September 6, 2010

1946: Browns Dominate Miami in First AAFC Contest

There were 60,135 fans at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on September 6, 1946 to witness the debut of a new pro football league, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). The size of the crowd was notable in itself, for it was the larger than any that had assembled to watch a regular season NFL game to date.

The AAFC had been organized by Arch Ward, sports editor of The Chicago Tribune, who had previously brought major league baseball’s All-Star Game and football’s College All-Star Game into being. The league was determined to be truly national in scope, with teams on the west coast (San Francisco and Los Angeles) and southeast (Miami) as well as the major centers of New York City and Chicago (the NFL’s Rams moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946 to extend the older league’s reach as well). By and large, the AAFC franchise owners were wealthier than their NFL counterparts and prepared to spend money in the competition for talent.

One of the new AAFC owners was Arthur “Mickey” McBride in Cleveland, who had made his money in real estate and taxi services. He hired Paul Brown (pictured above) as head coach and general manager, a smart public relations – as well as football – move. Brown was already a semi-legendary figure in Ohio football from his coaching stints at Massillon High School and Ohio State. He had most recently coached during World War II at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and, everywhere he had been, he had produced winning teams. Likely in tribute, when a fan contest to name the new club was held, “Browns” was the winner.

Brown signed players that he was familiar with from his college and service coaching, including Otto Graham, who had been a single-wing tailback at Northwestern; end Mac Speedie, from Utah but who Brown knew from service football; and end Dante Lavelli and tackle/placekicker Lou Groza, from Ohio State. There were also Bill Willis, a guard from Ohio State, and 230-pound fullback Marion Motley, who was familiar to Brown from high school and service teams, who were not only talented players but the first two African-Americans in the AAFC (the NFL’s Rams broke that league’s color barrier in ’46 also).

All of those players were making their pro debuts in the opening game along with the new franchise and league. Other significant Browns players who had at least some prior pro experience included HB Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones, who briefly played for the Chicago Bears in 1945; tackle Lou Rymkus, formerly of the Washington Redskins; and Gaylon Smith, an all-purpose back who had spent four seasons with the Cleveland Rams.

The Browns’ opponents in the season-opening game were the Miami Seahawks, coached by Jack Meagher. They fell quickly behind in the first quarter as QB Cliff Lewis threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Speedie for the first score in Browns history. Groza followed with a 22-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

It was 27-0 by halftime as the Browns broke the game open in the second quarter. Otto Graham threw the first TD pass of his illustrious career, of 39 yards to Lavelli, HB Tom Colella ran for a 50-yard touchdown, and Groza booted another field goal, from 27 yards out.

The defense added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, as HB Don Greenwood scored on a three-yard fumble return and HB Ray Terrell intercepted a pass and ran 76 yards. In between, Groza kicked his third field goal, of 21 yards.

The final score was 44-0 and demonstrated both the dominance of the Browns and the weakness of the Seahawks. “I couldn’t believe we beat a pro team 44-0”, said Lavelli afterward.

Cleveland won its first seven games and didn’t allow another club to score in double figures until the seventh contest. After losing for the first time to the team that would be their chief nemesis in the AAFC, the San Francisco 49ers, the Browns lost once more to the Los Angeles Dons before completing the regular season with a 12-2 record. Finishing at the top of the Western Division, they went on to defeat the New York Yankees for the league title.

As outstanding as the Browns were, the Miami Seahawks proved to be the biggest failure of the AAFC’s first season. Two of the club’s games were postponed by hurricanes and the team never drew more than 9700 fans at home (they scheduled their games on Monday nights). The Seahawks weren’t helped by the fact that seven of their first eight games were played on the road and they were already 1-7 by that point. They finished at the bottom of the Eastern Division with a 3-11 tally.

Coach Meagher resigned after six games and was replaced by player/coach Hamp Pool. Owner Harvey Hester went broke and the other teams were forced to pay off the club’s debts at the end of the season. The franchise was expelled and replaced by the first incarnation of the Baltimore Colts for 1947.