How the Stars Aligned to Bring Pro Football to Cincinnati

August 07, 2018

Paul Brown helmets

Many pro football aficionados point to the 1958 National Football League (NFL) Championship Game as the event that, more than anything else, increased interest in the sport at the professional level.

Within two years of that historic contest, a rival circuit, the American Football League (AFL) was open for business, placing teams in several cities that did not have NFL teams. The older league responded by also expanding into new cities. This included grabbing the Minneapolis-St. Paul market right out from under their new rivals before the new league even played a down.

When the American Football League kicked off its inaugural season in 1960, it competed directly with the NFL in half of its 8 markets, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and the San Francisco Bay Area. By 1963, only New York and the Bay Area had teams in each league.

As the 1960s progressed, both leagues talked constantly about adding even more teams and towns. Cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, Miami, Memphis, Phoenix, Seattle, Louisville, and Portland were frequently mentioned as possible candidates for new teams. Cincinnati, though, was only occasionally listed as a possible recipient of a pro football team. However, two men would work to change that. One of those men was, of course, Paul Brown. The other, James A. Rhodes, the then governor of Ohio.

In 1963, Brown had been relieved of his coaching duties with the Cleveland Browns, a team he had coached since its inception in 1946 and that bore his name.

Now there has been some confusion over the years, but make no mistake, the Browns are named for Paul Brown at the insistence of fans who chose the nickname when the team was formed in 1946. Brown, publicly at least, did not support the choice and was rather uncomfortable with the notion but later acquiesced. He went on to lead the team to multiple championships, starting with 4 in the All-American Football, the rival league in which they started. When the team moved to the NFL in 1950, the winning continued with the Browns capturing 3 NFL titles under Brown in 1950, 1954, and 1955.

Art Modell, an ad man from New York City, acquired the franchise in 1961 and from the start never got along with Brown. In 1963, Modell fired the legendary coach. 

Not long after leaving Cleveland, Brown expressed interest in getting back into the NFL by establishing a new team. At the behest of Rhodes, he focused on Cincinnati which would give the state two teams. For Cincinnati to get that expansion team though, several things had to fall into place.

As Brown exited Cleveland, the AFL and NFL were still at war, competing for players, fans, and cities in which to place franchises. To that end, several towns were bucking for teams as both leagues announced plans to expand by at least two teams each. In July of 1965, Miami was awarded the ninth AFL franchise, with plans for another city, likely Atlanta, to be announced shortly thereafter.

However, the NFL swooped in and offered the Atlanta group a slot in the NFL, which they took. That left two spots, one in each league, open. Unfortunately, Cincinnati was in no position to put a serious bid forward, as the only stadium in town, Nippert, on the campus of UC, was inadequate to satisfy the demands of either league. Also, Brown wasn’t keen on joining the AFL and had his heart set on returning to the NFL.

Then, in June of 1966, the two leagues announced they were going to merge as of the 1970 football season. Brown became much more amenable to the idea of joining the AFL, because, in four years time, it would be part of the NFL.

With the promise of a team that would eventually be in the NFL, city leaders in Cincinnati agreed to build a new stadium on the riverfront that would be home to the Reds and the new football team. That was good enough for the AFL, and even though the new team would have to play for 2 years at Nippert, Cincinnati was awarded an expansion franchise on May 24, 1967.

How the nickname and color scheme came about is still a point of debate, but it is likely several factors contributed to both. First off, the name was derived from one of Cincinnati's former pro football teams that had played in two of the other circuits to use the name American Football League. In this case, the ones that existed between 1936-1937 and 1940 to 1941. The name Bengals also tied in nicely to Brown’s connection with the Massillon Tigers, the high school team he coached early in his career.

The colors seem obvious as tigers are black, orange, and white, but some say Brown’s son Mike chose them because they were the colors of his alma mater, Princeton. The shade of orange, burnt orange to be specific, was clearly a thumb in the eye of Paul Brown’s former employer who used the exact same shade until just a few years ago.

On Sunday, September 15, 1968, the Bengals played their first home game at Nippert Stadium, a 24 to 10 win over the Denver Broncos. In the crowd that day was a contingent of Cleveland Browns fans there to cheer on their team’s former, and still popular, head coach. The Browns were on the road opening the 1968 season in New Orleans against the Saints.

After two losing seasons in the AFL, the team won their division in the merged league in 1970 but lost their first playoff game 17 to 0 against the Baltimore Colts. The Bengals went on two appear in two Super Bowls, and though they lost both, they still have two more visits to the big game than Paul Brown’s former team.

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