Cheapskate Brown family has the Bengals at a crossroads

I still remember the time I was waiting for an airport shuttle bus at a hotel outside Chicago a couple of decades ago after the NFL owners had just concluded a meeting.

The only other two people waiting were Paul Brown and his son, Mike Brown.

It was unusual to see NFL owners waiting for a shuttle bus since they usually travel by limo.

Paul Brown, though, said that wasn’t their style.

“We’re not limo people,’’ he said.

The owners of the Cincinnati Bengals are not your typical NFL owners. Brown is credited with modernizing the NFL game and started two franchises, the Cleveland Browns – named for himself  — and the Cincinnati Bengals.

His first 10 years with the Browns from 1946 to 1955 featured 10 trips in a row to the title game – four in the old AAFC – and seven championships.

Fired by Art Modell as the Cleveland coach after the 1962 season, Brown returned to the league in 1968 as the founder and first coach of the Bengals. With the help of his son Mike, he made sure he would never be fired again.

Even though Brown only owned 10 percent of the $8 million worth of the franchise, he made sure he had iron control of the team by finding wealthy investors who were willing to put up the money and let him run it.

Brown died two decades ago, but the franchise remains in the hands of the Brown family.

Over the years, the family kept buying out minority investors, as was chronicled in a 2014 Cincinnati Magazine story called, “The Inheritance.’’

By 2011, the family owned 500 of the 586 franchise shares of a team worth $1.8 billion, according to Forbes, and they got it for a fraction of the current value.

And the Bengals have been profitable.  They made $66 million in profits from 1984 to 1993, with most of it going to the shareholders. And they made a deal with investor John Sawyer for Paul’s two sons, Mike and Pete Brown, to buy Sawyer’s 330 shares for $25,000 a share in 1993.

They wound up buying those shares in 1993 for $8 million, about a quarter of their worth at the time.

And they paid Dutch Knowlton’s estate $200 million for his 30 percent stake in 2011.

Not surprisingly, the Brown family is well paid. According to documents filed in a lawsuit involving the Knowlton estate, it was revealed that five members of the Brown family were paid $3.9 million in 1999 and $3.6 million in 2000.

The team is so profitable that Mike Brown is often accused of being more interested in making money than winning football games.

When the team got the county to build the team a new stadium for the team by threatening to move, the Wall Street Journal called it “one of the worst deals ever struck by a local government.’’

But it was a very good deal for the Bengals and their bottom line.

When Paul Brown was alive, the team made money and won games. He had the expansion team in the playoffs by his third season in 1970, and it went to two Super Bowls after he stepped down as head coach even though he made a major hiring mistake. They might have made more Super Bowl trips if Paul Brown hadn’t hired Bill Johnson instead of Bill Walsh to replace him. Walsh eventually took over the 49ers and won three Super Bowls, twice beating the Bengals in the Super Bowl, after leaving Cincinnati.

When Paul Brown died in 1991, Mike Brown decided to run the  franchise himself instead of bringing in a football person to take over and the team struggled for years, notably during the 19-52 tenure of David Shula, who now runs his father’s steakhouse chain. The Bengals were 55-137 from 1991 to 2002, with no playoff appearances.

Things started to turn around in 2003, when Mike Brown hired Marvin Lewis as head coach. They made the playoffs in 2005 and 2009. But when they slipped to 5-11 in 2010, there was speculation that Lewis would be fired or that he didn’t want to return.

Brown wanted to keep him, and Lewis used his leverage to get the team to improve its mom-and-pop operation with things like building a new practice facility.

The team then made the playoffs five years in a row from 2011 to 2015 with Andy Dalton at quarterback but didn’t win any playoff games and last year slumped to 6-9-1.

Then they started out 0-2 this season and failed to score a touchdown in either game. That left them with a 10-16-1 mark since they started out 8-0 in 2015.

After a Thursday night loss to Houston, Lewis made the difficult decision to fire offensive coordinator Ken Zampese, who took over when Hue Jackson left for Cleveland a year ago. Lewis replaced Zampese with Bill Lazor. Zampese had been on Lewis’ staff since he became head coach in 2003.

Lazor makes his debut as the offensive coordinator when the team plays at Green Bay on Sunday. The Bengals will find out if he can get the offense untracked.

Meanwhile, the Brown family and the family are at somewhat of a crossroads. Lewis is in the final year of his deal and didn’t get an extension.

Will he be fired by Brown or his daughter, Katie Blackburn, a lawyer who has become more involved in the franchise in recent years, if they don’t make the playoffs?

Mike Brown has been around long enough to know he might not find a coach as good as Lewis if he fires him or if Lewis decides it’s time to move on.

But the fans are growing restless, and a second straight non-playoff season along with Lewis’ 0-7 playoff record may mean a fresh face is needed on the sidelines.

So the final 14 games of this season will have a lot of ramifications for the Bengals franchise. And it doesn’t help that they’re in a division with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, who both started off 2-0.

On the other hand, the Green Bay game will be followed by the games against the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars, sandwiched around a Steeler game, so the Bengals could be in position for a rebound.

Only one thing is certain: No matters what happens on the field, the team will remain in firm control of the Brown family.

And it’s a good bet that Mike Brown has it set up that the franchise will remain in the family long after he has passed from the scene. And they will run it the Brown way — cheaply.

 

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