Cleveland Football: Leading the League in Management Meddling Since 1937

Cleveland Rams president Edward Bruch

Cleveland Rams president Edward Bruch (far right) at Cleveland Stadium in 1940, the last season the team was held by local ownership. Bruch had his own management meddling moment a few years earlier while wintering in Arizona: He stepped on a practice field at the University of Arizona to evaluate a Rams prospect personally and was ejected “bodily, and with scant ceremony” from the campus. (Photo courtesy Cleveland Press Archives at Cleveland State University)

Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer has drawn headlines (and the threat of league penalties) for texting plays to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — during games!

Unprecedented, right?

Well, maybe it was unprecedented in the use of technology. But the NFL’s tenure in Cleveland has an inglorious history of management meddling, and it didn’t start with Jimmy Haslam and the drafting of Johnny Manziel, or even Art Modell and his firing of Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown.

Let’s go all the way back to 1937 and the inaugural NFL season of the Cleveland (—> Los Angeles —> St. Louis —> Los Angeles?) Rams. Legendary college coach Hugo Bezdek, on the sidelines for the Rams at age 53, was so hectored by the team’s nine investor-directors that simply calling him onto the carpet every Monday morning after a loss was not enough: One of them actually took to sitting on the bench next to Bezdek during a game to advise him on use of personnel.

If texting had been available in 1937, the interfering Rams directors may well have used that too.

Appropriately, Cleveland Press columnist Ben Williamson took to calling the Rams directors “downtown coaches”: All of them carried out successful law or business careers in imposing brick or stone edifices in downtown Cleveland. But only two had played football in college, and not a one had ever tugged a leather helmet on for a pro game.

Firing Bezdek and hiring a proven NFL player-coach in Dutch Clark from the 1935 NFL champion Detroit Lions did not bring this second-guessing to an end. Just before the 1939 season began, the downtown coaches informed Clark and assistant Art “Pappy” Lewis of a new arrangement: The directors would divide responsibility among themselves for various aspects of the Rams operation — offensive line, backfield, etc. — and helpfully offer the coaches advice on player assignments and play calling. It was management texting writ large.

Not only were the downtown coaches unable to help — Clark suffered his only losing seasons ever in four years with the Rams — they couldn’t even agree with one another, their multiple voices clashing in a cacophony of conflicting direction. So in 1941 the Rams’ Hydra-headed ownership, self-described civic boosters all, decided the best course of action for the franchise — for the city too, they felt, and well worth the financial losses they had sustained — was an unselfish one: extract themselves completely and sell the team to a single majority owner with a singular direction. Then perhaps the team would win.

That buyer was Daniel F. Reeves, a New York City grocery magnate who thanked the Cleveland city fathers for the sale and paid them in full. And five years later when the team finally did win — their first victorious season in eight NFL seasons in Cleveland — he hijacked the newly crowned champions out of Cleveland and moved them to L.A.

The upshot? Management meddling didn’t lose just games, it cost Cleveland its NFL franchise — twice. (For more, see “Modell, Arthur B.” and “Ravens, Baltimore.”)

So amid all the current losing, there is at least one thing Clevelanders can say of contemporary Browns’ management: It hasn’t cost the city its NFL franchise.

Yet.

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One thought on “Cleveland Football: Leading the League in Management Meddling Since 1937

  1. A HOMER says:

    Be sure to work that into the book. May all your penalties be half-the-distance!

    Like

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