This is the last trip we will take down Memory Lane
before diving into training camp next season, and I think the timing is
appropriate, because it is written with Romeo Crennel in mind.
Two words describe Crennel: Firm and gentle. He laughs
easily, and you want to hug him like a Teddy Bear. But his players know then
dare not cross him.
Everyone that played for Paul Brown respected him and
was in awe of him, because Brown was to football what Sir Isaac Newton was
Blanton Collier was the coach they revered. His
biography, written by his daughter Kay Collier Stone, was titled "The Gentle
Giant," and if the present day Browns go on to win a championship, Crennel's
biography could carry the same title.
Collier coached the Browns to their last NFL
championship 42 years ago. He was the antithesis of the hard-edged Brown –
gentle, a teaching coach, a man that respected his players as thinking men.
One reason Collier succeeded after taking over when
Brown was fired in the winter of 1963 is he got input from players, in
particular Jim Brown. Coaching basically the same players Paul Brown coached
to a 7-6-1 record in 1962, Collier led the Browns to a 10-4 record in 1963
and the NFL title the next year.
“We had the greatest teacher in football in Blanton
Collier,” recalled Paul Wiggin, a defensive end on the ’64 team. “He was a
gentleman, he was a great coach...There were no flaws. He could have run for
president. If someone put together a committee to find holes in his life,
they wouldn’t have found any. He was a good human being.”
Owners are always looking for the next Paul Brown,
Vince Lombardi or - sorry Browns fans - the next Bill Belichick when they go
on a coaching hunt. They want a head coach that will keep young rich players
in line, afraid that a soft coach won’t command the discipline needed to run
a football team when so many temptations are available to ruin a player.
Collier’s demeanor raised concerns among the media when
Art Modell hired him. Bob August, a columnist for the Cleveland Press in
1964, remembers thinking Collier was a bad choice to replace Paul Brown.
August had the utmost respect for Collier as an assistant.
“I knew he was a brilliant assistant, but how many nice
guys win football games?” August said in the book 'Browns Town 1964' by
Terry Pluto. “I also knew he had been fired at Kentucky, and that was a
Collier belongs in the Legends Club. The Legends Club
was established in 2001 by former Browns president Carmen Policy as a way of
honoring selected players that played for the Browns from 1946 through 1995.
Eventually, present day players will be eligible for induction.
Paul Brown and other Browns in the Pro Football Hall of
Fame were automatically inducted into the Legends Club. A panel of media
members selects the others. Fans also have a vote.
Paul Brown, a Hall of Famer, is the only coach in the
Legends’ Club. Yet the faithful Collier was an offensive assistant under
Brown during the glory years from 1946-53. The only championship Collier was
not a part of was 1955, Otto Graham’s last season.
Collier was the head coach at the University of
Kentucky from 1954-61. He returned to the Browns in 1962 as an assistant
under Brown again, never thinking he would be head coach the next year.
Modell considered no one but Collier as a replacement
when he decided to fire Paul Brown. He let reporters believe there were
other candidates, but there was none.
Collier was head coach from 1963-70. His teams played
for the NFL championship two more times, losing to Green Bay in 1965, Jim
Brown’s final season, and in 1968, when the Colts exacted revenge for 1964
by beating the Browns 34-0. In the end, though, the
Colts were embarrassed, because the Jets beat them one week later to become
the first American Football League to win the Super Bowl.
Collier was 76-34-2 as a head coach, a .688 winning
percentage. Only Brown had a higher winning percentage among Browns coaches.
Could Collier succeed as a head coach in 2004, when the
32 men with that job have to do so much more than coach?
“I think he could,” Wiggin said. “Blanton would have
been bogged down with a lot of the technicalities and administrative things,
because he was a coach and a teacher, but Blanton would have found a way to
do it and he would have been successful.”
Modell spent the rest of his years as Browns owner
looking for the next Blanton Collier. He thought he had one in 1989 when he
hired Bud Carson, a longtime Steelers defensive assistant.
“He has the same initials,” Modell said after Carson
won his first game as head coach, 51-0 over Pittsburgh on Sept. 10, 1989.
“He even has a hearing aid like Blanton did.”
But there never was another like him. Collier passed
away March 22, 1983 at age 76.
“God never created a finer human being than Blanton
Collier,” Modell said from his home in Baltimore. “Tears welled up in his
eyes when I told Blanton I wanted to make him head coach. He said he had to
talk to two people first. One was his wife, Forman. He said the other was
“Of course he would want to talk to his wife. I was a
little stunned at first that he had to talk to Paul, but as I thought about
it I understood. That’s the kind of person Blanton was.
“Paul Brown told him he had to take the job for himself
and the family. Blanton was relieved to get his blessing. But Paul never
spoke to Blanton again.”
Certainly, Crennel was hired under different
circumstances, but after more than four decades of waiting, the Browns might
finally have the next Gentle Giant to bring an end to a 42-year-old drought.