Mark Story

UK played big role in Cleveland’s last pro sports championship

Three years after Blanton Collier was fired by Kentucky as its head football coach, he led the Cleveland Browns to the 1964 NFL championship.
Three years after Blanton Collier was fired by Kentucky as its head football coach, he led the Cleveland Browns to the 1964 NFL championship. ASSOCIATED PRESS

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers will seek to bring the star-crossed city of Cleveland its first major pro sports championship in 52 years on Sunday.

The last time Cleveland sports fans got to chant ‘We’re Number One!,’ there was a strong Kentucky flavor to the story.

On Dec. 27, 1964, in the NFL championship game, the Jim Brown-led Cleveland Browns roared away from a scoreless halftime tie to beat Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts 27-0.

Cleveland’s coach was Blanton Collier — then only three years removed from being let go by the University of Kentucky.

Baltimore’s coach was Don Shula — who had been an assistant to Collier at UK in 1959.

“I remember going into the game, there was a lot of talk about the teacher vs. pupil (coaching) matchup,” Kay Collier McLaughlin, the middle of Collier’s three daughters, said Friday.

Blanton Collier, who died in 1983 at 76, might have had the guttiest career in American football coaching history.

At UK, he succeeded Bear Bryant — arguably the greatest college football coach of all time.

In Cleveland, he followed Paul Brown — arguably the most significant pro football coach of all time.

A Millersburg native and Georgetown College graduate, Collier spent eight seasons (1954-61) as Kentucky’s coach. Ten UK coaches later, Collier (41-36-3) is still the last one to leave with a winning record.

Yet, at the time, it was Bryant’s shiny 60-23-5 record at UK (1946-53) that Collier’s tenure was judged against.

“Daddy knew he had a good record at Kentucky,” Collier McLaughlin said. “But I’m sure, on some level, what happened in Cleveland was satisfying because it showed (UK) what it had and let go.”

Following another legend

If anything, the challenge Collier faced in Cleveland was even more daunting than following Bryant at UK.

Paul Brown was much more than a coach who won seven championships (four All-America Football Conference, three NFL) with the Browns.

He was the first football coach to use game film for scouting, the first to hire a full-time, year-around coaching staff and an innovator in calling plays from the sideline.

After World War II (and before he came to UK), Collier had gone to work for Brown in Cleveland as an assistant. “They were as close as any two men I ever saw,” Collier McLaughlin says. “Paul and Katie (the coach’s wife) ... were at all our weddings.”

Following the 1962 NFL season, in a stunner, Browns owner Art Modell fired Paul Brown. As owner, Modell felt he should be in the loop on trades; Brown was used to operating with a free hand on football matters.

Modell offered Collier the job as Brown’s replacement.

Initially, Paul Brown told Blanton Collier he should take the job, Collier McLaughlin said. Then, however, Brown sent his son Mike — the current owner of the Cincinnati Bengals — to talk Collier out of it.

“I distinctly remember Daddy coming home and saying, ‘If I take this job, this era of our life will be over,’” Collier McLaughlin said. “He said, ‘I know Paul too well, everything will change.’”

Collier accepted the Browns coaching job. “And it ended his friendship with Paul,” Collier McLaughlin said. “It was sad. To the end, they never reconciled.”

So when Collier led the Browns to the 1964 NFL title game in his second year, he had more incentive than showing UK it had dismissed a winner. He was also proving he could step out of the shadow of his legendary pro football mentor.

In the title game against the Colts, Jim Brown ran 27 times for 114 yards and caught three passes for 37 more. Cleveland quarterback Frank Ryan outplayed Johnny Unitas, connecting with Gary Collins on three touchdown passes.

“The day after, there was a famous photo of Daddy holding the (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer headline with the score in it,” Collier McLaughlin said. “He said ‘See, the score didn’t change overnight.’”

Cleveland’s drought

Over these past 52 years, Cleveland’s sports misery has developed its own shorthand.

The Drive. The Fumble. Edgar Renteria. Jordan over Ehlo. The Decision.

There have been no Super Bowl appearances for the Browns.

Since 1964, the Indians have only made the World Series twice — losing in 1995 and 1997.

In two separate stints with the Cavaliers, LeBron James has led Cleveland to three NBA Finals, losing to San Antonio in 2007 and to the Warriors last year.

On Sunday at 8 p.m., the Cavaliers will try again to rewrite their city’s sports narrative in a winner-take-all Game 7 at Golden State.

Collier McLaughlin, 77, says she will be pulling for Tyronn Lue to replace her father as the answer to a trivia question: Who was the last Cleveland coach to win a major professional pro sports championship?

“I think back on something Jim (Brown) said the last time (the Cavs) were close,” she said. “The 1964 Browns have had enough notoriety, it’s time for somebody else. Cleveland deserves it.”