An eerie, surreal feeling settled over Cleveland Stadium before the sun set on Dec. 17, 1995.
Entire rows of seats lay on the field. The Browns’ last home game after owner Art Modell’s announcement that he was moving the team to Baltimore had turned volatile in the final three minutes, when referee Gerry Austin was instructed by NFL security to have the Browns switch directions and drive into the closed end.
“(Austin) said it was too dangerous,” quarterback Vinny Testaverde said. “I really didn’t notice anything except for a few explosions.”
After a 26-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, about 20 Browns players headed to the Dawg Pound and were embraced by their faithful followers as fans’ anger turned into tears.
In the twilight of an empty stadium, Browns coach Bill Belichick acquiesced to the wishes of his children Stephen, Amanda and Brian and took them onto the field with then-wife Debby. They walked the mangled grass and absorbed the atmosphere, Belichick thinking about the great players and coaches who had come before. He briefly spoke to John “Big Dawg” Thompson, waiting to be interviewed by ESPN.
Two fans approached and asked for autographs. Belichick signed for both on the yellow slat of a stadium chair.
“I’ve signed a lot of unusual articles, a lot less collectible than those slats,” Belichick said the next day.
During his five seasons in Cleveland, Believeland never really believed in Belichick, who conducted postgame interviews in 1993 to chants of “Bill Must Go” outside the door to the concourse. Next month, the coach of the six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots has a chance to change that.
As a member of the 25-member blue-ribbon panel that will debate Modell’s election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class, Belichick can become a Cleveland hero.
Modell is among 10 finalists in the contributors category for the Centennial Class. To celebrate the league’s 100th anniversary, the panel will add 10 players, three contributors and two coaches to the five modern-era Hall of Famers.
The selection process for the aforementioned 15 is different than for the modern-era candidates, who are voted on by a 48-member committee. The rules seem stacked to improve the odds for controversial candidates like Modell and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, his reputation tarnished by looking the other way when the concussion issue came to the fore. The blue-ribbon panel includes 13 members of the regular selection committee but none from Cleveland.
Among the remaining 12 are Browns Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome, whom Modell promoted with the Ravens in 2002, making him the NFL’s first African-American general manager, and Ernie Accorsi, hired by Modell in 1984 and named executive vice president of football operations a year later. The other 10 include former team executives Bill Polian, Carl Peterson and Ron Wolf (father of Browns assistant GM Eliot Wolf), historians Joel Bussert and Joe Horrigan, Hall of Famers Dick LeBeau and John Madden, NFL Media analyst Elliott Harrison, Chris Willis of NFL Films and Belichick.
Newsome will be Modell’s biggest defender. Newsome can point out Modell’s role as a negotiator in the launch of “Monday Night Football” and agreeing to host the first game, his help in starting NFL Films, his service on the NFL-AFL Merger Committee, breaking the impasse by moving the Browns to the AFC and his chairmanship of the Owners Labor Committee that negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement.
To get Modell in, the blue-ribbon panel must be convinced that all this overshadows Modell’s shortcomings as a businessman, his firing of coaches Paul Brown and Belichick and moving the Browns to Baltimore. Even then, Modell was forced to sell the Ravens to Steve Bisciotti in April 2004.
Six no votes from the 25 will eliminate Modell, who died in 2012 at age 87.
Modell’s selection is considered a tough sell and could be shot down quickly. His competitors are Ralph Hay (founder and owner of the Canton Bulldogs), Bud Adams, Frank “Bucko” Kilroy, Art McNally, Clint Murchison, Steve Sabol, Seymour Siwoff, George Young and Tagliabue. Of those, the standout is Young, GM of the Baltimore Colts, Miami Dolphins and New York Giants and also an NFL executive.
If Modell’s election gets to the argumentative stage, Belichick could provide a powerful voice. He and his family were immersed in Cleveland during his Browns tenure from 1991-95.
He and Debby’s foundation raised money for the Zelma George Home, a shelter for women and children. He took his kids to the Brecksville rec center. He remained close with his neighbors, celebrating with them his first Patriots’ Super Bowl victory in a New Orleans hotel bar, disdaining the ballroom bash upstairs.
Modell has not gotten out of the first round when considered by the regular committee in 2002 and 2013. This could be his best Hall of Fame chance, with three of 10 being chosen.
If the blue-ribbon panel needs someone to paint the picture of Dec. 17, 1995, to describe first-hand the pain Modell caused Browns fans, Belichick can speak from a personal perspective. And in turn, become Cleveland’s champion.