In Cleveland, no calm before the storm Behind orange, white, those in stands also are deep shade of hurt


CLEVELAND -- On the surface, it looked like any other Sunday in the Dawg Pound for Tim Coughlin, a retired policeman and longtime Cleveland Browns fan.

Outfitted in his favorite colors, Coughlin wore orange and brown hunting fatigues, a brown fur cap, and paint on his face -- orange with a white stripe down the middle.

Except this wasn't just any other Sunday in Cleveland Stadium. It was the last Sunday before Browns owner Art Modell is expected to announce he's moving the team to Baltimore for the 1996 season.

Coughlin, a bear of a man, didn't waste any time putting the past behind him.

"I don't want 'em anymore," he said of the team he has followed for the past 29 years. "I'm here to support the city of Cleveland, to support the Cleveland Bengals."

The Cleveland Bengals?

"We will get another team, and it'll probably be the Cincinnati Bengals," said Coughlin, who has season tickets in Section 55 of the Pound. "I can keep my brown and orange. But I may have a little hard time getting used to those silly [bengal tiger] stripes."

On an eerie, overcast November day, a modest crowd of 57,881 -- with nearly 8,000 no-shows -- alternated between apathy and angst. Numbed, perhaps, by growing evidence they were about to lose their team, they came with placards and banners and raw emotion.

The emotion -- what there was of it -- was aimed at Modell, who had been advised against attending the game, a desultory 37-10 loss to the Houston Oilers.

"Art Modell #1 is greedy, #2 is a liar, #3 is a traitor" one sign read.

"Art Modell is loyal to money only," Coughlin said. "Fans live and die for the Browns, and he's quitting. Shame on him for quitting on the city of Cleveland. Baltimore is getting a quitter. In a heartbeat, he'll quit on you."

Many Browns fans held out hope that today's news conference in Baltimore would not signal the end of an illustrious franchise in Cleveland.

"We've got to have hope," said Robin TenEyck, who drove from Beloit, Ohio. "I'm disappointed because we've supported the Browns through the good and the bad."

"I'm mad as hell," said Kathy McMichael, who came with Ten Eyck.

Mike Stevens, a steelworker who made the three-hour trip from Caudwell, Ohio, said he was angry, too.

"There are Browns fans who've been here 20 years loyal," he said. "When the Browns didn't win, [when they were] the bottom of the barrel, those fans were here every Sunday. It's going to be awful. But there ain't nothing we can do about it."

If this was the long goodbye -- the Browns have three home games remaining this season -- they got a glimpse of what it's going to be like. With three minutes left in the third quarter, fans started a vulgar chant about Modell. Soon after, fan conduct in the Dawg Pound became unruly.

After Houston had built a 27-point lead two minutes into the fourth quarter, someone tossed an explosive into the end zone -- fortunately with no players around.

There were more missiles sailing out of the Pound -- including beer cans and snowballs -- and police took at least one fan out of the stadium after a series of fights.

After the game, a group of 30 stood outside the Browns' locker room and shouted obscenities every time the door opened.

Through it all, there was a distinct sense of betrayal. The fans said Modell had not given the city a fair shot at satisfying his needs.

"If he could have told us, 'I need this much,' we would have done it for him," said Gary Bice, a season-ticket holder since 1962. "To do it behind our back . . .

"I told my wife, 'If they announce it [today], I'll never watch another NFL game in my life.' "

Joe Seifert, 82, has been going to Browns games for 42 years. He puttered slowly through the throngs of football fans yesterday, wearing a Browns orange jumpsuit and using a rickety old wooden cane to support him.

"I came to boo them today," said Seifert, who said he used to have six season tickets for his family. "We used to come every Sunday. Now I'm the only one left. The rest are all so disgusted with the greed."

Seifert said he once came to Baltimore in the early 1960s. "That's a nice city, or at least it was then," he said. "They better be careful because they're going to get charged an awful lot for their football tickets."

Others weren't so kind to the apparent new home of the Browns.

"I don't like Baltimore," said Jack Burns, 32, who carried a sign that had Baltimore with a line drawn through it. "They're taking our team away. Let 'em find another team."

Many of the Cleveland fans expressed shock that the team would move from a city that attracts roughly 70,000 fans for home games.

Lou Afanador, a 38-year-old auto mechanic, stood in front of the stadium with a friend holding a bedsheet with a cryptic formula written in magic marker. Translated, he said, it meant "$30 million divided by loyalty equals the Browns being trashed and Baltimore being a two-times loser."

"That's exactly what it boils down to. It's always about money," Afanador said. "Baltimore lost a team once, and now they're getting a loser owner. Who's to say he won't lose the team again when some other city steps in and offers $60 million?"

City officials provided thousands of fans with signs urging voters to approve Issue 5, to be voted on tomorrow and which if approved would provide $175 million for renovating the stadium.

One of the volunteers handing out signs, Bob Macon, 45, said he used to sell popcorn outside the stadium when he was 12. "This team is part of my life. I wish the best for Baltimore, but we love this team. We can't let it go without a fight."

Doug Baker, a 38-year-old laborer from suburban Dayton, who said he drives more than five hours to see Browns games, said he still has hope that Modell will keep the team in Cleveland.

"Monday is going to be the big day. Modell is either going to come through and be remembered by the Cleveland fans as a really great man, or he'll be a Benedict Arthur," Baker said, apparently a reference to traitor Benedict Arnold.

Coughlin, meanwhile, wasn't waiting for the announcement to make his plans. He said he'd hold a Browns' burning party in his home of West Lake. "I'm burning everything that says Browns," he said.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad