Hanford Dixon on the Dawg Pound

Since the team has returned, the Dawg Pound hasn't been the same. Whether that's because of the stadium's design, the team's losing ways, or something else, there are still many who hope it returns. Rich Passan talks to the man who helped create the Dawg Pound about whether it will ever return to the glory days...

The Dawg Pound . . . dead or alive?

The Dawg Pound . . . still breathing sans help or on life support?

Yes, there is a Dawg Pound per se at the east end of Cleveland Browns Stadium during the National Football League season. But it's not the raucous, sometimes-out-of-control craziness that put Cleveland fans on the football map from 1982 to 1995 and gave birth to a whole new subculture.

The endearing sight of the Cleveland football crazies in the bleachers at the old Stadium, where they could almost reach out and touch the players, is no longer, giving way to a new, seemingly sterile CBS.

Browns fans have perpetuated the notion that even though Cleveland lost its professional football team for three years in the mid-1990s, the Dawg Pound lived on in the hearts and minds of the fans. It was just placed in mothballs during the absence.

But when the Browns were reincarnated in 1999, the Dawg Pound didn't seem to have the same effect, the same zest, the same kind of fun the previous version enjoyed.

The new Browns floundered and didn't seem to connect with the fans. The dawgs were dawgs in name only. It just wasn't the same despite the fans' attempt to recapture the feeling of the Bernie Kosar era when the Browns went to three AFC championship games.

In the eight years since the return, the Dawg Pound appears to have lost its bite, sparking a great debate among the Cleveland faithful.

On one side, there are those who believe that era still lives and nothing can change that. On the other side, there are those who believe it's time to move on.

One who yearns for the return of the good old dawg days in the fall and is puzzled by its apparent downfall is the man who helped give birth to what came to be the classic identifier of the Browns back then.

"I can't put my finger on it, but it's just not the same like it used to be, the connection between the fans and the players," said Hanford Dixon, the man who started it all 25 years ago as a cornerback with the Browns. "Hopefully, that's going to change real soon. But to me, it's just not there yet."

Dixon, who remained in Cleveland following his playing days and is a successful realtor in the area, believes the current players must become more involved.

"You know us, we were always there with the fans," he said. "They could touch us, they could talk to us, they were near us. I think these guys today – not all of them, but a majority of them – have to get out a little bit more.

"They have to let the people of Cleveland understand and know that ‘here we are. Hey, we're no better, we're no worse than anybody else. We are a part of this community and we are the Cleveland Browns' because you know Cleveland is a blue-collar town. You have to be out there so they can feel you, so they can touch you."

Dixon said he hasn't spoken to the present-day players about it.

"It's different than it used to be," he said. "Even over there now, it's like you're going over to Fort Knox. They've got everything so blocked off. You've got to go through all these channels just to get in the door right now. You've got to loosen up all that. I understand you have to have protection and all that – and again, I'm not saying anything bad about anybody – I think the main thing that all of us want, that are Browns fans, is just for the Browns to get back into those old winning ways.

"We don't want to be at the end of the year, when it's cold, playing the last game for nothing. We want to be right there in the hunt in the AFC North, trying to wrap up the division or trying to have home-field advantage in the playoffs. Once we do that, I think everybody's going to be happy again."

Asked if the current team needs an identity, Dixon was optimistic. "I think they have the dawgs," he said. "They just need to take it – and I don't know if embrace is the right word – they have to find the connection with the fans. They really do.

"We had a great draft this year. Hopefully, those guys will pan out and bring us back. Winning would cure everything and anything and I think that's what we have to do. We have to win."

Winning is something to which Dixon can closely identify. And a lot of that stemmed from the dawg images.

"We made it where opposing teams hated to come into Cleveland to play in what they called the Dawg Pound," he said. "They knew that those guys (the fans) were brutal and not only that, they had to deal with us on the field. Everything went hand in hand."

It didn't take long for the fans to respond to the new image after Dixon conjured up the idea during training camp at Lakeland Community College in 1982.

"We had a good defense, but didn't truly have those great pass rushers on the defensive line," he said. "They did a good job, but weren't dominant pass rushers. I was trying to get something to get them going.

"I was thinking about me growing up down South how a dog used to chase a cat around. So I told the defensive line, ‘We'll think of you guys like the dogs and you think of that old quarterback like a cat. And we're going to bark at you, try to motivate you and get you going after that old quarterback, which is labeled the cat.' "

At LCC, the fans were close to the field and heard just about everything that went on during practice. "We started barking," Dixon said. "And it was originally meant for defensive line, but before we knew it, the fans took over that day and everybody was barking. And then it was history from then on out. That's how that whole thing started."

When the regular season arrived in 1982, you can imagine how surprised Dixon and his teammates were when fans barked and bellowed from the bleachers.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "We thought it was great. They sat so close to the field, we drew a lot of energy from the fans. Sometimes, you go out there and you're ready to play, but you're not up to par. But when you see the fans barking and carrying on, it really set a fire underneath me and I'm sure all my teammates, too. It got us going.

"It was just UNbelievable. It was like a connection we had with the fans. We'd bark at them. They'd bark back at us. We would run down to the end zone before the game, after the game. It was just a connection we had with them."

The opposition took notice. "We used to hear it all the time from a lot of opposing players," Dixon said. "They knew it was no cakewalk. That's the way it should have been and the way it should be now. It's like you're in your house, protecting your own back yard. Not only did we do it on the field, we had such rowdy fans, they would help us out on this task."

Dog bones, batteries and assorted debris flew out of the Dawg Pound with regularity. Having seats in the Dawg Pound became a badge of honor.

The proximity of the bleachers to the field back then might have played a large part in the connection between the fans and players, Dixon pointed out.

"Now, it's not at close as far the fans are concerned," he said. "They're not as close to the field as they used to be. We used to love that old mound up there by the Dawg Pound. We used to run up that old mound to get to the fans. You know, run by there and shake their hands and all that stuff.

"There was that old fence that was there that pretty much kept everybody from each other. It's a little bit different today. When we played, you had all the banners hanging everywhere in the Stadium. I don't think they allow them to bring those in there anymore."

The current regime appears to have depersonalized the connection between the players and fans. That and the losing culture that has been pervasive for most of the last eight seasons have contributed to the perceived lingering demise of the Dawg Pound.

Asked if the Pound is dying a slow death, Dixon said, "I hope I'm wrong, but I think it is. And I think a big part of that, too, is the lack of winning. Look at us. We've been back for a while and we just haven't won anything.

"We didn't win the big one, but we were used to being up there fighting every single year. Pittsburgh comes in here (now) and does what they want with us. Baltimore comes in here and pretty much does what they want with us. We're pretty much fighting at the bottom of the totem pole in the AFC North."

Dixon said it would it be correct to say the Dawg Pound is on life support, but is still breathing. And he doesn't like the feeling.

"It's kind of sad," he said. "As a player who played nine years for the Cleveland Browns, I know what it means to play against those Pittsburgh Steelers, those hard-fought games and how you're supposed to feel the next day after you've played those games. And just to hear some of the comments . . . some (players make) before they play that game, like they don't know how important this game is. It's just another game.

"It's not just another game. It's the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's a team in the division, one of our biggest rivalries that have always been there. The Steelers still think of it that way, but I don't get the feeling our guys feel about it that way. That's too bad. Hopefully, that will change and we'll get back in this thing again and throw our hat in the ring and be there at the end of the year."

With or without the help of the Dawg Pound?

That remains to be seen.

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