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The Strange Story of "The Modell Bowl"

As NU/OSU approaches, we can expect to see thousands of scarlet and grey-clad Buckeye fans at Ryan Field, many of whom will travel across Indiana to see their team. The past few Wildcat/Buckeye games in Evanston have given NU a chance to cash in Buckeye hysteria, as the stands have been filled largely with Buckeye fans.  However, it wasn’t always like this. As recently as 1994, the OSU game in Evanston attracted fewer than 35,000 fans.  These relatively modest crowds, coupled with NU’s financial problems of the late 1980s, led to one of the oddest games in Northwestern football history – The Modell Bowl.

On October 19, 1991 Northwestern played a “home” game against Ohio State at Cleveland Municipal Stadium.  The deal was orchestrated by then-Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, who also controlled the stadium. The game was in many ways a “win/win/win” scenario for all involved.  NU reaped a financial windfall, OSU got an extra in-state game, and Modell made money and got a feature event in his facility. However, the game angered most NU fans, and is remembered today as a textbook example of “selling” a home game.

The game – which soon became known as the “Modell Bowl” in many circles – continued the longtime intertwining of Northwestern football and Cleveland Browns history.  Former NU player Bob Voights helped Paul Brown assemble the first Browns team in 1946, and coached in Cleveland until returning to lead NU to the 1949 Rose Bowl. NU alum Otto Graham led the Browns to ten consecutive championship games during their glory years. Former Browns player Ara Parseghian, a disciple of Paul Brown, would become one of NU’s greatest head coaches at the age of 31. Alex Agase, another future NU head coach, played for Brown in Cleveland from 1948 to 1951. Tony Adamle, a Browns fullback of the 1950s, fathered Mike Adamle. The younger Adamle  became a star at NU in the 1970s, and remains one of the most beloved all-time NU players to this day.  The late Nev Chandler, an NU alum, was the wildly popular radio voice of the Browns during their 1980s playoff runs.

THE BACKSTORY

Then-Northwestern Athletic Director Bruce Corrie is often criticized for the decision to move the game. However, most of his critics fail to recognize the massive financial problems that NU athletics faced in the 1980s.  Unlike today, television revenue was not pumping tens of millions of dollars into the program. In addition, there was not yet the proliferation of bowl agreements that guarantee significant money to all members of the Big Ten (at the time the Rose Bowl was the only official Big Ten bowl tie-in).  The NCAA men’s basketball tournament had not yet become the television cash cow we enjoy today.

Just like today, attendance was a problem and facilities lagged other conference members. Budget problems led to the elimination of track and cross country for both men and women in 1987.  Despite having some fine women’s programs, the department was also facing Title IX compliance issues. According to the Chicago Tribune, the school had fewer than 90 female athletes on scholarship in 1991.

Cash problems seeped into every aspect of NU sports. Salaries for assistant coaches and staff were inadequate to retain talent. At one point in the late 1980s, the football program brought a volunteer coach onto its staff (not a Graduate Assistant, but a full time coach). The high cost of living on the North Shore made it difficult for new staff members, many of whom had very modest salaries.  During the late 1980s, one member of the equipment staff was forced to live in the equipment room for a few months while saving enough money for an apartment.

In 1989, there came a new wrinkle to NU’s problems. The Big Ten had officially invited Penn State to join the conference, a seismic move that rocked the college sports world.  Although PSU was never intended to replace NU, the action led to widespread speculation in the Chicago media that NU would drop out of the league. These rumors were further fueled when the league announced that it was keeping the “Big Ten” name. Popular mainstream opinion was that the name signaled NU’s departure….after all, who would be silly enough to name an eleven member league “The Big Ten”?

The perception that NU was exiting the league, albeit an inaccurate one, provided further motivation for bold action.  NU had to convince the general public that it could keep up with the increasingly competitive college sports landscape.   The school needed to find new revenue to get its house in order, and it had to think outside the proverbial box.

Michigan, which has the largest stadium in the conference, had a standing offer to NU to move a home game to Ann Arbor.  The deal would have meant at least $500,000 for NU, but Corrie resisted.  Like NU fans, he did want the indignity of purely selling a home game. However, he was also faced with economic realities. As he told the Bill Jauss of the Chicago Tribune in August 1991 “We have to pay our bills, too.”  Corrie needed a way to infuse the program with money, but without losing face. He found a partner in Cleveland, Ohio.

ART MODELL

Art Modell, a New York advertising executive, bought the Cleveland Browns in 1961 for $4 million. He quickly became a divisive figure by firing legendary coach Paul Brown in 1963. A smooth talker with a quick wit, he generally had a good repoire with Cleveland media, and was a highly respected NFL owner. In 1973 he took control of the aging Cleveland Stadium, which the city could no longer afford to operate. By 1989 he was in was in the process of losing his stadium’s major tenant, the Cleveland Indians. In 1990, Cuyahoga County voters approved the Gateway project, which would build what is now Progressive Field.  Modell, a tireless promoter and salesman, sought new events for the Stadium. He had experience with college football, hosting a pair of Navy/Notre Dame games during the 1970s. He always hoped for a chance to bring OSU to Cleveland, but could not convince the school to move a game from its large on-campus stadium. At the time OSU would only play road games against major powers, so Modell was unable to arrange an “OSU at MAC” game, such as a 2009 OSU/Toledo event in Cleveland. His best chance was to get a Big Ten school to move a game. In 1989 he approached Corrie with the idea, and they made the agreement. NU would get a payout approaching $1 million (which was very significant money in those days). Tickets to the game would be priced at $30 and $18, a significant increase from the $16 price at Dyche Stadium. The additional cost per ticket, plus the much larger crowd compared to Evanston, allowed both NU and Modell to reap a profit. Not surprisingly, most NU fans were unhappy to lose a home game.

Tobin Buckner plays against Ohio State in 1989, two years before the Modell Bowl. Tobin Buckner plays against Ohio State in 1989, two years before the Modell Bowl. (Photo courtesy Tobin Buckner)

As is usually the case, the 1991 NU football roster featured many players from Northeast Ohio.  Those guys looked forward to a chance to play before friends and family.  “I was excited because I am from Akron and knew more of my family and friends could attend” says Tobin Buckner, an offensive lineman from the 1991 team. Buckner, a Buchtel High School alum, currently lives in Akron and has a graphic design company.  However, most of his Wildcat teammates did not share his enthusiasm.  “I recall some being disgusted by the 'home' game becoming an 'away' game.  We had several guys from Northeast Ohio, so I think there were a good number of us who were excited to be coming back home to play a game at a 'neutral' location.”

OSU fans, particularly those in Cleveland, were very pleased with the arrangement.  Mark “Munch” Bishop, an OSU alum and current radio personality on ESPN Cleveland, remembers. “We were very excited,” said Bishop, who currently hosts the OSU pre-game shows at the station, “There were [alumni] activities every day the week of the game.”  NU also held events for its local alums, including a pre-game tailgate and a marching band performance the night before the game at Lakewood Civic Auditorium. Northwestern alum Brian Maskow, then the director of the Lakewood High School Marching Band, helped arrange the NUMB event. “It was a proud event for me to host them at Lakewood,” recalls Maskow, who retired last summer after over 30 years of service at Lakewood High.

THE GAME

Perhaps the least memorable aspect of the Modell Bowl was the game itself.  It took place on a damp, dreary Saturday afternoon.  As expected, OSU won the game easily by a score of 34-3.  NU’s first possession resulted in a blocked punt only two minutes into the game.  OSU recovered the ball at the NU four yard line, and fullback Scottie Graham quickly scored on a two yard touchdown run. Early in the second quarter, NU punter Ed Sutter dropped a low snap and was tackled at NU’s 18 yard line, leading to another OSU touchdown. Once again, Scottie Graham scored on the ground, this time from the one yard line. NU head coach Francis Peay expressed his postgame frustration to the Chicago Tribune, “You can’t make mistakes like that against a football team as good as Ohio State.”

Weather conditions made passing difficult for both teams.  OSU starting QB Kent Graham was only 2 of 8 passing. In the second half he was pulled in favor of a backup named Kirk Herbstreit. Herbstreit also struggled, going 2 of 5 with an interception. However, it didn’t matter — NU could muster no offense, and game was never in doubt. Wildcat QB Lenny Williams had only three completions, and was held under 70 yards. Running back Denis Lundy led the Wildcats with only 38 yards.  The most surprising statistic of the game was the attendance, which was announced at 73,830. This was 5,000 shy of a sellout, and a major disappointment for Modell.  Cleveland Stadium would never again host a college football game.

THE AFTERMATH

The game lifted OSU’s record to 5-1, and dropped the Wildcats to 1-5.  However, it did not take the fight out of the team.  In the following two weeks, NU pulled off upset wins over Illinois and Michigan State. The Illinois game was a 17-11 win at Dyche Stadium on a rainy afternoon.  Illinois was ranked No. 17 at the time, and had beaten Ohio State the week prior to the Modell Bowl.  The 16-13 victory at East Lansing was also sweet for NU…..two years earlier, they were hammered 76-14 at Spartan Stadium.

The Wildcats season ended with three straight losses and a final record of 3-8. Francis Peay was dismissed as head coach, and Gary Barnett was hired. The revenue generated by the Modell Bowl (and by two ND games held at Soldier Field) helped enable coaching salaries to improve.  The program continued to make strides, and eventually won the Big Ten conference in 1995 (you already know that story).  Financial conditions improved for NU during the 1990s, and sports such as women’s soccer, cross country, golf and lacrosse were eventually added/restored.

Ohio State, under the direction of fourth-year coach John Cooper, finished 8-4 in 1991. Cooper’s recruiting prowess would build some of the most talented teams in OSU history during the mid-1990s. Future NFL stars like Chris Carter, Orlando Pace, Eddie George, and Terry Glenn played during this period. However, these teams consistently failed to beat Michigan, a fact that tarnishes his image to this day.  It was OSU’s inability to beat Michigan which opened the door for NU’s 1996 Rose Bowl trip and for NU’s 1996 Big Ten Championship.

THE LEGACY

At the time of the Modell Bowl, many people believed that NU’s days in the Big Ten were numbered. However, fans eventually grew to accept that Penn State was not a replacement, and that eleven can sometimes equal ten. NU’s on field improvement and off-field facilities additions squelched conjecture about its leaving the conference.

Although NU’s place in the Big Ten was safe, another team’s future was in jeopardy ­— the Cleveland Browns. It was not publicly known in 1991, but Modell was accumulating alarming amounts of debt through his business dealings. The stadium was continuing to age, and by 1994 there was no baseball team paying rent. The team’s young new coach, Bill Belichick, alienated most of the team’s fan base when he cut local legend Bernie Kosar during the 1993 season.  Modell and the city placed a stadium issue on the ballot for November 1995….but the day before the vote he announced his intention to move the team to Baltimore. The issue passed by a wide margin, but Modell insisted on leaving. After months of legal wrangling, the city allowed the team to break its lease in exchange for a new team that would play in the new stadium beginning in 1999.  The new team, now in its 15th season, has had a bizarre history of player, coach, and management turnover. After the announcement of the move, Modell never again set foot in northeast Ohio.  “Munch” Bishop, who hosts a nightly talk show on ESPN Cleveland, speaks for many Clevelanders.  “Art Modell was a thief,” he expressed in an interview for this article, “God wasted skin and organs that he could have used on someone else!”

Modell’s team in Baltimore, now known as the Ravens, continued the Browns’ pattern of linkage to NU. First of all, their roster included Ed Sutter, the punter who struggled so mightily in the Modell Bowl. He played for the Browns and Ravens in the mid 1990s as a linebacker (his primary position in college) and special teams player.  More significantly, Modell admitted to ESPN’s Roy Firestone that the Ravens’ colors, introduced in early 1996, were inspired by NU’s 1995 dream season.