RIP Art Modell

September 6, 2012

As a Baltimore Ravens fan, I suppose there are a lot of superlatives I could write about the late former team owner Art Modell, who passed away Thursday at age 87, but I suppose the best thing I could say is, thanks.

Thanks Art for bringing pro football back to Baltimore.

Thanks for establishing the Ravens as one of the model franchises in the NFL.

Thanks for making us forget about Bob Irsay, Mayflower vans, being passed over for an expansion team in favor of Jacksonville (how’s that one working NFL?) and having Paul Tagliabue – the freakin’ commissioner – tell us to build a museum instead of pursue a football team.

Thank you for having the good grace to leave the Cleveland Browns records and colors in Cleveland where they belong and establish your own identity.

Thanks for listening to Ozzie Newsome and taking Jonathan Ogden over Lawrence Phillips in 1996, even though I know you thought Phillips would help sell tickets in a new market.

Thanks for bringing in the likes of Ray Lewis, Shannon Sharpe, Brian Billick, Tony Siragusa, Rod Woodson, Peter Boulware, Trent Dilfer, Michael McCrary and Jamal Lewis.

Thanks for gracefully passing the torch to Steve Bisciotti.

And thank you for the Lombardi Trophy in 2000.

I suppose I could end there but as a Ravens fan it’s hard to sum up Modell so succinctly. He was a complex figure for sure, as loved by Ravens fans as he was loathed by Cleveland fans who still curse his name the same way older Baltimore fans still curse Irsay.

There was a difference between Art and Irsay of course: Irsay was as loathsome in the private sector – his own mother once said he was the devil, his brother accused him of running his father out of business – as he was owning a football team.

Modern fans would never believe the sort of stunts Irsay pulled. They got a brief view during Barry Levinson’s film “The Band That Wouldn’t Die,” about the Baltimore Colts marching band. That film showed Irsay’s famous airport press conference where he showed up, drunk, and denied he was out of town shopping the Colts to Phoenix (which is exactly what he was doing). But Irsay did worse. Much, much worse.

Like demand the coaches alternate quarterbacks.

Like fire Howard Schnellenberger four games into the season and replace him with the general manager.

Like go over Ernie Accorsi's head and trade John Elway for basically a bag of balls.

Like once suggesting the quarterback was taking money from gamblers.

LIke, well, you get the point. For more Irsay madness check out John Steadman's "From Colts To Ravens" or Sports Illustrated's legendary 1986 profile and you will come away thinking there is not a chance in hell Roger Goodell would let a guy like Irsay anywhere near his league today.

Point being, Irsay was a first class scumbag, in addition to being a terrible owner.

The worst Modell could be accused of is being a greedy businessman who sold out Cleveland. Big shocker that the NFL has greedy businessmen, I know.

Look, Modell was given a godfather offer by Baltimore. Put yourself in his shoes: you play in a dump known as Cleveland Municipal Stadium. You have financial problems (it was well-known Modell had to go to the bank to get money to pay for free agent receiver Andre Rison). The city isn’t building you a new stadium like they did for the baseball team and the basketball team.

Along comes Baltimore with a shiny, rent-free, taxpayer-paid-for new stadium where you keep all the parking and concession revenue and add $60 million to your franchise value.

To quote Dennis Hopper in “Speed,” “What do you do?”

Modell elected to take the Baltimore deal. I’m not sure what other people would do, but Art took the deal and decided to live with the consequences. It couldn’t have been easy, knowing that he was now a pariah back in Cleveland, where he had owned the club since 1961. He knew when he signed that piece of paper he could never go back there again. Not even to go to the funeral of his friend Otto Graham. Again, what would you do?

In addition to that, the move submarined his chances of getting inducted into the Hall of Fame, thanks to the likes of Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, a Hall voter. On the merits, Modell should be there: he was one of the first to see that the future of the game was on television and was a big proponent of collective bargaining. Ravens fans and Baltimore media have lobbied for years to get Art in the Hall, but its one of those things that, to me, always feels like a losing battle. The forces allied against Art are just too powerful.

Maybe Art knew it was a losing battle too. Maybe he thought that was part of the deal. That in exchange for the Super Bowl and being viewed as the savior of football in Baltimore, he would have to take a lifetime of media/fan slings and arrows and give up a spot in Canton.

 I only believe that because it always looked like he wore the decision to move on his face at all times. Even when he was happy, and amongst the adoring crowds of Baltimore or his own family, he sometimes seemed a lonely figure. Only he knew what kind of burden he beared.

The lifting of that burden seemed to come with the Super Bowl win. Modell was nothing if not geniune when he teared up in the locker room after the game. It was as if all the crap he'd been through over the five years since he made the move was finally worth it. Having watched the Super Bowl XXXV highlight video roughly 1,000,000 times, you can tell Modell was so popular in the room that the coaches and players clearly wanted to win it for him.

The Super Bowl was probably doubly cathartic because Art knew his time as principal owner of the team was running down. He still had financial issues even after getting the deal to move to Baltimore, hence bringing Bisciotti in as a partner in 2000. As detailed in John Feinstein’s “Next Man Up,” Bisciotti bought into the team with the knowledge that he’d eventually take over full ownership, a difficult decision for Modell to come to grips with.

But to Bisciotti’s credit, the team always kept Art involved, kept him as part of the team. And he was a father figure to many of the coaches and players on the team, long after he stepped aside.

He had to be proud of the way Bisciotti, Newsome, Billick and John Harbaugh had steered his beloved franchise into what it is today. He had to take pride in knowing how much the franchise means to Ravens fans, and that he helped make that possible.

And I think if he had his druthers, knowing how things turned out, he’d still take the deal.

RIP, Art.

  • Ryan Mavity has been a reporter with the Cape Gazette since February 2007. He covers the city of Rehoboth Beach, Baltimore Ravens football and Delaware State University football. He lives in Georgetown with his wife, Rachel and their son, Alex.

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