Get ready for the weirdest and most disappointing rankings list you will see in professional sports.
While the Cleveland Browns are one of the most historic and storied franchises in professional football, that has mostly come with absolutely atrocious ownership.
As you will read, the Cleveland Browns have had five different owners of the franchise since its inception in 1946.
But to top it all off we have the man who sent multiple Hall of Famers packing and eventually held the franchise ransom before moving them when the city wouldn’t pay his ransom.
Buckle up, it’s a heck of a list.
Ranking The Cleveland Browns Owners
5. Art Modell (1962-1995)
If moving the team to Baltimore was his only sin, it would still earn him the worst spot on this list.
Unfortunately for Browns fans, it wasn’t.
When Modell bought the team in 1961, like his predecessors before him he assured fans legendary coach Paul Brown would have a “free hand” in running the organization.
He even gave Brown a new 8-year contract as proof of his support.
“In my opinion, he has no peer as a football coach. His record speaks for itself.” Those were the glowing words of Modell upon the announcement of the new deal.
Unfortunately, those words would prove hollow.
During the 1961 season, Modell had his ear bent by some players frustrated with Brown’s play-calling.
This led to friction between owner and coach.
That friction continued the following season when Brown traded Bobby Mitchell to Washington for rookie Ernie Davis without informing Modell first.
The situation was exacerbated when Modell and Brown disagreed over Davis’ role with the team while he was dying from leukemia.
The Browns finished the 1962 season with a 7-6-1 record and Modell fired Brown weeks after the season ended.
Art Modell fired a Hall of Fame coach, who revolutionized the game of football, and was the man who for whom the team was named.
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) January 8, 2018
Even if he thought the team no longer could win under Brown, which some players had suggested at the time, Paul Brown deserved better than to be unceremoniously dumped in that way.
It was an unforgivable move in the eyes of many Clevelanders.
The second of Modell’s three cardinal sins is pushing out another Hall of Famer, this time the franchise’s best-ever player, Jim Brown.
Jim Brown was a star.
He was the greatest football player the game had ever seen, but he had dreams beyond that.
After the 1965 season, Brown traveled abroad to England to film the movie The Dirty Dozen.
Brown was going to take a break from football and give acting a try, but according to Brown, he told Modell that if Brown was needed, he would consider coming back.
Now if the game’s greatest player had left your team but was willing to come back you would probably do everything in your power to convince him to do just that, right?
Modell did the opposite.
He publicly declared that Brown would be fined if he didn’t show up to training camp.
Just a reminder, he was out of contract and couldn’t be fined.
With that as the atmosphere waiting for him if he left Europe to play for the Browns, he officially retired.
In less than 5 years, Art Modell managed to run off the team’s greatest coach and player.
The only thing left for Modell to do was to run off the entire franchise.
It would take longer than 5 years for that to happen, but it would happen.
The third of Modell’s cardinal sins would be the relocation of the franchise in 1995.
To distill the situation down to its essence, Modell wanted a new stadium for the team and wanted the city to help fund that.
The very least Modell wanted the city to pay for stadium renovations.
Despite the taxpayers approving a $175 million bill to renovate the stadium, Modell claimed that his relationship with the city of Cleveland was severed and the team left town.
Today in 1995, Browns owner Art Modell announces he’s moving the team to Baltimore. That sign is a little unfair though – to Dr. Kevorkian. pic.twitter.com/7xFx8jzc6z
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) November 6, 2019
Yes, the team was successful under Modell, winning 1 NFL Championship and 15 division titles, but moving the team is unforgivable and for that Modell is the worst owner in the history of the Cleveland Browns.
4. Jimmy Haslam (2012-Present)
Tennessee businessman, Jimmy Haslam, who made his fortune in the truck stop industry with his company Pilot/Flying J, was involved in the NFL even before he bought the Cleveland Browns.
In 2008, Haslam bought a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Apparently, that gave him a teasing taste of what it was like to own an NFL franchise because four years later he sold his stake in the Steelers and purchased the Cleveland Browns for $1 billion.
It was a move that Browns’ fans welcomed at the time.
The Lerner family had done a poor job in building a winning franchise in their tenure in charge.
Also, if Haslam had spent four years around the Rooney’s in Pittsburgh something must have rubbed off.
This was an opportunity to turn the tide for the franchise.
Instead of calm and stability, Browns fans got an owner who has run his club in near-constant chaos and turnover.
This led to quick trigger decisions and a revolving door of coaches and general managers.
During his time in charge, Haslam has hired five coaches, two of which lasted just one season before they were fired.
This is due in part to the ever-changing management above the head coach.
Haslam is unable to make up his mind about what style of football team he wants, as evidenced by his management team.
He has employed Mike Lombardi, Ray Farmer, Sashi Brown, John Dorsey, and currently Andrew Berry General Manager roles.
The philosophy of those men has varied so greatly it’s no wonder the team has been a patchwork of skill sets that a coach is unable to put together.
For example, within a 3 and a half year period, the Browns went from Sashi Brown, a proponent of a “Moneyball” style approach to analytics, to John Dorsey who is an old fashioned, hard-nosed, “football man”, and to Andrew Berry, a Harvard grad who favors an analytical approach.
Fans had hoped to things would improve under Jimmy Haslam, but they have gotten worse, much worse.
Coaching and management turnover aside, the Browns have been abject on the field.
Only twice under the Haslam’s have the Browns finished better than last in the division.
And during three years from 2015-2017, the team went 4-44.
This was capped by the infamous 0-16 season in 2017.
— Tom Withers (@twithersAP) July 29, 2017
By the way, this is just the football embarrassment the Haslam’s have brought on the Browns and the city of Cleveland.
In 2013, the FBI raided Haslam’s Pilot/Flying J offices in Knoxville, Tennessee during an investigation of a fraud scheme perpetrated by the company.
The company was forced to pay $92 million in restitution to its customers.
FBI and IRS raid billionaire Jimmy Haslam's Pilot Flying J http://t.co/nC216aoFJQ
— Forbes (@Forbes) April 17, 2013
The only reason that Jimmy Haslam is not the worst owner in Browns franchise history is that Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore.
There is no greater sin than that.
The Haslams are the worst thing to happen to the Cleveland Browns since Art Modell. And that is quite the bar to meet.
— Daryl Ruiter (@RuiterWrongFAN) December 31, 2019
However, driving this once great franchise to the bottom of Lake Erie like Haslam has done is close.
The saving grace for Jimmy Haslam is that he still has time to fix this, either by building a winning team or by selling the team to someone who can.
Browns fans would be happy with either.
3. The Lerner Family (1999-2012)
It would be easy to paint the Lerner Family as the saviors of the Cleveland Browns franchise, responsible for the resurrection of civic pride and the soothing of hurt feelings.
That would be leaving out a big part of the Lerner Family history with the Cleveland Browns and ignoring a lot of sordid details.
Yes, the Lerner Family purchased the rights of the Cleveland Browns for a sports franchise-record $530 million for the city to have its beloved team back, but it must be said that they played an important role in the franchise’s departure from the city a few years earlier.
While Art Modell owned and operated most of the club, the Lerner’s held a 5% stake in the franchise.
And while the family wasn’t directly responsible for the relocation of the franchise they sure helped the process along.
Al Lerner was the person who introduced Modell to the financiers in Baltimore that made the move possible and hosted the completion of the deal to move the team on his private jet.
So yes, they brought the team back to Cleveland but they also shoulder some of the blame for it moving in the first place.
When they finally brought the team back into existence, they turned the once great franchise into one of the league’s worst.
Bad personnel hiring by ownership started the reborn franchise off on the wrong foot.
— Howard Primer (@HowardPrimer) April 28, 2016
Management and coaching turnover was a staple of the Lerner regime under both AL and his son Randy, who took over after his father’s death in 2002.
While in charge, the Lerner’s employed 6 head coaches and 5 General Managers.
In that time the team made one playoff appearance and recorded just two winning seasons.
It should be noted that while the franchise has been an abject failure since the Lerner’s brought the team back to Cleveland, they did bring the city a beautiful lakeside stadium that is one of the most attractive stadiums in the entire NFL.
While the city of Cleveland should be grateful that a team was brought back to Cleveland, it would be interesting to see where the franchise would be today had a different, more competent owner had been in charge.
2. A local investment group led by David Jones & Ellis Ryan (1953-1961)
— John Skrtic (@SkrticX) November 20, 2018
There is not much known about the investment group that bought the franchise from the team’s founder and original owner, Arthur McBride, and that’s probably a good thing.
We do know one thing.
They didn’t fix what wasn’t broken.
When the group of Cleveland businessmen led by industrialist Dave R. Jones took over the team the first thing the assured fans was that Paul Brown would be left in charge of the franchise.
Like for McBride before them, the move paid off.
The team won back-to-back league championships in 1954 and 1955.
The 1956 season was the franchise’s first losing season, and first that they had not played in the league championship game.
So, what did they do in response?
They drafted Jim Brown.
They returned to the NFL Championship the very next year.
They lost to the Lions, but the point remains.
And while Paul Brown should be given credit for the personnel moves, the two most recent owners of the Cleveland Browns franchise have proven that sometimes the best thing an owner can do is stay out of the way.
At the end of the day an owner should be judged on one thing only.
Was the team successful under their ownership?
This ownership group continued the franchise’s success, winning two NFL Championships and playing in an additional two.
In 1961, the group made the decision to sell the team to Art Modell for $3.925 million.
The team would never be the same.
1. Arthur B. McBride (1946-1953)
A homage to the greatest owner the Cleveland Browns ever had, Arthur B. “Mickey” McBride. When he created a team for Cleveland in 1944, he gave the keys to Ohio State coach Paul Brown, who would become the teams namesake by popular demand. 4 AAFC & 3 NFL championships… pic.twitter.com/O1QmkJcsgI
— Spike Perry (@DawgPoundPerry) June 10, 2020
When it comes to owning a football franchise, Arthur B. McBride did basically everything right.
It was outside of football where McBride may have been a little mischievous.
McBride made his fortune in the newspaper business, real estate development, and a Northeast Ohio taxi empire.
He was also involved in some less than legal activities through a wire service that supplied bookies with the results of horse races.
This business kept him regularly in contact with many members of organized crime, and although he was indicted for crimes related to gambling he was never charged.
He was a boxing and baseball fan in a day when those sports were king in America, but fell in love with football while visiting his son who was a student at Notre Dame.
He attended a Fighting Irish football game and decided he needed to own a team of his own.
After trying unsuccessfully to purchase the Cleveland Rams of the National Football League, he decided to start his own team who would play in the new All-America Football Conference.
He originally went back to Notre Dame to hire Fighting Irish coach Frank Leahy away from South Bend, but the university stepped in and Leahy stayed put.
Then, McBride made the best decision any owner of the Cleveland Browns has ever made.
He hired Paul Brown.
But more than just hire the great coach, he let Brown do his thing.
McBride stepped aside and let Brown run the team.
Without the interference of the ownership or other “non-football” people, Brown was free to acquire the talent he wanted and needed to be successful in the way he played.
That paid dividends to the success of the team, and therefore to McBride.
McBride did everything he could in order to support Brown, including creating a reserve team in case of injury.
#OTD 1945: The #ClevelandBrowns organization was founded by Arthur B. “Mickey” McBride in the newly formed All-America Football Conference. The team was named after its first coach, Paul E. Brown. https://t.co/hbFyeg1Xk5 #SportsHistory #ClevelandHistory #thiswasCle pic.twitter.com/b4CJuX2DlW
— Tammi Minoski (@TammiMinoski) April 21, 2020
McBride hired this group of men as drivers for his taxi company in order to keep them in Cleveland and away from other teams.
This way if a player was injured, Coach Brown could call on one of the “taxi team” to take his place.
This also worked to secure the services of promising players who may not have been good enough yet, but may be in the future.
The players were never actually required to drive cabs.
McBride would sell the Cleveland Browns franchise in 1953 to the investment group led by Dave Jones for $600,000, which at the time was twice the largest sum of money ever paid for a professional football team.
During his tenure, McBride created the franchise, hired a Hall of Fame coach, signed many Hall of Fame players, and above all else won championships.
Arthur McBride is without a doubt the greatest owner in the franchise’s history and should be a lesson to all current and future owners.
Hire the right people, support them, but stay out of their way.
Don’t try to be something you’re not.