In training camp for the Browns over the years, it’s always been about the temperatures.
Cooling off and being cool.
Being red-hot and miserably hot.
What else would you expect for an event that’s held during the dog days of August, the hottest part of the summer?
Maybe the best Browns camp story ever, or at least one of the best – is very simple. After a long, tiring day of practice under the blazing sun at Hiram College, Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach Paul Brown used to invite the media up to his dorm room after supper to answer questions about the team. While holding these very leisurely and informal press conferences in a room sans air conditioning, Brown would sit on his bed sipping a cold ginger ale, with his bare feet on the floor in an effort to cool off.
There were a lot of great tales from those days at Hiram, but part of the coolness of Browns training camp has always been getting access to the coaches and players. The closer, the better, and fans can’t get any closer than what they can at camp. Even if they’ve got the best seat at Cleveland Browns Stadium, it’s not so close that you can literally reach out and touch your heroes -- maybe even some of the game’s all-time greats -- like you can at camp.
The Browns held their first six camps, from 1946-51, at Bowling Green State University. There were no ropes to keep the fans on the sideline then. They were able to get up close and personal, journeying right onto the field to almost become part of the action.
There are photos of several curious fans standing literally just a few feet away as two Hall of Famers honed their craft, quarterback Otto Graham holding for Lou Groza on place kicks.
While the Browns liked their time at BG, they began looking for greener pastures -- and someplace a little closer to Cleveland. They found it at Hiram College, located in northern Portage County about a half-hour away.
The grass at Hiram seemed a little greener and thicker. The Browns were so pleased by the conditions that they stayed there 23 years, from 1952-74, making Hiram the longest-tenured site in the team’s camp history.
Indeed, more than the field conditions, there was just a special feeling at that little college in that little college town -- an ambiance that no one who ever played and coached for the Browns during that time, or attended camps at Hiram, will ever forget.
Sure, it didn’t hurt that the Browns during that era were almost always competing for league championships and featured eventual Hall of Famers Mike McCormack, Gene Hickerson, Paul Warfield, Leroy Kelly and, of course, the incomparable Jim Brown.
Because the Browns liked being around Cleveland and liked Portage County, they moved from Hiram to nearby Kent State University.
The year the Browns moved to Kent, they hired Forrest Gregg as their head coach. The HOF offensive tackle from the Packers was no-nonsense to the hilt, using camp as a barometer to determine who was tough enough to be on his team.
Following the 1981 camp, the Browns moved to a new summer home about 25 miles to the north at much smaller Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, located next to Mentor in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs and the atmosphere became smoking hot otherwise during the Bernie Kosar era. This saw the Browns make the playoffs five straight times, with four Central Division titles and three appearances in the AFC Championship Game.
The Browns were not only good players, but good people, developing a strong love affair with the fans that still exists to this day. The fans couldn’t get enough of those Browns, and it was commonplace for crowds of 10,000 to show up for camp practices, then afterwards stretch and strain over the restraining ropes to get autographs from the players as they exited the field.
But following the 1991 camp, the Browns left Lakeland to come home to their practice complex/team headquarters in Berea in Cleveland’s southwestern suburbs.
Staying at their own facility kept the Browns from having to go through the cumbersome task of moving all the equipment they would need for camp to another site. It allowed the coaches and players to instead concentrate on football in familiar surroundings with all the amenities right at their fingertips.
This will mark the 16th year the Browns will hold camp in Berea, making it the second-longest-tenured site behind Hiram.
So camp, for which there is absolutely no admission fee, remains the best bargain in town for fans who want to get a bird’s eye view of the action at the right price.