Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
On November 6th, 1994, the Cleveland Browns beat the New England Patriots at Cleveland Municipal Stadium in front of their home fans by a score of 13-6 to bring their overall record to 7-2. Bill Belichick, who took over coaching the Browns in 1991, hardly had an easy time getting the team to buy into what he was selling, but progress was being made. The Browns were learning how to win and were learning how to do it the Belichick way.
That year, the team made the playoffs with an 11-5 record, but lost for the third time that season to their arch rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the second round of the playoffs.
Still, things were looking up heading into the 1995-96 season for the Browns, and many expected the team to contend for an AFC Central title and more that year.
But on November 6th, 1995 – one year after the Browns’ victory over a team Belichick would go on to coach to four Super Bowl titles – the entire future of the Cleveland Browns organization changed forever.
Art Modell, then-owner of the Cleveland Browns, took to a podium at Camden Yards in Baltimore and announced that he was relocating the team to Baltimore for the 1996 NFL season.
Three months later, on February 15th, 1996, Bill Belichick was fired.
An historic and proud NFL franchise was on its way out of town, and a future sure-fire Hall Of Fame coach was unceremoniously dismissed.
Today, is the 21st anniversary of Belichick’s first, and ostensibly his last firing from an NFL head coaching job.
In honor of the occasion, here’s a look back at the events that surrounded the Belichick-lead Browns – from the early years of dissension, to the success of the middle years, to “all hell” breaking loose at the bitter end, as one former player described it.
These are the recollections of some of the players and coaches that were a part of Belichick’s Browns years, and the members of the media that covered them as well.
Note: Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.
What was your first impression of Bill Belichick when he came from the New York Giants to Cleveland Browns?
Mark Bavaro (Giants tight end, 1985-1991 – Browns tight end, 1992):
“I didn’t have much of a relationship with Bill (in New York) because he was on defense, but I just knew that he was a very confident coach and we had a lot of confidence in him. Speaking for myself, knowing that [Belichick was] drawing up the defensive game plans gave me a lot of confidence from the offensive side of the ball. Especially in Super Bowl XXV.
You know you’re playing the Buffalo Bills and they were averaging, I don’t know, 50 points a game or something like that. I knew that we couldn’t score that many points on offense. So I didn’t have a whole lot of hope going into that game that we would win, except for the belief that somehow Belichick would find a way to limit Buffalo’s points. That combined with our holding of the ball for 40 minutes led us to victory.
Without Belichick, I don’t think we had a chance there and that was the case with most of our games at the time. That defense was definitely the strength of our team, and he was in charge of that. We had a lot of confidence in the players. We had Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, Leonard Marshall, Jim Burt, you could go on and on with these guys. We knew, from an offensive side of the ball, that the guy in charge was Belichick and that we were never going to really get blown out of any game from a point perspective.
Carl Banks (Giants linebacker, 1984-1992 – Browns linebacker, 1994-1995)
“He was the same (in Cleveland). When I got there, it was not much different as a nine-year veteran, Bill Belichick says to me, ‘don’t expect me to be any different with you than I would have been if I were coaching you with the Giants.’ So I’m like, ‘alright.’
He says, ‘you’ve always been a good special teams player, so you’re gonna have to run down on kickoffs, you’re gonna have to run down on punts, you’re gonna have to do kickoff returns and you’re gonna have to do punt returns. I’m not gonna ask you to do it because I’m trying to prove a point, but I am trying to prove a point that I’ll ask my best players to do what they do best.
So my first day of practice, I’m running down covering kicks, covering punts, returns, and some of the veterans on the team couldn’t believe it, they were like, what the hell is that? So he was showing that, what he was asking people to do was no different. And I did it, because I was good at it anyway. So at that point, you could see things starting to change a little bit. But then it became a locker room that was divided. It was now ‘oh, Bill Belichick has his boys here now, so whose side are you on.’
But eventually, it started to really take shape and I think we set some defensive records that one year, my first year there, we had a record-setting year. Then we went to the playoffs and had some success, but then that second year all hell broke loose.”
Kirk Ferentz (Iowa football head coach, 1999-present – Browns OL coach 1993-95)
“(Cleveland) was my first experience in the NFL and I’m still not sure how I got on (Belichick’s) list of candidates, I think I was number seven in line but I got to interview with him and that was quite a process as well.
I got there his third year and was more of an outsider at that point. Still, you could always see that he had a plan and was working methodically to execute it.
My second year there was when things really started to blossom, I think we went 12-6 that year and three of our six losses were to the Steelers, who were the real heavyweights of that division at that time.
Then in my third year – the word I’d use for it – I’d just call the whole thing a surreal experience.”
Jeff Phelps (Cleveland Sports Reporter/Host of 92.3 The Fan’s “Baskin & Phelps” Show)
“You thought the guy knew what he was doing because he just won a Super Bowl. He really looked like he was a young coach who had some real abilities and real knowledge and then he put together a coaching staff that was really interesting and really good. And so I think a lot of people gave him the benefit of the doubt. It hadn’t worked out with Bud Carson and everybody just thought ‘well let’s see what this guy does.’ He had done so well with New York, I think everybody was kind of excited about the idea of a guy who had just won coming in.”
Mary Kay Cabot (Cleveland Browns Beat Writer for Cleveland.com)
“My first impression was that he was a tough as nails football coach that was smart and knew what he was doing and was going to improve this football team on the field. He was someone who was not going to be all laughs and smiles during press conferences and somebody who could be a little difficult to deal with, but that doesn’t determine whether or not you’re a good football coach or not.”
Was the locker room divided over Belichick?
Banks: “You know, we talked a lot prior to me getting there, and he felt he just needed enough players. Getting to Cleveland it was a little bit like animal house because they had some guys in the locker room that had heavy influence; they had just gotten rid of Bernie Kosar so that didn’t go over well with what Belichick wanted to try to accomplish with the team.
Pepper Johnson was there, and Pepper and I talked basically every other night, and it was one of those situations where he was like, ‘yo, we have a lot of really good players here, and we could have a really good team, we just need to get a few guys on board.’”
Bavaro: “The NFL wasn’t ready for him, the players at the time weren’t ready for him. Most importantly, the owner wasn’t ready for him. They just weren’t ready for a guy of his, I don’t want to say intellect – but his football knowledge, the way he sees the game. He got rid of Bernie Kosar. He walked into a situation, assessed it, figured out what need to be done, and he did.
Well, they hated him for it. The fans hated him for it. I don’t think the management liked him for it and I think they fought him on it for the most part, and the players hated him for it. You got to remember, Cleveland was a really tight group, they should’ve gone to the super bowl a few times in the 80s. We probably should’ve been playing the Browns in the Super Bowl in ‘86. They had Denver beat, they were bigger better tougher more and NFC type team than Denver. They were a lot like us. It would’ve been a great Super Bowl. They were tough, guys had been there for a long time, there was a hierarchy there.
When I got there I remember hearing some complaints that practices were too hard, meetings were too long. I don’t think we had an offensive coordinator at that time, but the guy that called the plays, I remember him up at the board and Bernie Kosar just interrupting him: ‘no, no, coach, we don’t do it that way, we’re not going to do it that way.’
You know, I’m coming from the Giants, you kept your mouth shut. You couldn’t say stuff like that. And if you did, (Bill) Parcells would kick you out of here faster than you could blink. I waited for Gary to yell at him, I waited for something to happen, and nothing happened. It’s just like, this is a whole different world here. You had players like Bernie, Clay Matthews … these guys were great, great players. These guys were established, old veterans. They just did not like a new guy coming in and disrupting things.”
Ferentz: “I didn’t feel that way. In the 1993 season the NFL instituted unrestricted free agency and that changed everything, especially from the days of the old Steelers and it was a historical change.
We didn’t have those issues the year before and we were doing just fine in the final year prior to the announcement of the move.”
Phelps: “Not having the same kind of behind the scenes access, obviously, that the players would, you knew that the guys that he brought in were on board with him. As they should’ve been and knew what he was capable of. I think without question there were probably guys that thought that Bernie had maybe better ideas for the offense, or better ideas on how something might go. As many players on the team would follow the QB. I think that’s probably safe to say.”
Do you feel the media treated Belichick unfairly in Cleveland?
Ferentz: “Oh, absolutely. That was the first thing I noticed when I got there in ’93. That’s the biggest difference between the NFL and college. And when things really start going south that’s what tends to happen. Still, I’m not sure Bill always got treated fairly by the media quite frankly.”
Bavaro: “I wasn’t paying attention to the media, I don’t know who those guys are. I’m probably the last person you should ask, because I never read anything or talked to anybody.
I can believe it, because it wasn’t just the media—I mean I’m sure they formed people’s opinions– but the people didn’t like Bill. I don’t think they gave him the leeway that he needed. As soon as Bill went to the Patriots, Kraft had the wherewithal to leave him alone and let him coach, do what he wanted to do the way he saw fit. I mean he had immediate success.
I think if Modell had done that in Cleveland, he’d have never had to worry about the media. He would’ve had success right away, or pretty fast, and the fans would’ve won him over.
Banks: “There were two main writers in town that just didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt, Tony Grossi and Mary Kay Cabot, both of which were ardent critics of anything Bill tried to accomplish.
Despite the success we had, folks in the media just never gave us credit. We always had a guy in our locker room that could feed bad information out there, but we all knew who it was.
(Grossi and Mary Kay) always had sources in the locker room that no matter what went on they could always point to something bad. They had a guy in there that was the guy that would give them all that they needed.”
Cabot (On Banks’ Criticism): I don’t really think that’s a fair statement at all. I don’t think that you would find anything to really support that. I was covering the team as a beat writer, I wasn’t a columnist at that time so I wasn’t writing opinion, I was just covering the team as a beat. I suppose that if you went back and looked at the stories, there were controversial things that happened that we obviously wrote about, things like him cutting Bernie Kosar and other unpopular decisions that he made that were written by me as regular news stories so I don’t think that’s a fair statement at all.
It just became a negative atmosphere between the Browns and the fans, I mean they were moving towns. Everything got out of control.
Phelps: “I disagree with the thought that the media was undermining the head coach. He didn’t extend an olive branch to the media at all to try and build much of a relationship. He didn’t treat the media poorly, but he didn’t go out of his way to give great answers or anything like that at the press conference. I’ve always thought it’s a two way street.
There’re guys that have been coaches that have been very, very successful and have had good relationships with the media. And that doesn’t mean that you have to suck up to the media or the media has to suck up to the coach. It just means that it has to be two ways. Bill didn’t care for it to be two ways, he didn’t need it to be in his mind, and he’s certainly been proven to be right in New England.
But to think that the media undermined Bill here I think is ridiculous. What undermined Bill here was Art Modell announcing during the season that the team was going to be moving to Baltimore. And that trashed any chance Bill had of following up a pretty good year with another good year. And, obviously ended up with him being removed from the job when the team moved to Baltimore.”
How did the announcement of the move affect the team?
Banks: “I think Bill was done with it (after the move announcement) because Art had lied to him and everybody else on the team, basically the same day they announced the move, he told us everything was fine in a team meeting. And at the end of the day we find out through the media that the team was relocating, and that’s when all hell broke loose. Most of the players who were looking for a reason not to play hard didn’t anyway.”
Ferentz: “It’s funny, I almost tried to put something in my contract that if the team relocated I’d be free to leave. But then my response was, ‘it’s the Browns, they’re an NFL institution, they’ll never move. If they do move that’s everything that’s wrong with professional football if that ever happened.’
And I remember that day like it was yesterday. It rocked the world. Most importantly the team lost it.”
Cabot: “You could see that they were 11-5 and on the right track and then everything just fell apart in the year that they moved. Here’s what I think happened. I think Art wanted to start fresh with the team when he went to Baltimore and Bill Belichick at that time, he was a lightning rod for negative publicity. He cut Bernie Kosar, which was a horrible negative thing for him and he had received at least one death threat here. It was a very very volatile situation and I think Art just wanted to start fresh. I think he wanted to have somebody that would be a different face of the franchise.”
Phelps: We all kind of thought there was no way you could go into a new town with a new football team and have Bill as your head coach. Only because, along with getting an NFL team back, as it turns out I don’t think they would’ve minded anybody as the head coach, but Art was always kind of real publicity conscious, public relations conscious, and was pretty good in that area.
I only thought he thought he needed somebody that could be the face of the franchise right away and sell it. Ted Marchibroda obviously had a past in Baltimore and that worked a little bit better. Because of that reason, I think that’s why bill was let go. I think if Art had never moved the team, I think bill would’ve stayed the coach of the browns.
When did you realize Belichick would be a great head coach in the NFL?
Ferentz: “Bill did a masterful job the entire time in Cleveland. He never lost his composure and never wavered in his system even though everything came unraveled.
I’ve always told people I think (Bill) was a Hall of Fame coach there in Cleveland as well, especially considering there were some real unusual circumstances there.”
Banks: “Well, I don’t think there was a moment that anyone had any doubt that he’d be a great coach in this league. He was the guy that most people thought, well, he’s not a great people person, but when you get to know him he was pretty darn personable and had a great relationship with all his players. At that point, I don’t think anybody doubted that he’d be a hell of a coach.”
Bavaro: “I never understood the Giants not giving him the job when Parcells left. It was always baffling to me. If you had to pick the most confident guy on that coaching staff, it wasn’t even a contest. Ron Erhardt had that head coach charisma about him but he was older, he had already done it at New England. As far as who would be the next big head coach out of that coaching tree, I think pretty much everyone knew it was going to be Belichick.
Phelps: “Even though Art was PR conscious with Belichick, I think he thought he had a good young coach. I’ve always thought, that if he stayed in Cleveland, I think bill would’ve stayed. I think that last year in Cleveland would’ve been a good year instead of ending the way it did.
I only thought (Art) thought he needed somebody that could be the face of the franchise right away (in Baltimore) and sell it. Ted Marchibroda obviously had a past in Baltimore and that worked a little bit better. Because of that reason, I think that’s why bill was let go. I think if Art had never moved the team, I think bill would’ve stayed the coach of the browns.
You could tell he knew what he was doing, you could tell he knew football. You could also tell he knew assistant coaches, his assistant coaching staff was incredible.
When they got rid of Kosar, and that was a PR nightmare, well Bill was right, and Bernie admitted that later and he and Bernie patched up their relationship and had a lot of respect for each other. Bill clearly knew what he was doing he just didn’t care what anybody thought of him. It probably stays true today, right? The guy answers questions at the press conference but he’s not as outwardly open as many coaches. When Marty Schottenheimer was the coach here, and I always thought this was interesting, Marty had a great relationship with the fans. The fans loved him here. An okay relationship with the media, I wouldn’t say it was a great one, but I’d say it was more than okay. It always impressed me, and this might sound stupid, Marty showed up for every press conference on Monday after the games when the coaches had to speak, he always looked good. He was wearing like a sweater and like a button down shirt. Always had a nice, clean appearance. He presented himself well.
And you see many coaches do that now but you also see—well, Bill just shows up. That’s fine, it works for him, but it was interesting, and I think it all added to why Art got rid of him when he went to Baltimore. That’s only my impression of it, but I always thought that if Art hadn’t moved the team, Bill would’ve stayed here.
Cabot: “I thought Bill Belichick was a good football coach and you could see that the year before the team moved. I thought he was a good football coach, he put together a great staff he put together a good team. I mean, if I were Art Modell at that time I would have kept Bill Belichick.
What’s the biggest difference you see in Belichick now from his time in Cleveland?
Banks: “He hasn’t changed. He subscribes to really sound principles, he’s probably smarter in some areas but he’s no more open with the media than he’s ever been. He cares about getting his players ready to play. He’s not selling used cars, he’s not a stand-up comedian, and he never will be. And the sooner people realized that, it narrowed the relationship gap.”
Ferentz: “Well, I don’t want to speak for him, but I’m sure he’d say that he’s a better and a smarter coach now than he was then. I remember speaking with my wife after the move from Cleveland and saying two things about Bill.
One, was that he won’t just take any other job. There are only a select few great head coaching jobs in professional football and I knew he’d be smart and selective with his next choice.
The other thing was, that you realize when you work with him for three years that he’s a great person and an incredible football coach. You knew the next time he ran a program that he’d be that much better at it and that much more prepared because of what he went through in Cleveland.”
Cabot: “He’s exactly who he was back then. He’s himself, he’s the same guy in press conferences, he’s the same guy with the players I mean, he learned from some of the mistakes he made here (in Cleveland). I think he handled the quarterback stuff a little differently as he went along, but for the most part he’s the same guy that he was.
Phelps: “It’s interesting because I would say that he looks more confident, except he doesn’t. You would think all the success made him confident, he was pretty dang confident when he was here. And that might’ve been one thing that didn’t fit well with a lot of folks because he hadn’t won anything. But he was equally as confident in his abilities here as he appears to be in New England.
One thing that I do think is interesting, is I do think he’s kind of been a little more revolutionary in NE—the American revolution joke there—just like different approaches to things. They might run the ball 7 times in New England and let Tom throw it 54 times. He was such a defensive guy coming from the Giants, here in Cleveland I thought he was a little more defensive oriented than he is now. It’s interesting to me that his defense isn’t his calling card anymore because his offenses with Tom Brady have been so good.
Bavaro: “(In Cleveland) he was the same guy. Bill has never really changed over the years. He’s got that personality that not everybody understands, but if you know him you’d realize he’s a good guy. He’s really personal, he’s really funny. But from an authoritative standpoint, you’re afraid of him.
He did the same stuff in New England as in Cleveland, too. He got rid of so many players that are considered icons. Because he knows, he knows when you’re done. He knows your worth. It’s really nothing personal, it’s just he’s running the team, he’s running his business. He knows when its time, the amount of money you’re making compared to your productivity. He knows all of this. He knows it better than any type of coach in the history of football. You have to have the freedom to make those moves. He didn’t have that in Cleveland, and when he did, he didn’t get any support from anybody. And he was young, he was probably was lacking in some areas of being a head coach that he rectified in New England. At the time, there was a learning curve that he had to go through himself. I think if they had given him the time and the patience, he would have done in Cleveland what he did in New England, without a question. But they didn’t.”
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on 2/15/16.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.