Just like Janet Jackson, Mike Brown had a much-noticed wardrobe malfunction on the NFL stage.
But the Cincinnati Bengals owner said he’s fixed that now. He has shed the starched, white, clerical collar and gone back to a no-nonsense fedora.
He’s no longer trying to be Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town and patron saint of wayward youth. Instead, he’s trying to take on the image of his dad, Paul Brown, the stern, “my way or the highway” head coach of the Cleveland Browns and founder of the Bengals.
Mike Brown’s personal makeover has changed his team, as well. Instead of being known for guys whose rap sheets are longer than their list of NFL accomplishments, the Bengals are now a vibrant, young team recognized, for the most part, as solid citizens and good football players.
The Bengals have made the playoffs three of the past four seasons and good things are projected for them again this year.
That’s why Brown agreed to allow the all-seeing cameras of HBO’s popular Hard Knocks series to film his team on the practice field, in the dressing rooms and behind the scenes this preseason, same as they did in 2009.
The 77-year-old Brown admitted though that when HBO first contacted him this year he was against the idea: “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! We’ve done our bit. It was a ‘we gave at the office’ type attitude.
“Then I thought about it more and figured we can do it in a way that would be good for them and good for us, too. We’ve got new, young guys, good guys … and we want people to see who they are away from football just as much as who they are when they’re working out and at practice.
“I think they won’t only entertain the public, they will win them over.”
‘Give guys a chance’
Jerry Magee, the longtime San Diego newspaper columnist, once described the late Paul Brown as “Genghis Khan in a brown fedora.”
That was a little off the mark. Sometimes Brown wore a black fedora.
What never changed though was the way he handled his team. He was strict, tough, unbending and principled. But when Mike began to take on more Bengals responsibilities, he initially embraced a different approach.
“I grew up with a no tolerance standard – that was my father’s standard and it was best for his teams because people respected that,” Mike said. “When I came along, maybe I wanted to be different than my father, who knows. I said, ‘Let’s give guys a chance.’ And I convinced him to let me do that.
“The rationale was, ‘Let’s step in here. We can help. We can make it better for this guy and who knows, maybe he’ll make us a better team.’ But sometimes it didn’t work, sometimes it went sideways…and in the process of doing that over the years, we became branded as something of a club that had too many guys who didn’t toe the line.
“I don’t think that ever was true, but we did have a couple of spectacular cases dating back to Stanley Wilson.”
An All American fullback out of Oklahoma, Wilson soon spiraled into drug problems that got him suspended from the league in 1985 and 1987. Still Mike Brown wanted to give him another chance:
“My dad just looked at me and said, ‘You can do what you want, but I know what I would do.’ …But Stanley Wilson was my great cause and I tried like blazes to get him right That was my first experience dealing with someone who had what I would call an addiction.”
The Bengals made it to Super Bowl XXIII in Miami in 1989, but on the eve of the game Wilson was found in his room in a crack cocaine haze. He was taken off the roster and because it was his third strike he would be banned from the league for life.
He sneaked away from the team and by game time many Bengals feared he was dead.
San Francisco ended up coming from behind to edge Cincinnati, 20-16. Wilson eventually surfaced and in the years that followed he struggled with drugs. Now 51, he’s serving a long sentence in the Lancaster State Prison in California after stealing $130,000 to support his ongoing addictions.
In October of 1990, the foulest incident in franchise history took place when 20 Bengals were implicated as participants or spectators in a gang rape of a women in a Seattle hotel the night before a game. No charges were filed – the woman took a cash settlement to release players from liability – but she did file an unsuccessful civil suit.
By then the damage was done. The Bengals were branded as a team on the brink and over the next 11 years they led the league in arrests with 35.
Although the team had far more decent and upstanding guys than bad actors, they were eclipsed by the spectacle of teammates in handcuffs.
“Over the years we dug ourselves into a hole,” Brown admitted. “I’m probably the one who did it. We would bring in guys and work with them and sometimes they came around and sometimes they didn’t and that left the public thinking we had too many of that type.
“And that’s the thing I regret – how it put an image on us – even though it was never anything more than a small part of what we were - or maybe not a part at all.
“If you want to blame somebody for it, blame me, but in recent years it became too big of a price to pay and we went back to square one.”
Dealing with ‘Pacman’
As head coach Marvin Lewis put it, Mike learned he can’t save everyone. Instead, Brown set out to save his team: “I’ve gone back to the way my dad did it. You cross the line on him and your can is out the door before you can count to 10. Boom!
“What we’ve been doing for a few years now is to try to sign guys who are solid people. We may have to worry about how they play, but we won’t have to worry so much about how they are off the field…And I think with (Andy) Dalton and (A.J.) Green as examples, with (Andrew) Whitworth as an example and we have lots of others, this is how we want to be perceived.”
Brown is right. The locker room for the most part is exemplary.
The biggest glitch has been with veteran cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones. He had a troubled past before the Bengals signed him in 2010 and then last month he was arrested for an alleged assault of a woman outside a Cincinnati nightclub. His hearing is August 19.
“I’ll say this about Adam,” Brown said defensively. “It’s uncertain what’s going to transpire with him. You don’t know and I don’t know.
“I can tell you that in house – when he’s here – he shows up on time, he works hard, he’s focused on his job and the people enjoy working with him. As to what happened out of school, I guess that will play out, but don’t prejudge him.
“When I think of Adam Jones, the picture that’s in my mind is not of a guy running back a punt or making a play, the picture in my mind is of a guy standing where you’re standing holding a little baby – his baby – trying to make a life for his family.”
Sounds like there still might be a bit of that old starched collar beneath the new no-nonsense fedora.