By: Steve King, Contributor to ClevelandBrowns.com
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The Browns hired a new coach in Forrest Gregg on Jan. 22, 1975.
But he was hardly a new face, and the method by which they found him was extremely familiar, too.
Gregg had been the team’s offensive line coach on Nick Skorich’s staff in 1974. As such, his hiring continued the tradition of former Browns owner Art Modell promoting from within for the job.
Blanton Collier, who was Modell’s first hire as coach in 1963 when he replaced founding coach Paul Brown, had returned to the team as an assistant in 1962 after having also been on Brown’s first eight staffs from 1946-53.
Collier’s successor in 1971 was Skorich, who had been on the Cleveland staff from 1964-70.
Gregg, just the fourth coach in the Browns’ first 30 seasons of existence, inherited a team whose players had seemingly gotten old all at the same time, causing a 4-10 finish in 1974, the worst in franchise history to that point. But the Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle had played for great franchises – the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys – and great coaches in Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, so he knew what it took to build a winner.
Gregg’s first order of business was to improve the team’s rushing attack and make the club more physical on both sides of the ball. His 1975 team got off to a rocky start, losing its first nine games, then, with the running game beginning to click and the physicality of the players starting to make a difference, things came together down the stretch, with the Browns winning three of their last five to finish 3-11.
The Browns struggled out of the gate in 1976 as well, going 1-4, then they really got going, winning eight of nine, their best stretch since 1968, on the way to finishing 9-5. That was their best record since 1972 and nearly got them into the AFC playoffs.
The team’s five-win improvement over 1974 earned Gregg the AFC Coach of the Year award.
Things looked even brighter at the halfway point of the 1977 season, when the Browns, in scoring their most points since 1968, routed the Kansas City Chiefs, 44-7, and moved into first place in the AFC Central with a 5-2 record.
But they couldn’t sustain it, especially offensively as they began to really struggle to score points. They lost their next two games to rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh by a combined total of just seven points, easily defeated the New York Giants and then dropped their final four games to finish 6-8.
Five of those last six defeats came by a combined total of only 21 points.
Gregg didn’t make it to the finale, a 20-19 loss to the second-year Seattle Seahawks. He was fired the previous week following a 19-15 home loss to the Houston Oilers, giving him an 18-23 final overall record with the Browns in roughly three seasons.
Also on this date, Jan. 22, in 1953, the Browns selected five notable players in the 1953 NFL Draft in Tennessee defensive tackle Doug Atkins (first round), Pittsburgh running back Billy Reynolds (second round), Washington State center/linebacker Don Steinbrunner (sixth round), Kansas linebacker Galen Fiss (13th round) and Dayton tackle Chuck Noll (20th round).
Atkins, one of the biggest players in team history to that time at 6-foot-8 and 257 pounds, played just the 1953 and ’54 seasons with Cleveland before going on to spend 15 more years with the Chicago Bears and three with the New Orleans Saints on the way to being enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Reynolds played in the NFL Championship Game in each of his three seasons with the Browns (1953-54, 1957). He rushed for 550 yards and three touchdowns in his career, along with averaging 10.4 yards on 20 pass receptions, 25.6 yards on 25 kickoff returns and 5.4 yards on 67 punt returns.
Steinbrunner was a defensive end for the Browns in 1953, which turned out to be his only year in pro football. But his significance in the history of the team and the game is that he was the first man – and one of only two men — who played in the NFL and went on to die while serving in the Vietnam War. A member of the U.S. Air Force, Steinbrunner, then 35, was killed when his plane was shot down over South Vietnam on July 20, 1967.
Almost three years later to the day, on July 21, 1970, guard Bob Kalsu, who had played a year with the Buffalo Bills in 1968, was killed when his unit came under heavy fire.
Fiss had a great career with the Browns, playing 11 years (1956-66) and being selected twice to the Pro Bowl. He made the defensive play of the day – maybe even the overall play of the day – in the 27-0 victory over the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL Championship Game when he tackled Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Lenny Moore on a screen pass in the first half, preventing a certain touchdown.
Noll, from Cleveland Benedictine High School, played with the Browns for seven seasons (153-59) as both a messenger guard and linebacker before becoming a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Finally, on Jan. 22, 1958, running back Charles White was born in Los Angeles. After being awarded the Heisman Trophy following his senior season at USC, he was taken by the Browns in the first round of the 1980 NFL Draft.
He played four years for Cleveland (1980-82, 1984), rushing for 942 yards and nine TDs, including five as a rookie, and catching 83 passes for 684 yards and a score. He went on to the Los Angeles Rams and in 1987 led the NFL in rushing yards (1,374) and rushing TDs (11).
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