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Cincinnati and Indianapolis: a Tale of Two Cities

August 28th, 2011 at 7:00 AM
By Chuck Chapman

Editor's Note: Much thanks to the Indianapolis Star and their History of the Colts for information on the team and the city of Indianapolis.

This week, the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts meet at Paul Brown Stadium to close out the preseason. The two squads will meet again here in Cincinnati in week six of the regular season. The two cities, linked by Interstate 74 and separated by only 112 miles share a similar history as Mid-Western towns, but recent history shows the two cities, and their football teams, heading in starkly different directions. One will be hosting the Super Bowl this season in a new retractable-roof stadium that hosts countless events other than football games and has been a key cog in the revitalization of the city. The other will be playing in an open-air stadium that rarely is used other than  for the ten dates for the NFL that the team hosts and has left its home suffering under the debt service on the publicly funded stadium.

Bob Irsay brought the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984 after a prolonged fight with the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland over building a publicly funded stadium. Irsay, like Paul Brown and Art Rooney, all owners for whom the NFL was their principle business, was know for not spending lavishly on his club. His son, Jim, began working with the team in 1982, learning the business from his father.

Paul Brown brought the expansion Bengals to Cincinnati in 1968. He was instrumental in getting Riverfront Stadium build, then one of many multi-use stadia being constructed in cities like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. Brown's son was with him from the start, having graduated with an MBA from Dartmouth, learning the business of the NFL from his legendary father.

In the late 1970's and 1980's Indianapolis was in decline. The older neighborhoods were in decay, the economy, particularly in the blue collar industries was suffering, and "white flight" was taking money out of the city and into the suburbs like Carmel and Fishers. In 1979, under the leadership of then Mayor Richard Lugar (later a US Senator) and then William Hudnut, the Indiana Sports Corporation was formed. The idea, according to former Deputy Mayor David Frick was "to change the image of the city" by using "sports as an element of our game plan." In 1982 the city broke ground on construction of the Hoosier Dome.

In the 1970's and into the 1980's Cincinnati thrived as other Ohio cities like Cleveland and Toledo suffered from the loss of jobs as factories closed down. Much of Cincinnati's success was through forward-thinking leadership of its city council and prudent financial management by an appointed City Manager. Building Riverfront Stadium was a boon to the city. The Reds and the Bengals had a state of the art facility (with astro turf, so rain outs and field conditions weren't a concern) and the stadium played host to concerts and other events when the team weren't using it. Both teams were successful, the Reds winning World Series titles in 1975 and 1976 and the Bengals rising quickly from their expansion beginnings to compete with the powerful Pittsburgh Steelers.  Professional sports and the exposure it gave the city attracted business and folks eager to relocate to Cincinnati. But the same urban decay and "white flight" was happening in Cincinnati as well and the city leaders ignored the development of Fairfield, Mason, West Chester, and Florence.

When the Maryland State Legislature voted in 1984 to allow the city of Baltimore to seize the Colts under eminent domain, Bob Irsay had had enough. In fear of having law enforcement at his facility the next morning, Irsay loaded up the team's equipment into 15 Mayflower moving trucks at two in the morning. Their destination was Indianapolis. Pacers owner and real estate magnate Herb Simon had personally reached out to Irsay and Colts officials to convince them to choose their city over Phoenix, Jacksonville, and several other suitors. When Irsay loaded up the trucks, they were each instructed to take a different route to Indianapolis for fear of having the state police stop them and seize their belongings. When the trucks finally reached the Indiana state line, they were escorted by the Indiana State Police to Indianapolis where they were greeted by 20,000 fans waiting at the newly built Hoosier Dome.

The Bengals made the Super Bowl in 1989 and the playoffs following the 1990 season. Paul Brown died that year, leaving Mike in control of the franchise. Fourteen consecutive losing seasons would follow before the Bengals finally broke through in 2005. Under Mike  Brown, the Bengals have been the epitome of failure in the NFL with commentators referring to them as the "Bungles" and pictures of fans wearing bags over their heads the norm. Despite the call for Brown to step down or hire a general manager, he remains the singular executive of the club, assisted by his daughter, Katie Blackburn, and other family in the front office. Mike Brown is infamously reclusive, meeting with the media only twice per year, at season's beginning and end. 

Robert Irsay named his son Jim the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts upon their arrival. In 12 seasons with Jim Irsay calling the shots as GM, the team made the playoffs only twice. Their history of poor drafting (remember Trev Alberts?), constant holdouts and player issues (Eric Dickerson), and revolving coaches (Rick Venturi, et al) earned the team the derisive nickname, the "Dolts" from the national media. Fans in the Hoosier Dome with bags over their heads were a common occurrence. In 1996, Bob Irsay had a stroke and eventually died. After a legal battle with Irsay's widow, Jim took over ownership of the club and immediately stepped aside as general manager. In his place he hired Bill Polian, who had been the architect of the Buffalo Bills Super Bowl teams and the expansion Carolina Panthers who had already reached the conference championship game. Jim Irsay is a gregarious figure, keeping an open dialogue with local and national media. In December of 2010 he famously launched his own Twitter account, having contests with fans to win tickets. He is quite visible in the local community and well-known for his local philanthropy.

Since Jim Irsay took over as owner of the Colts, the team has gone 138-54, appearing in two Super Bowls, winning one. Polian rebuilt the franchise through the draft, his choice of Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf being the key component to their success. The Colts have made the playoffs nine consecutive seasons with Manning. This year, Indianapolis will host Super Bowl XLVI, becoming only the third cold weather city to host the NFL championship game (Detroit and Minnesota have also hosted). Robert Kraft, owner of the Colts' most bitter rival, the New England Patriots, was asked why he voted for Indianapolis to host the Super Bowl.

"I voted for Indy because of Jim (Irsay) because I like him and respect what he's done there."

The Bengals begin 2011 with their franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, sitting at home in California. He has retired rather than continue to play for the Bengals. The team is rebuilding once again, this time with second round pick Andy Dalton at the helm. Cincinnati won't be seeing a Super Bowl or Final Four any time soon. During the negotiations with the city for building the Reds and Bengals new stadia, Mike Brown was adamantly opposed to a proposal which would have built the Bengals a domed stadium attached to a remodeled convention center (precisely the situation with Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indianapolis Convention Center). Brown cited the fact that no team that played in a domed stadium had ever won the Super Bowl. Since then, both St. Louis and Indianapolis have won Super Bowls while the Bengals have appeared in the playoffs only twice, losing both games at home in the open air of Paul Brown Stadium. Meanwhile, Hamilton County continues to spend more on debt service to PBS than it does on roads and schools.

Two rust-belt cities, two family-owned football franchises. Though they share so much in common, the plight of these two cities and their football teams could not be more different.


Tags: Cincinnati, Cincinnati Bengals, Football, Indianapolis Colts, Jim Irsay, Mike Brown, NFL

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