BOWLING GREEN — The greatest pro football dynasty of them all was born the morning of July 29, 1946, in Bowling Green State University’s Alpha Xi Delta sorority house.
A room filled with 49 men seated in seven rows of desks fell silent as their coach began his first address. The Cleveland Browns were about to begin training camp on the campus’ sprawling open fields, and Paul Brown wanted the team to be very clear on his expectations.
“We’ll settle for nothing less than a winner,” Brown told the players, according to Michael MacCambridge’s book, America’s Game. “When you think of baseball, you think of the Yankees. When you think of golf, Bobby Jones comes to mind. When you think of boxing, it’s Joe Louis. One of these days when people think of football, I want them to think of the Cleveland Browns.”
If the possibility evoked rolled eyes at the time, that’s just what happened.
For six simple but indelible summers at Bowling Green, Otto Graham and Dante Lavelli and Marion Motley and the Browns swam at the quarry, inhaled the cafeteria offerings at the log Falcon’s Nest, and forged a team that redefined football. The room that first day featured seven future Hall of Fame players, and during the next decade the Browns would win seven championships — four in the All-America Football Conference and three in the NFL.
Could a franchise in eternal, but futile, chase of its golden past return to where it all began?
While the Browns are among the many NFL teams who have long since chosen convenience over nostalgia in staging training camp at their palatial year-round practice complex, new Cleveland coach Mike Pettine has expressed interest in packing back up for an off-site location. Among the logical destinations include greater Columbus and Toledo — two populated but divided markets the Browns have long sought to further penetrate — though a team spokesman called it “way too early” to speculate on potential sites.
“It’s something we’ll discuss, and we’ve already had some preliminary discussions,” Pettine told reporters about relocating camp away from team headquarters in Berea. “[With a remote camp], you compartmentalize the year where you’re in a different setting. I think it means something.
“It maybe requires a little more focus. You take them away from the comforts of home and get them away from family a little bit. They’re concentrating completely on football. But it’s quite an undertaking.”
Team officials would find ample precedent. The Pittsburgh Steelers spend several weeks every summer living in the dorms at tiny Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., the Oakland Raiders decamp for a middle school in Napa Valley, and the Dallas Cowboys travel 1,500 miles to Oxnard, Calif. In all, 11 teams continue to hold retreat-style camp.
The Browns can also consult their archives. Before moving camp to its Berea nerve center in 1992 — and remaining there after returning to the NFL in 1999 — Cleveland toiled at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland (1982-91), Kent State (1975-81), Hiram College (1952-74), and, of course, Bowling Green (1946-51).
The possibilities have recast a light on the franchise’s most formative early summers.
It was in Bowling Green where Brown first took a sledgehammer to convention, where an exacting coach with an experimental flair sent football hurtling inexorably into the modern era.
The story begins in 1944, when Cleveland taxi-cab tycoon Art McBride bought the rights to a team in the new AAFC — a league of eight teams created to challenge the powerful NFL. He gave Brown a $25,000 annual salary, a five percent stake in the franchise, and carte blanche to construct his latest winner.
Brown was a paradox, 37 years old but already an Ohio legend. He had built Massillon Washington into the nation’s foremost high school power and led Ohio State to the 1942 national championship. Brown then spent two years during World War II stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside Chicago, where he coached the school’s football team.
Along the way, he kept detailed notes on the players he coached and faced, and he relied on those connections to form the Browns.
Graham, an ideal quarterback for the Browns’ T-formation offense, was the star tailback on the Northwestern team that stunned the Buckeyes in 1941. Lavelli was an end on Ohio State’s championship team before joining the 28th Infantry Division and landing on Omaha Beach. Lou Groza, a kicker and tackle, impressed at OSU before being shipped to the Philippines and Okinawa as a surgical technician.
Brown’s search for the best players also made him an unwitting pioneer. He signed Motley and former OSU lineman Bill Willis, two of the four players who would break pro football’s color barrier in 1946 — a year before Jackie Robinson became the first black major league baseball player in the modern era.
In Bowling Green, then a town of about 10,000, Brown saw a distraction-free outpost where players would live football.
Each day was planned to the minute, beginning with the 7 a.m. fire alarm that clanged through the sorority house. Players ate breakfast at 7:30, changed alongside the BG college players in the gymnasium locker room, and reported for the first of two daily practices.
There, on the acres of open fields at Sterling Farms — now the site of the Student Recreation Center — the face of football changed.
While few coaches took strategy seriously in an era of brain-rattling mass formations, Brown taught a game of precision that suited his perfectionist streak. He distributed thick playbooks, installed precision timing and option passing routes, and held film study. He hired six year-round assistants — double the staff of others — including an advance scout who traveled to the game of the Browns’ next opponent. (Another Brown creation: The taxi squad. The team’s nonroster reserves were put on the payroll driving cabs for McBride as they waited for an emergency summons. Minus the taxis, the concept is seen in today’s practice squads.)
Brown also borrowed from his time in the service. He gave players a 12-minute, 50-question Army intelligence test that later became known as the Wonderlic and stressed physical fitness.
In 1949, he promised tackle Chubby Grigg a $500 bonus if he came to Bowling Green weighing less than 280 pounds. There was just one problem.
“No scale in camp was gauged that high,” the New York Times reported. “So they carted this man-mountain downtown to a wholesale butcher’s and wheeled him onto the scale. He weighed 273 and collected the bonus.”
In their little free time, players headed to the nearby quarry or relaxed at the sorority house. Some gathered around the television the team bought as a gift for the sorority, others played cards. Brown’s son, Mike, who spent his teenage summers in BG assisting the team’s equipment manager, recalls the nights he spent in the second-floor room shared by Motley and Willis.
“They would include me in their games of Hearts,” Brown told The Blade. “We would try to put the queen of hearts on Marian because he would always squawk and go on about it. They treated me in a way that I never forgot, and they became my heroes. However many years later it is now, they are still my heroes.”
Not surprisingly, The Blade reported, the Browns were a “well-disciplined crew who committed no great wear and tear on the house.” Brown tolerated no funny business, and certainly no “drinkers or chasers.” Alpha Xi Delta went dark at 10:30 p.m., followed by bed checks. During the season, Brown barred players from having sex with their wives after Tuesday night of game weeks.
“ ‘Save yourself for the game,’ ” Graham said, according to MacCambridge. “We kidded about that. I guess it shows the morality of that time. Paul didn’t realize that sex existed outside the marriage. I kept asking him, ‘What about the single men?’ and Paul never answered.”
No room for errors
Perfection was the base expectation. Heck, Mike Brown recalled his father blistering the team after an exhibition loss in Toledo. In 1949, future Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle and the Baltimore Colts had cast aside the Browns 21-17 before a crowd of 13,433 at the Glass Bowl.
The Browns acquitted themselves in the next year’s Glass Bowl exhibition, thumping the Green Bay Packers 38-7.
“My dad just lit into those guys,” said Brown, now the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, the franchise his father co-founded in 1968. “My eyes bugged out. On that bus back to [Bowling Green], there wasn’t a word. It was just dead silence. They didn’t want to lose, preseason game or not.”
And so they didn’t. Led by the quarterback known as “Automatic Otto,” the Browns opened the 1946 season with a 44-0 win against the Miami Seahawks at a packed Cleveland Stadium and carved through the conference. In their 14-9 win against the New York Yankees in the first AAFC title game, Graham threw for 213 yards while the Browns silenced the visitors’ single-wing offense.
Cleveland went 52-4-3 and won every AAFC championship in the league’s four-year existence.
“Paul Brown’s thinking was so many years ahead of his contemporaries, it wasn’t even close,” The Blade wrote. “His rivals were playing a different, old-fashioned game.”
After the 1949 season, the Browns, Colts, and San Francisco 49ers joined the NFL, where the hierarchy remained similar. Cleveland defeated the Los Angeles Rams for the 1950 NFL championship, and it made the title game each of the next five seasons. In their first decade, the Browns went 114-20-4 with seven championships — a 10-year run unsurpassed in pro football history.
The Browns moved their training camp to Hiram in 1952 to be closer to Cleveland. Yet, generations later, the legacy of their six summers in Bowling Green endures.
In the popularity of America’s new pastime. In the eight bronze busts at the Hall of Fame in Canton, including one for Brown. In the Browns’ orange and brown uniforms, which Brown borrowed from the BG Falcons. And in the greatest dynasty of them all.
The one that began in a Bowling Green sorority house.