Coach Sam Speaks Out

The ex-Browns head coach offers criticism at an Akron celebrity luncheon. Steve King was there...

GREEN, Ohio – As the old adage goes, pictures say a thousand words, and there were volumes being uttered as Sam Rutigliano and Jim Houston sat at the head table eating and talking at Ohio Prestwick Country Club in this southeast Akron suburb before the former Browns head coach served as the guest speaker for the final Northeastern Ohio Celebrity Luncheon Club session of the year.

Rutigliano coached the Browns from 1978 until midway through the '84 season, making the playoffs twice and being the architect of the 1980 Kardiac Kids, one of the most successful – and arguably the most popular and exciting, especially offensively – teams in club history. Twice he was named AFC Coach of the Year.

Houston was the Browns' first-round choice, at No. 8 overall, in the 1960 NFL Draft out of Ohio State and played 13 seasons, through 1972, being named all-league twice and getting selected to three Pro Bowls. His teams made it to the playoffs seven times, getting to four NFL Championship Games and winning in 1964 as the Browns claimed what is still the last of their eight league crowns.

The Browns were so good then that when they finished 7-6-1 in 1962 and 7-7 in '70, it was as if the football world, as fans knew it, had come to an end.

Proceeds from the Luncheon Club series, which runs monthly from March to November every year, benefit the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio, which is near and dear to Houston's heart since he spent a lot of time at a Boys Club while growing up just down the road from Green in Massillon.

When the kids at the Boys and Girls Clubs in the region become adults, you have to wonder if they will have any remembrance of a time when the Browns were good. Will anyone look at a former Browns head coach and linebacker from the expansion era sitting together, eating and talking, and be able to recount a litany of all the success they experienced?

Despite getting fired 25 years ago, Rutigliano is still a Browns fan and continues to reside in the same Waite Hill house in Cleveland's eastern suburbs that he did while coaching the team. With those kinds of roots planted, it's easy to understand why the struggles of the Browns pain him so much.

His half-hour talk Thursday centered on the secrets to living a good and fruitful life, and also the plight of the Browns. He said, in so many words, that the Browns' failure to do what has proven successful in life and business, has led them on this path to nowhere with their 1-7 record, a three-game losing streak and just as many off-the-field issues.

"Character endures," Rutigliano said at one point. In fact, character was brought up any number of times. He didn't need to make the link to the Browns. That was understood.

He added a moment later, "Discipline doesn't mean punishment but rather correction. That's a problem with our favorite team."

He was referring, of course, to head coach Eric Mangini fining safety Abram Elam the astronomical sum of $1,701 for failing to pay for a $3 bottle of water in his room at the team hotel.

Rutigliano is not a fan of Mangini or the way he and recently-fired general manager George Kokinis were brought in. Mangini was hired in January, then he lobbied owner Randy Lerner hard to hire Kokinis.

"You don't hire the head foreman before you hire the CEO," Rutigliano said.

And now Kokinis is gone, having been ousted three days before.

"After less than a year on the job, the GM – the guy you've gone through free agency, the draft, training camp, the preseason and eight regular-season games with – is fired, and no one can explain why," Rutigliano said. "I can explain it. He was unqualified in the first place."

The problems go straight to top echelons of the team, according to the retired coach.

"What's wrong with the Browns? Leadership," Rutigliano said. "Everybody rises and falls with the leader. The leader charts the course. Look at the course that's been charted for the Browns the last 11 years (the expansion era).

"With all the things that are going on up there, you have to do something about the DNA if you want to change the culture."

That cuts to the heart of the matter – literally and figuratively.

Afterward, as Rutigliano was signing autographs and posing for photos with members of the audience before hopping into his car and racing back to Downtown Cleveland to do a TV program, Houston walked over with a big smile on his face as he laughed and joked with a reporter about several topics. But when the subject of the Browns soon came up, that smile was immediately turned upside down.

"You know, the Browns have been my life. I've been involved with them my entire life," said Houston, whose older brother, Lin, was a right guard on the first eight Browns teams from 1946-53. "I went to every game from the time I was 9 years old. To be able to do that and then go into the locker room afterward and mingle with all those great players and great men was really something. What a wonderful experience. What a wonderful way to grow up."

Then he added as a real look of sadness came over his face, "But you know, I'm not proud of my Browns right now."

Pictures say a thousand words, but some words – some single sentences – say several thousand words, and Houston's words said it all, disappointingly so.

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