BY JOHN ERARDI
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Paul Brown Stadium Wallpaper
Mike Brown slides his USS Ohio cap onto his head and trudges down the stairs of the Bengals offices to the practice field outside. It is a cold, gray, forbidding day. Across the street, the chimneys of the Queen City Barrel Co. belch brown smoke into the air. There is no sign of the sun.
The Bengals are 3-12, likely headed for 3-13, as they wrap up another dismal season Sunday, at home against Tampa Bay. Tomorrow will be another day of banner-reading and heckle-dodging for Mike Brown, who has not had a winning season since taking over as the team's general manager eight years ago.
Mike's blue hat with gold lettering was a gift from the crew of the first of the country's Trident class of subs. The USS Ohio carries nuclear missiles, and patrols the world's oceans with a 160-man crew for 80 days, then another 160-man crew takes it out for 80 more days.
The Tridents are considered the "tip of the sword." Their mission is to remain undetected.
There are people in Cincinnati who would like to make Mike Brown undetectable. They'd be willing to take up a collection to put Mike and his cap aboard the USS Ohio. They'd raise enough money so Mike and his hat could pull two tours.
Who is this Mike Brown? they wonder.
Why won't he step into the twilight, away from football and move in full-time with the birds, the squirrels and his history books in Indian Hill?
Why won't he tell us what's really going on with the Bengals? Give us those 160 days, Cap'n Mike.
Six months, January through June.
We'll fire head coach Bruce Coslet and his entire staff, hire a hotshot football operations guy and a dozen scouts to scour the college bowl and all-star games for future talent and find a construction firm to assemble a pre-fab heated "bubble" and cajole all the Bengal players to winter workouts.
We'll draft an offensive and defensive line, hire a public-relations firm to wine and dine free agents on visits to Cincinnati and set a financial record by lavishing a mega-million dollar contract on a big-name free agent who would thereby open the floodgates to future NFL talent eager to wear stripes.
We'll settle on the right quarterback and have a real football team ready for you on your return, Cap'n Mike, just in time for training camp. You can still go to practice, Cap'n Mike, still sit in your box for the Sunday games and arrange for the move to the new stadium. We'll let you wear your USS Ohio cap all you want.
We'll even send you back on a cruise next year.
And next year . . . and next year . . . and the year after that . . .
The cats are gone.
Mama cat died two years ago, Baby cat died a year ago.
When Mike comes home after practice to his three-bedroom ranch, he doesn't ask anymore "Where are the girls?"
The "girls" -- the cats -- don't live here anymore.
Mike still feeds the birds and squirrels and raccoon and deer. Still has a copy of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds at the ready on a side table. Still drives a gray Chevy Lumina, still wears the same brown-tweed sports jacket, wing-tipped shoes and button-down Oxford shirts.
Still eschews the modern conveniences. Doesn't turn on the air-conditioning at home until the thermometer hits 90. Won't have anything to do with car phones. Doesn't own an answering machine.
Still reveres the memory of his dad; has a 3-foot-high pile of history and philosophy books on the nightstand, loves chocolate and any flavor of Graeter's Ice Cream.
Still has the Ohio State umbrella in the back of his car, still cues up the Ohio State marching band cassette. Still "gets a kick" out of the continuing football soap opera All My Bengals by Gary Burbank on WLW radio on the rare occasions he hears it.
Still sends his wife a dozen long-stemmed roses on their wedding anniversary (34th) and on her birthday.
Still will sign his autograph "Mikey-Boy," if you ask.
But a family of mice have settled under the hood of the car of Mike's wife, Nancy. The mice spend their nights there, with the food they've collected. Nancy is going to get the car to a mechanic one day soon. Right now, she can't even turn on the car's heater without hearing a terrible clatter.
You want to talk about clatter?
Nancy doesn't turn on the heater or the radio much anymore.
Granddaughter Caroline is 4 years old; Elizabeth 6.
Three weeks ago, before the game at Cinergy Field against Buffalo, Mike suggested to Nancy that she might want to stay home with the girls. Things were getting kind of ugly down at the ol' ballyard. Banners, hecklers, threatened walkouts. Could tomatoes, heads of lettuce and cups of beer be far behind?
Like heck I'm not going, Nancy told Mike.
This is what it's come to?
Nancy went to the game; the girls went, too.
The girls had their usual good time. Elizabeth, who is in kindergarten, noticed the Bengals lost. Elizabeth was hoping to be able to talk about the game during "share time" at school, the way she had eight weeks earlier after the team beat Pittsburgh.
"I'll have to wait until we play Pittsburgh again," Elizabeth said after the loss to Buffalo.
Sure enough. Elizabeth's team beat the Steelers last Sunday in Pittsburgh.
At his home in Indian Hill, Mike can be found more deeply in thought than ever before, chewing over his options on how to resurrect such a moribund team. The franchise itself -- the business end of it -- is in good shape. The other pro team in town should have this guy's problems: the Bengals were recently appraised at $311 million by Forbes magazine; middle of the pack in the NFL. They have a new, state-of-the-art stadium with three practice fields coming on line on the riverfront's west edge in 2000.
And yet, in football . . . as in pitching, managing and head coaching in any professional sport . . . the bottom line for personal appraisal is not financial. The numbers are black and white -- not green -- and totally devoid of gray.
"There's not much I can say to convince people (we're going to turn it around)," Mr. Brown said. "They've heard it from me -- and they've had it. Until we are successful on the field, I don't expect to hear many good things."
He's studying the situation, won't rush to judgment, isn't yet going to deliver anybody's head (including his own) on a silver platter, even though the public is clamoring for it.
But there will be changes, he promises, without saying what they are.
You want to holler: Speak up, man!
The barbarians are at the gate.
But Mike Brown does not flinch.
He was blessed to be the son of the great Paul Brown, and yet he won't talk about the cursed part of it, because in no way does he believe himself cursed. But, being judged by the public's memory and the reputation of a deceased father, that is a curse, isn't it? And being judged daily by numbers that are seemingly generated weekly from beyond the crypt, is that not the worst kind of curse?
The numbers are voiced, and written, often: The Bengals are 39-88 since the death of Paul Brown, a .307 winning percentage, losers of seven of every 10 games they play.
Even the first-year Bengals of 1968 won three games (3-11, compared to this year's 3-12), and that was back when expansion teams were not the loaded outfits they are today. Two years later, coach P.B. took that team to the playoffs, 8-6, first place in the conference. Of course, Mikey Boy had nothing to do with that.
Nothing to do with talking his dad out of retirement in 1967, five years after P.B. had been ousted as coach of the Cleveland Browns by Art Modell. Nothing to do with getting P.B. to locate the new team in Cincinnati. Nothing to do with pushing P.B. to draft Boomer Esiason in 1984. Nothing to do with carrying a lion's share of the load in assembling the team that went to the Super Bowl in 1989.
39-88. 3-12. Eight losses in the last nine games. Three huge, yellow cranes tower above the river. The traffic is snarled, the ingress-and-egress to downtown is a pain, the wind whips the dirt across Third Street, up Plum, Elm and Race. Downtown is a Dust Bowl. It's all your fault, Mike Brown.
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You and your stadium.
Do something about your Bengals.
And if you can't do it, then bring in somebody who can. And if you are the one who intends to do something about it, then tell us how you're going to do it. Because we are the ones who are building your new stadium and buying your seat licenses.
That's what the critics say.
And, right now, the critics include just about everybody.
One of the books on Mike's nightstand is The Landmark Thucydides -- A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War.
Let's see, the Peloponnesian War . . .
Is that the war, Mike, in which Archidamus, the King of Sparta, son of Zeuxis, began a siege against archrival Athens? The same Archidamus who wasted valuable time before the walled city of Oenoe? The Archidamus whose delay brought the "gravest censure" upon himself?
The Archidamus who was blamed "for weakness and Athenian sympathies by the half measures he had advocated . . . (and) further injured himself in public estimation by his loitering at the Isthmus and the slowness with which the rest of (his army's) march had been conducted"? Is that the war, Mike?
Is that what this is? A siege?
The siege of Cincinnati?
The critics want to know, Mike.
You say you believe deeply in the importance and the role of quarterback in making an entire team better. Didn't Boomer re-prove that again last year when he led the Bengals to a 4-1 finish?
What were you waiting for?
A Third Coming?
Why couldn't you have given Boomer the two-year contract he wanted, at the money he wanted, which was considerably less than what you gave this year to Neil O'Donnell, who is no Boomer Esiason? The window was there, Mike. A short window to be sure, but a window. An opportunity for the bold stroke. You would have had your quarterback and you would have had time later to sign a newer one, a younger one, and brought him along the way Boomer was brought along.
Instead, you pulled an Archidamus, and gave us 3-12.
This is what the critics say, Mike.
"I know Mike thought he was doing the right thing by Boomer," said former Bengal Cris Collinsworth, a national commentator with FOX and a close friend of Mr. Esiason. "Mike could have had his quarterback for the next two years and pro personnel director for five years after that, but that didn't matter to Mike."
Most NFL owners would have had their own best interests at heart, Mr. Collinsworth said. They wouldn't have cared if signing Boomer meant he wouldn't be able to do Monday Night Football.
"Jerry Jones (owner of the Dallas Cowboys) would have flown Boomer down to the Bahamas on his personal jet, offered to kiss his ring and signed him right there."
For this, Mr. Brown could be considered out-of-step.
Even he admits it.
"Maybe that is so," he said. "Maybe times have changed and I haven't changed with them. . . . Obviously, I thought somehow we'd land on our feet better than we have (after Mr. Esiason left). I understand the argument. I've thought about it a lot myself. The offense worked. He sure as heck would have helped us."
He doesn't believe football should be a be-all and end-all for the players. Football should be a stepping-stone.
If that sounds antiquated, well, that was P.B.'s lesson, and Mike still believes in it. Amid the 1950s surroundings of Spinney Field -- brown brick and buckled asphalt, boarded-up windows and empty cargo bays, bumpy cobblestones showing through broken sidewalks -- critics say Mike Brown's philosophies have an appropriate home.
"Mike is painfully loyal and painfully patient," said former Bengal Dave Lapham, a talk-show host and game commentator. "Loyalty and patience can be virtues, but they also can be problems. Mike doesn't want to ruin people's lives. He has a hard time firing coaches. He saw what it did to his family when his dad was fired in Cleveland. Mike is very understanding of people's shortcomings."
"I think Mike finds it sad -- although he wouldn't use that word himself -- that there's so much turnover (on NFL rosters) nowadays," says Jack Schiff Jr., a close friend of Mr. Brown. "He likes the players, likes the coaches, likes the life.
He likes to see good athletes do what they do best."
"In Cleveland (in 1962), they said the game had passed by Paul Brown," said former Bengals coach Forrest Gregg. "Paul came to Cincinnati (in 1968) and two years later took an expansion team to the playoffs. Had the game passed him by? No. And I don't believe it's passed Mike by, either.
"Today's game is different, sure, but it's still football. Mike was instrumental in building those teams we had (in the 1980s). The organization must've done something right. You can't put all this (the meltdown) on him."
Mike Brown will not step away.
"This is a wonderful way to live your life," he said. "It isn't wonderful when it's the way it is now, but it's something I've been involved with since I can first remember."
Why is it so wonderful?
"I find it aesthetically pleasing," he said. "I can look out at (a stadium) before a game, and . . . it's more than even what's happening (at the moment on the field). To me, it's a thing of, I know this sounds silly, beauty. There's a certain grandness about it all.
"I like (football) people. I think they're good people. And I like the competitiveness (of the game)."
He's been in the game for more than 50 years.
"When I was young and in college, we had advisers who gave us tests that showed where our interests were -- lawyer, accountant, writer, whatever. The adviser said, 'Your results are a straight line. They don't show an interest anywhere.' Football wasn't on the test. That's what interested me."
Mike Brown has the courage of his convictions -- no matter the record.
"I don't think he feels he could hire somebody who is more qualified than he is (to run the operation)," Mr. Collinsworth said. "It's like the guy who grew up the son of a mechanic. There is no way he is going to hire somebody to fix his own car."
Bad as things are right now for Mr. Brown, they're still better than life without control of the football team.
So, you're going to right the ship, Mike?
"I do feel that I can and will," he said. "I know I can't say that and satisfy anyone at the moment. They aren't going to be satisfied until it happens. I understand that. It's been too long."
Mike Brown doesn't have many defenders right now.
If he unleashed his wife, Nancy, on the talk-show circuit, he wouldn't need anybody else.
Nancy is sharp, feisty and laughs easily. She cuts to the chase. She will say the things Mike won't say.
"We (the Bengals) will be back on top again," she said. "We were there under Mike when his dad was alive. Paul didn't do it all. Mike was at the helm. Of course, Mike would never tell you that, because he thinks it would diminish his dad's reputation. He doesn't want to do that."
But doesn't Nancy ever say to Mike, "We don't need this aggravation. You've got the stadium. It ensures the financial health of the franchise. Step away. It's time. You're 63 years old. You're a grandfather, for gosh sake."
Nancy scoffs at the thought.
"You know what I've said to Mike? I've said, 'If you ever let anyone talk you into stepping down, I'll hit you over the head. Don't let anyone talk you into stepping down!' "
What did Mike say?
"He probably didn't answer me," Nancy said. "That would be his way. He wouldn't say anything."
Why does Nancy feel so strongly Mike shouldn't step aside?
"Because he loves his job," she said. "When people say Mike isn't a football person, it blows my mind. And when people say, 'He doesn't care whether he wins; he just wants to make money,' that blows my mind even more. If they only knew. He's not doing it for the money. The critics would have you believe Mike sits up in his office counting his money. Yes, the franchise has to be financially healthy to compete for players. But Mike loves football; he's always loved football. He wants to get this thing turned around."
What does Nancy think about the dime-store psychologists who say Mike can't give it up because P.B. wouldn't let him go into coaching, wouldn't let him join the Marine Corps, wanted him to be a Harvard-trained lawyer (he is) . . .
Nancy doesn't place stock in it.
"Mike was as close to his father as a son could possibly be," she said. "I've never seen a son love his father more than Mike loved Paul. They were of one mind. It's just unfortunate the way this (the demise of the Bengals, with all the blame being heaped on Mike) has happened. I'll tell you one thing -- and Mike won't like me saying this, either -- but Paul would have been a lot tougher than Mike is being (in the face of the criticism). Maybe we wouldn't still be in Cincinnati. Mike puts up with a lot more than his dad."
There may be something to the father-son connection, however. Even if it's only subtle. The world is full of sons wishing they had the best virtues of their fathers.
"My father died two months ago," said Mr. Schiff, Mr. Brown's close friend. "We worked together for 30 years in the insurance business. You learn a different insight from your father. You enjoy even the rough times. I would think that is certainly true with Mike. My guess is, he enjoys less the 'business' side of football. I've heard him say his best time is when he's on the field, watching the team practice. He enjoys that. I think the psychological part is distant for Mike. But I could see where it could be some sort of factor in every father-son relationship. It's there."
Mr. Collinsworth (WLW-AM radio) and Mr. Lapham (WBOB-AM) both speak freely about what they think Mike Brown must do to do turn around the Bengals, and both continue to have access to him.
Because they know him well, they have to shake their heads when they hear some of the things said about their former boss.
"If they met him, they'd like him," Mr. Collinsworth said. "When you're in the middle of negotiations with him, you're going to hate him then -- and for a couple of weeks after that. But 90 to 95 percent of the players like him on a personal level. He's a very personable guy."
People who say Mr. Brown is not anguishing over the failure of the franchise to produce a winner over such a long period of time don't know the man, Mr. Collinsworth said.
"It pains him greatly," Mr. Collinsworth said. "I don't think anybody could be suffering more over this than Mike is." "He's competitive," Mr. Lapham said. "His father entrusted (the franchise) to him, gave him the torch to carry. Mike wants to make sure he carries it through to the end.
"As for the publicity, telling people what they want to hear, he doesn't care about that. That's part of what the public is so exasperated about. Mike says he's contemplating some changes, but he won't say what they are. But yes, he knows John Q. Public has grabbed the last straw."
Mr. Lapham said Mr. Brown "feels a sense of urgency."
"What Mike's trying to do right now is get a feel for the pulse of what needs to be done. He's not going to tip his hand on what he might do until he feels like he has the pulse."
When Mr. Brown has that pulse, he'd best explain what he's found, Mr. Lapham said.
"He has to say, 'Here's what I'm going to do,' and lay it all out for the public. Other teams have done that in various sports when they're seeking people's understanding. It's a good policy." Mr. Lapham thinks Mr. Brown should find a guy to "take the heat. Who do you think took the heat for P.B.? Mike Brown."
Mr. Collinsworth said he believes Mr. Brown "is on the verge of making a bold move."
"Unfortunately, Boomer was an opportunity for a bold move that Mike missed," Mr. Collinsworth said. "That was a big one."
Nancy used to love listening to talk radio.
"I haven't turned it on in weeks," she said. "My friends say, 'Don't pay attention to what they're saying.' And then they tell me what's being said!"
Nancy said she understands the fans' frustration. Mike has said he would be complaining about the state of affairs if he were Joe Fan.
But what Mike doesn't say, his wife does.
"Football (the NFL) is in Cincinnati because of Mike Brown," she said. "Since day one, it is here because of Mike Brown. Frank Dale (who led the group that purchased the Reds and moved them into Riverfront Stadium) would say it if he were still alive. A lot of people would say it if they were still alive.
"Mike is not going to walk away from it."