.
The General Assembly was appeased when Modell agreed to contribute $24 million toward stadium construction. The terms of the repayment were not specified and won't be until a full lease is negotiated. That process probably will begin next summer.
Modell said he has been assured that he will receive some off-setting revenue source. That could be the right to sell the stadium's name to a corporate sponsor, he said.
"I have to have some revenue to pay for it. That's the understanding we have, some external signs, naming rights, something," Modell said.
Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said that will be the subject of negotiations. "I owe him a real fair shake on that issue," Moag said.
Shortly after the stadium matter was settled, Modell, relaxing in his Florida vacation home, came down with the blood infection. He checked into a Florida branch of the Cleveland Clinic, a highly respected hospital he had helped raise funds for and had served as board president.
"I was gravely ill," said Modell, who has a history of heart disease going back a decade.
He is still trying to keep his workload down as he regains his energy. He hopes to resume exercising soon, probably starting with walks on the team's practice fields.
"In general, I'm fine. I do tire easily," he said.
Modell said he intends to become involved in community affairs once he is settled in Maryland. He probably will not join as many boards as he did in Cleveland, where he was a fixture on the civic scene for 30 years, but will be active with charities, he said.
"I want to move and get into a new house," Modell said.
He paid $2.3 million in June for a five-acre estate in Hunt Valley, but it's being renovated, and he and his wife, Pat, have been living in a downtown hotel for the past year.
He said they've found a few favorite restaurants and are enjoying the new city, although there hasn't been a lot of time for socializing.
One local delicacy he's still working on is crabs. "I could survive with or without them," he said.
His 35-year-old son, David, has assumed a larger role with the team in Baltimore, overseeing the marketing and representing it at many civic functions. His other son, John, 36, a Los Angeles musician, also has become involved, flying in and helping with the sound system on game days.
Long active in Ohio Republican politics, Modell said he's not sure what his role will be in Maryland government, which is dominated by Democrats.
Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, whom Modell has supported for years, approached the team owner last fall about helping with the Ohio campaign. Modell was about to move the team and didn't want to take on the extra duties.
"I said I can't, that I'm about to do something that might embarrass you," Modell said.
With the blur of the move, and the resulting need to rename the team, design uniforms, sell tickets and get Memorial Stadium ready, he has had little time for longer-term projects such as a new training complex. He said he wants to replace the old Colts complex at Owings Mills, but is in no hurry.
"We'll definitely have a new complex. I have no idea where or when. We'll build something in five years, though," he said.
His goal with the team is to have a contender by the time the new $190 million downtown stadium, under construction adjacent to Oriole Park, opens in 1998.
"I want to have an elite team no later than our first year at Camden Yards," he said.
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