COLLEGE PARK -- John Brown had just sat down in his courtside seat at Cole Field House when the parade began.
Ex-Oriole Bill Ripken was one of the first to say hello. Former Maryland basketball player Cedric Lewis stopped by, then former U.S. Senator Joe Tydings. Sportswriter John Feinstein followed.
Even the referee, taking his place for the tip-off of the Maryland game, waved to Brown.
It seemed that everyone in the place knew Brown, from the players he has befriended to the corporate and political elite gathered in the coveted folding chairs ringing the court.
A gregarious bear of a man, Brown is "very well met," in the words of his friend and partner Bill Knight.
Long a fixture around campus, Brown, 51, moved onto a wider stage on Jan. 1, when he became chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, which oversees the Camden Yards sports complex.
Unlike his two predecessors, Brown is not a partner at a law firm or a heavyweight in Baltimore's cultural or business circles. He owns RJ Bentley's, a restaurant near campus -- hardly the launching pad one would expect to a high-profile appointment overseeing a budget of more than $80 million a year.
When his longtime friend, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, named Brown to the unpaid post in December, there were whispers of cronyism. "He's a bartender," sniped one opponent of the governor who asked not to be named.
But others say there is substance behind Brown's gregariousness. He has served on the authority since 1995, was once a consultant on complex transportation issues and founded a small business that just celebrated its 20th anniversary.
"He's a very good businessman who knows how to run an operation. He's an organizer. He's a coalition builder. He's a leader," said Joel Rozner, an Annapolis lobbyist and former chief of staff to Glendening when he was Prince George's county executive.
Just about everybody associated with University of Maryland athletics knows Brown from his long association with the program, going back to the days before Len Bias, to whom Brown used to give odd jobs. Political figures in Annapolis know him from his long-standing friendship with Glendening, whom he met when the governor was a newly elected county councilman.
Glendening, a former University of Maryland professor who lives a few blocks from Bentley's, can sometimes be seen in a booth huddling with advisers. On his past two election nights, after concluding the formalities, he and a few key supporters celebrated there.
Through the doors of Bentley's have also passed students who have gone on to greater things and kept in contact with Brown.
"He's one of the most unselfish and committed men I know, and is absolutely committed to Maryland," said former Pro Bowl and Terrapins quarterback Boomer Esiason, now a broadcaster on "Monday Night Football."
Brown has an autographed photo of Esiason on the wall of his office, up a few creaky flights of stairs from the restaurant, along with other memorabilia. One is a photo of a Maryland student and Bentley's hostess named Kelly Geer dressed in a Wonder Woman costume for a Halloween party.
Through Geer, Brown got to know her boyfriend and future husband, who used to drop in while courting her: Cal Ripken. Brown is now a regular at the couple's Christmas parties.
Life was not always as celebrity-filled for Brown, who grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C. His father, an electrician, died when Brown was 13. His mother worked as a bank teller, making ends meet.
He swam for the varsity team and played intramural basketball in high school, but, by his own reckoning, lacked the discipline to excel academically. He graduated in 1965 and enrolled at the University of North Carolina.
Brown dropped out to enlist in the Army, even though the war was raging in Vietnam. "I wasn't brave," he said, explaining that he figured his draft number would come up after he finished school and he was "tired of college."
After clerical training, he became a sergeant in charge of modernizing the Army's terminal in London, where he spent three years overseeing the shipment of everything from household items for GIs based in Europe to equipment for nuclear missile bases.
"For a young person, it was really heady stuff to have that kind of responsibility," he said.
Back stateside, he enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1973 in business with a concentration in transportation and a minor in marketing. He worked nights tending bar in Washington, where he befriended a vice president for Booz-Allen & Hamilton, a consulting firm.
The friend offered him a job upon graduation, and Brown was soon scouting locations for Prince George's County Metro stations. Later, he worked for the Institute of Transportation and Regional Planning, where he studied the socioeconomic importance of Chicago's elevated train system and handicapped accessibility of mass transit in Boston and other cities.
"I enjoyed what I was doing, but I longed to get out and do something with my hands and have some success," he said.
Brown turned again to the contacts he had made tending bar and joined Auger Enterprises as director of marketing and advertising. The rapidly growing company was owned by legendary Washington restaurateur Ulysses "Blackie" Auger.
In 1978, Brown and Richard MacPherson, a food broker, and attorney Bill Knight decided to open their own place. They bought O'Briens Pit Barbecue, a ramshackle operation on what was then a seedy campus strip.
The building had once been an auto repair shop, so the trio chose a filling station theme. They installed antique gas pumps and hung old license plates and Pennzoil signs.
For a name, they wanted something that connoted class and settled on Bentley, for the British luxury car. "RJ" stands for Rick and John. They positioned the restaurant as an affordable, upscale place for professors and visiting parents.
The business boomed, but MacPherson and Brown soon found their relationship trying due to an admitted difference in style.
"He enjoyed bringing people together and partying," McPherson said. "I was the guy that controlled the purse strings."
Said Brown: "We had our battles, but we maintained our friendship. In my mind, I'm probably a little more relaxed and he's a little more intense."
A different outlook
A relaxed outlook will be a change in style for the stadium authority job. Brown's predecessor, John Moag, a consummate deal-maker, brought a frenetic pace that upset some people -- not the least of whom was Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who unsuccessfully demanded Moag's firing in 1995.
"I think John's more easygoing than I am. I'm more of a Bill Parcells, and he's a Tom Landry," said Moag, now an investment banker leading a sports industry group for Legg Mason in Baltimore.
Brown, who lives in Bethesda with his wife, Susan Tucker Brown, an attorney, will have a full plate of projects. But with the completion of the two professional stadiums that the authority was created in 1986 to build, the agency's most controversial days are probably past. The next big job is likely to be a replacement for Cole Field House -- a project destined to kick up little dust because of its strong backing from Glendening and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
A conciliator such as Brown may be the right match for the task, some say.
"John Moag and John Brown are great people, but no one will mistake one for the other," said Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's County lawyer and former state delegate.
"John Brown is a wonderful person, and he's tailor-made for the job. He understands economic development and the importance of competent construction management," Maloney said.
Pub Date: 3/10/99