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Mike Brown makes another run for it all
July 27, 2016 01:08 AM | Geoff Hobson
Mike Brown (left) and Marvin Lewis at Tuesday's luncheon.

Mike Brown is the last guy to take himself seriously.

He said so Tuesday, one of those rare days he talks to the media. As he has for the past 26 seasons, Brown, the Bengals cerebral, witty, and traditionalist president, kicked off the NFL season in Cincinnati at the media luncheon that marks the beginning of training camp.

He just couldn't wait to tell the media a story on himself that he heard the night before at head coach Marvin Lewis' tailgate party about another Mike Brown bumper sticker.

"I don't take myself too seriously, I know better," Brown said. "I'm very fortunate. I have come into something that others provided and led the way. We've had ups and downs, I wish we'd had more ups. Right now, I think we have a good chance going forward."

But with Brown set to turn 81 next month in his franchise's 49th season, it looks finally to be time to take him as seriously as any NFL owner should be taken.

He and he alone is the reason the Bengals came to Cincinnati, convincing his father in the mid-1960s that the name of Paul Brown was a better sell in their native Ohio. A no-brainer on the river instead of a wing-and-prayer in the Great Northwest city of unknown Seattle.

He and he alone is the reason the Bengals stayed in Cincinnati 30 years later when Baltimore and Cleveland came courting his father's team. While others told him he was crazy not to flee, Mike Brown opted to work with city fathers and brokered a second stadium deal in the same town, which ties the all-time record.

You could even say it is Mike Brown that found The Holy Grail, the anchor establishment next to Great American Ballpark.

"This whole development along the riverfront here is something we've played a major role in. I think it's fair to say there wouldn't be these two stadiums that overlook and bookend the whole Banks development if it wasn't for the role we played," Brown said. "I'm proud of it. I'm proud of our people, how they did what they did. Now I see it all developing. It actually took longer than people expected to come together, but it's come together. And it's well on its way to completion. I'm very pleased with it. It's been good for the city. It's been good for the team. When I look out of the window of my office, it gives me some pride."

While Paul Brown Stadium became the first footprint on The Banks at the turn of the century and spawned the bars and businesses and bedrooms that now blanket the riverfront, Brown re-designed his team and turned it into one of the most stable and successful franchises of the last decade.

Pundits and personnel gurus are calling the Bengals' homegrown approach of building a roster that has accounted for five straight post-season berths "a model." With their last half dozen drafts drawing league-wide acclaim, a total of 19 of 25 starters are working on a multiple contract in a Bengals' uniform.

Brown has made sure his daughter, executive vice president Katie Blackburn, and her husband, vice president Troy Blackburn, along with Lewis and director of player personnel Duke Tobin, are driving the day-to-day decisions.

Lewis said Tuesday he's lucky he's worked for Mike Brown.

But while Mike Brown remains having the final say through it all, the Bengals during the last decade are one of only five AFC teams with at least six post-season berths. In the last two seasons the Bengals have the NFL's second best winning percentage at .703, tied with Carolina behind the .750 trio of New England, Denver, and Arizona. And since 2012, only Denver (.781), New England (.750), and Seattle (.719) have been better. Three of their former assistant coaches are now head coaches, their quarterback is the reigning AFC passing champion, and their defense is coming off an all-time scoring season for the franchise.

The only thing missing since Lewis was hired in 2003, of course, is not only a Super Bowl championship, but a post-season victory. But it's not for a lack of trying, spending, and dying with every snap.

"He doesn't get enough credit for how badly he wants to win," Lewis said at the end Tuesday's media whirlwind. "Nobody else does what he does in his position. He's in here seven days a week."

The first thing Mike Brown thinks about when he wakes up is his team. The last thing he thinks about before he turns in every night reading one of his monstrous histories is his Bengals. Brown is so well steeped in presidential history that his favorites are the most obscure, from James Polk to Calvin Coolidge.

But that makes sense since they held the office in the fundamental Constitutional way Brown views many issues in and out of football. Brown would rather be president of United Bengaldom rather than just plain president of the United States.

The best kept secret is there is nothing more than Mike Brown loves than his players. He may be 80, but when he defended Vontaze Burfict Tuesday he did it with the enthusiasm of the 12-year-old that spent the 1947 training camp in Cleveland playing hearts with future Hall-of-Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley.

"There's nothing to me more interesting than this," he said Tuesday of running a NFL team. "If I had a choice to go in the morning to anywhere - Acapulco, to the President's office, anywhere - I'd rather go here and go out on the field and watch our guys practice and see how they're doing. To me it's great fun. I get my life's satisfaction that way."

The race for the presidency got Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan telling Brown a story Monday night at Lewis' annual kick-off party for his coaches and front office staff. While Brennan was driving, he got behind a vehicle extolling the virtues of Republican nominee Donald Trump with two bumper stickers, one of which was rather obscene. Brennan couldn't quite fathom what it said and when he looked closer he saw that a third bumper sticker that read, "Mike Brown Still Bleeps."

No one laughed harder than Brown and he was still telling the story Tuesday. He even offered it to the microphones.

"What the heck? I'm in a business where there's going to be someone to kick around, as Nixon once said," Brown said. "You don't have me to kick around anymore -- you remember his speech? I'm happy to be kicked around. I'm still here. So go at it if you will."

But Lewis won't. Brown's coach for 14 seasons (only Bob Kraft has employed Bill Belichick in Foxboro longer than anyone in the league), Lewis stands with him.

"Every chance I get I tell people they're wrong. They're so off base," Lewis said. "People have to move forward. They languish too much in the past. What I've seen since 2003 is he says, 'Whatever it takes to win, let's go do it.'"

Accordingly, Brown and Lewis are doing whatever they can to move past the anguish of the Wild Card loss to the Steelers back in January in a nightmarish set of circumstances seemingly unleashed by He Who Shall Not Be Named himself.

"We can't remember what it felt like because that is behind us," Lewis said. "Last year's football team is way gone. This year's football team has got to be a better football team and have newness about it. We can't think we are going to roll out what we did last year and it's going to be worth anything. It doesn't win anything for us."

Fact: Mike Brown loves his players. Start with Vontaze Burfict: "We're lucky to have him."

Brown was there when the Bengals came within 34 seconds of winning the Super Bowl 27 years ago so, yeah, he's got some history.

"I think part of it is that you have hard losses. The one last year was especially hard because we thought we had won," Brown said. "We're sitting there congratulating ourselves and then bang, it turns on us and we have a terrible outcome. When that happens, you pick yourself up and you go back at it and I look forward to going back at it. I think that's an incentive for our people to line up and try again."

Even though the heartbreak didn't end until after midnight, there was Brown in his office at 7:30 a.m. It's because that's where he goes every day. He met with Lewis and then executed the first of his several hundred projected 53-man rosters for the 2016 season, complete with salary cap count and practice squad.

"I think he's antsy," said Lewis of a Super Bowl title. "But he's always antsy. He's into it."

Brown admitted Tuesday he wants to hold the Lombardi Trophy.

"I don't know how many chances there are left," he said. "Everyone would like that. It is the way of the NFL, it's what we compete for. And I've seen these different guys and what they've said when they've had the opportunity, and I've disapproved of most of them, what they said. So I think if you ever get that chance, be brief -- that would be the advice I'd give myself."

Lewis may have been fired from many NFL teams given the messy ending and a 0-7 post-season record. But Brown is famous for being the most patient owner in any pro sport. Yet on Tuesday he offered an excellent defense of his guy. A fundamental, pragmatic view of another century.

"If coaches were hired and fired on that account, the NFL would have a turnover rate about three times what is has now," Brown said. "Yes, we want to win a playoff game, we want to win the Super Bowl. So do a lot of other teams, most of which have not gotten as far as we've gotten.

"It was a process for the two of us. It was his first time as a head coach and probably he was a little leery of different moments when it was not easy. And we worked through all of those and we became very comfortable. I'm quite respectful of Marvin. I think he's a good person. He's done a good job for us. I appreciate his loyalty. I feel lucky to have him, and I think the city should feel that way too."

Brown says the two see the NFL in pretty much the same way and Lewis, who broke in with Dan Rooney's Steelers before moving to Art Modell's Ravens, doesn't think that's surprising.

"I've worked for three family-owned businesses," Lewis said.

It's ironic, of course, that Lewis raised the Lombardi Trophy for Modell's team, the arch-nemesis of the Brown family, the man who fired Paul Brown. But while Modell had to move from Cleveland to Baltimore in part because of financial mismanagement, Mike Brown has found a way to spend in a small market and win.

Nearly 70 percent of the Bengals' revenues go to player costs, which one document has them spending the eighth most in the league heading into this season.

"We pretty well stretched into the (salary) cap, believe me we have," Brown said. "We prefer to spend on our own players. We try to preserve our own proven players for the team out into the future . . . That's how we do it here, we don't depend on free agency. Occasionally we'll have a guy come in through free agency. Normally it's not the star kind, it's a guy that fills a need. Other teams might do it differently but from what I see, more and more teams are gravitating to this kind of approach."

His style is more mid-20th century. Ask him a question, he answers it thoughtfully and not in banal sound bites. He values loyalty rather than a headline. He cringes at the celebration of the individual.

But he's also shown adaptability to the 21st century. Not only is breakfast and lunch served for off-season workouts in a cafeteria, on Tuesday he sounded ready to honor the team's past.

"We've thought a lot about that," Brown said about a possible Ring of Honor. "Next year is our 50th year, which seems an appropriate time to put whatever we do together. I'm going to wait another year before I say much more."

He turns 81 on Aug. 10. There'll be another practice. Another training camp. Another season. Another chance at the Super Bowl. Another shot to get a plaque instead of a bumper sticker.

"I've never gotten free and clear of how people have seen me," Brown said.

And yet he knows, "The team has made real progress. The team is seen in the community in a good way. I'm very pleased. That's so important to our people, that they support us."

Brown may not be taking himself seriously, but it is a pretty serious legacy.





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