Friday, May 30, 2014

Football Research on Paul Brown for Pillars of the NFL

Paul Brown, The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University
The research required for Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Won Three or More Championships was extensive. We were determined to produce a book that examined the coaches and their teams and gave readers a look at how each coach got things done.  We also wanted to discuss the players that the greats coaches managed over their careers.  Completely focused on things relevant to football, we also wanted to take the time to introduce the coaches as human beings.  We wanted to give readers a sense of their early days and their backgrounds.  

The trick of course was that most of these great coaches have been dead for a long time and because we were covering ten people whose backgrounds were spread across the country, we relied on many different kinds of sources that could be accessed locally or online.

I believe that the great majority of football coaches and players whose careers are all or mostly pre-Super Bowl Era get much less media attention than those later coaches who were so often filmed and studied. I think ESPN did us all a service with their Greatest Coaches in NFL History that cast such a bright light on the best of the best coaches.  But at the same time,  I think that most modern sports analysts make their judgments through TV and film--two things that are obviously going to favor later coaches.  That's not to say today's sports writers, reporters and others in the media  don't read, but their focus, just like fans, is most likely going to be drawn to what is more readily accessible.  Still, the top ten on the ESPN greatest list only differs from our list of Pillars (selected entirely by championships won) in  two coaches.  We include Guy Chamberlin and Weeb Ewbank and they swap out  these two gentlemen for Tom Landry and Don Shula.  Who can argue with the selection of Shula and Landry? Well, I guess we can for our list of the top ten, but that's for another time. 

Paul Brown

Paul Brown is perhaps the most complex coach in all NFL history.  And by complex we mean difficult to understand.  George Halas had lived and worked through the entire history of the professional game into the TV era.  Curley Lambeau had a similar experience in Green Bay.  Their football lives were changing as well, but that change was spread out over a longer period of time.  Brown's experience was much shorter, but one of constant transition.  When Brown entered professional football, the game was at a great cusp where the rough and tumble sport stepped into a very  modern place.  Many credit Brown with helping to move the game forward. 

Brown had established a brief, but potent Cleveland Browns' powerhouse in the All-American Football Conference before his surviving team moved into the NFL.  He was a great high school, college, military, and professional coach.  His coaching background in Ohio high school and college environments included black athletes so he never hesitated to bring African Americans onto his professional rosters.  He ran his earliest teams under a highly disciplined business-like way and focused a great deal of energy on the mental aspect of the game.  He wanted smart players and was not shy about testing them and using complex playbooks.  He carefully scheduled practices and had very specific objectives for each one.  If what he and his coaching staff had to get done during regular hours didn't get done, it didn't get done. Everyone needed their rest, their time off, and their sleep.  Brown had the will and the intelligence to fix most every team deficiency and that's what he did under any circumstance.  He found a tremendous quarterback in Otto Graham early on and he built one of the greatest football dynasties of all time. 

Paul Brown is memorialized in biographies such as Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football's Most Innovative Coach by Andrew O'Toole, Paul Brown: The Man Who Invented Modern Football by George Canton, and PB: The Paul Brown Story by Paul Brown and Jack Clary.  There are different opinions on these books, but if you really want to get to know someone, you can read more than one book on them.  Some people didn't like Paul Brown's book PB: The Paul Brown Story because they thought Brown  used it to tell his own side of the story on situations for which he was criticized.  If I want to read a book about God, I usually pick up a Bible.  I never pick up a sports biography thinking I am going to find a Supreme Being.  I liked Brown's book and frankly I like other such autobiographies with the same bias because it seems easy enough to read between the lines if you are somewhat familiar with the story line. When the topics start to get petty, I generally move rather quickly through them, but I don't toss out the book because of a few hiccups. Everyone that is around long enough in sports will have detractors and will also make some big mistakes.  I think when you come upon something that is controversial, you might have to go to several places for the whole story.  

Biographies often fall short of the kind of meat and potatoes coverage needed in research.  We found Andy Piascik's The Best Show in Football: The 1946--1955 Cleveland Browns a great help.  Sometimes in research, a book can help fill in blanks that you don't even know exist.  Books like Andy's help in many ways. Cleveland Browns fanatics ought to have Andy's book.  Another book that is loaded with information that football writers and researchers must find very comforting is Pro Football Championships Before the Super Bowl: A Year by Year History, 1926-1965 by Joseph S. Page.  This is a McFarland and Company book.  For their baseball and football books, McFarland publishes information-laden books on many of the greatest characters and topics. Page's book covers a great topic in a concise disciplined way.  Sportswriter Chuck Heaton's Brown's Scrapbook is short and sweet. And true to form for a book by a sportswriter, Heaton provides his All-Time Great List of Brown's players.

Newspapers are a good source of information coaches and teams.  But the good old days didn't always deliver the goods.  In some of the early reporting on NFL games, the writers had an actual affiliation with the team. They didn't care at all about bias; they were trying to fill seats.  The modern fan might also be surprised by the fact that in the early NFL days, reporters spent much more time covering the college game, which was considered the finest form of football.  The NFL was often thought of as second class to the college game or worse.  Another issue you run into with newspapers, is that you find some stories written by either bored or otherwise indisposed reporters who follow no logical order;  they bounce around from the first quarter to the last to first again to the third and to second and the last, etc. You feel like you are in a Back-to-the-Future movie just trying to find out who won the game.  When this happens you need some aspirin. Nevertheless, when you find a newspaper story on a game or topic that was written at the time of the event you are researching, your heart goes pitter-patter.

Luckily, some newspaper archives can be found online with generous access, but more and more the archive companies are collecting newspaper archives and offering them up in large subscription products.  These can be accessed at select libraries or can be purchased otherwise.

Another excellent source of information on football history is the PFRA (Pro Football Researchers Organization), which  does great work--their Coffin Corner magazine  is a gem--articles are also online. This organization is similar in some ways to  SABR (Society of American Baseball Research).  Researchers from both these sports groups spend endless hours of their own time to get to the bottom of events and players.  

Pillars of the NFL
Paul Brown began coaching the new Cleveland Browns football team after World War II when the All-American Football Conference began. Brown's team moved to the NFL for the 1950 and following seasons.  After Brown developed a tremendous team and was deemed to have one of the top systems in football, teams that needed coaches came to view Brown's assistants as top prospects.  His coaching tree was sprouting new roots, but it is always a challenge to replace good help.  After new ownership took over the Browns, what seemed inconceivable happened.  After the 1962 season, the great Paul Brown was fired from the team that bore his name. Brown left the game, but wanted to get back a few years later.  He created a second team, the Cincinnati Bengals, from scratch in 1968 that was part of yet another league, the American Football League. About this time, the AFL was lined up to merge with the NFL.  Expansion draft rules for new teams represented huge hurdles to quick team development, but the Bengals improved quickly.

Brown coached and managed two different teams that played in three different leagues.  Brown's football life was much more complicated than the other nine Pillars of the NFL.
Copyright 2014 by Sporting Chance Press
Pillars of the NFL examines the football lives of Paul Brown and others whom the record book deems to be the best of the best. It was wonderful to have many sources of information to use when crafting the book. Our author has included many references in the extensive end notes provided.