Nobody wanted to be a Cleveland Brown more than Bernie Kosar. After his redshirt sophomore season of college football, and with a national title already under his belt, Kosar graduated from Miami, Fla. a year early in the spring of 1985 to manipulate the rules of the regular NFL Draft and enter the league’s Supplemental Draft.
That was the only way he could become a Brown.
“Frankly, it is not often over the years that I’ve been here that a professional athlete in any sport has said, ‘I want to play in Cleveland,’ ” Browns owner Art Modell said. “It created and developed a sense of civic pride and community that has long been missing around here.”
For a city that’s been crushed twice by the defections of LeBron James, lost multiple free agents from the Indians, and witnessed the departure of the Browns franchise, that kind of love offered a powerful hold that has lingered for decades on a weather-beaten fanbase.
“The very fact Bernie, with his credentials and his background chose to come to Cleveland, meant a lot to this community,” Modell said.
Bernie grew up a Browns’ fan, knew the team’s history and wore his allegiance, like most of his neighbors in Boardman, proudly.
As a lanky but brainy youngster, his passion for sports and intelligent approach helped him overcome his physical limitations.
He was a basketball starter as a sophomore and eventually became Boardman’s leading scorer and rebounder. An excellent third baseman and pitcher in baseball, his father and one of his coaches figured that was his best sport. But Bernie’s passion was football. And, despite his unorthodox style, it was his future, too.
In his junior year, the fall of 1980, Kosar claimed the starting quarterback job, despite the coaching staff’s trepidation about his throwing motion — a critique that would stay with him for years.
“He doesn’t throw the ball, he lets go of it like a guy losing a bar of soap in the shower,” legendary sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote. “The first look you get at Kosar’s delivery you think it’s a gag.
“I’ve seen bridal bouquets thrown with more velocity.”
His mobility was another issue, or lack thereof. Kosar’s cumbersome gait, his sidesaddle way of standing at the line to get his feet out of the way of his center at the snap, his arm slot, throwing motion, release point — it was all a hot mess. But inside that package was some special stuff, too — something virtually every coach at every level had to learn for himself.
Kosar had an elite football IQ, and was frequently able to decipher a defense quicker than his coaches. He was also a pinpoint passer, and had the toughness and moxie to move an offense against a superior foe. His penchant for delivering in the clutch would become another key trait, to the point he was described as a pressure junkie.
“The ultimate way of how a quarterback is judged is on the end results. How I look is of no consequence to me,” Kosar said. “Sometimes I throw underhanded, side-armed, off the wrong foot, all the good stuff. But I’ve been doing that my whole life.”
The Boardman staff learned not to tamper with success, and watched Bernie guide their squad to a 6-0 record. The season was sidetracked only by a teacher’s strike in the district that cost the Spartans a conference title and a playoff spot. But Bernie showed enough that coach Gene Pushic scrapped the program’s power-oriented attack to take advantage of their budding star’s arm talent.
In 1981, Boardman finished 8-2 and just missed the playoffs. Kosar earned first-team All-Ohio recognition and was the state’s Division I offensive player of the year. He longed to attend Ohio State, but Earle Bruce couldn’t get past those mechanical flaws.
Instead, Howard Schnellenberger was convinced of Kosar’s talent, and wooed him to Miami, Fla.
Schnellenberger groomed Joe Namath and Ken Stabler as Alabama’s quarterbacks coach under Bear Bryant. He had similar success under Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins, and had a hand in developing Bert Jones with the Baltimore Colts. Schnellenberger was the quarterback whisperer of his generation.
Although Miami was not a power program at the time, the coach already had Jim Kelly in place heading into his senior year in 1982. But the future demanded a worthy replacement.
Schnellenberger liked Bernie’s size, accuracy and intelligence. He rated Kosar one of the top three high school quarterbacks in the nation, and successfully recruited one of the other two as well, Vinny Testaverde. Kelly (a Pro Football Hall of Famer), Kosar (a national champion) and Testaverde (a Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick) made the 1982 Hurricanes’ QB room the unquestioned greatest in the history of college football.
Both Kosar and Testaverde redshirted while Kelly completed a fine career, then the QB competition opened in 1983.
“I ran a 5.6 40-yard dash, (Vinny) ran a 4.7,” Kosar remembered. “I barely could bench press a buck-85, he lifted 325. I was like, ‘I’m dead.’ “
The majority of the coaching staff felt the same way, but Schnellenberger didn’t, and his opinion was all that mattered.
“It’s the best competition I’ve ever been around,” Schnellenberger said. “I was still wrestling with the decision five minutes before I was supposed to make the announcement. Our first game was against Florida, and I thought we had a better than 50-50 chance to lose the game. I had to decide which quarterback would be best able to handle a loss and come back to play again.”
The scenario played out just as the head coach envisioned.
Florida administered a 28-3 pounding of Miami in that season opener, but Kosar learned from it, and grew. In fact, Miami would not lose again as Bernie got better each week. The season wouldn’t end until an epic national championship game in the Orange Bowl. Few gave the Hurricanes a chance against No. 1 Nebraska riding a 22-game winning streak.
But Kosar’s magical clutch performance stunned the Cornhuskers. He hit 19 of 30 passes for 300 yards and was voted the game’s Offensive MVP.
“They were prehistoric with their defensive schemes,” Kosar said. “They had never seen a pro-style passing attack.”
Nebraska drew to within 31-30 with 48 seconds left, but missed a two-point conversion as Miami won the national championship. Interestingly, Kosar would’ve loved the challenge to have the ball in his hands one more time had the Cornhuskers converted.
“I wanted them to make it,” Kosar said. “There was plenty of time left to at least get into position for a field goal. We would have done it, too, the way we were moving the ball. Forty-eight seconds was more than enough time. It would’ve been fun.”
The next season wasn’t nearly as much fun. Schnellenberger moved on to a gig in the USFL and Jimmy Johnson became the new coach. Although Johnson would become a huge success, and Kosar had another big season, the program suffered significant growing pains in 1984 and Miami finished 8-5 with several defensive collapses crippling the campaign.
Thus set in motion his plan to enter the supplemental draft and land with the Browns.
“College football was not challenging,” Kosar said. “With our passing system at Miami, which was head-and-shoulders above any other college, after a while it was just too easy.
“I don’t want that to sound wrong, but in games I’d see only one, maybe two coverages. It was so unsophisticated. For me to grow at so slow a pace — what was the point?”
So the Browns worked a deal with the Buffalo Bills to move up to the top spot and snag Kosar with the No. 1 overall supplemental choice.
“This is what I’ve always wanted,” Kosar said.
When he arrived, the Browns brought in good-natured Gary Danielson to help groom him. A quarterback with Midwestern roots who enjoyed a bit of success with the Detroit Lions, the two bonded instantly over a cerebral approach to the game. Kosar became his protege, and the 36-year-old proved to be an excellent tutor and a serviceable starter.
After a 2-2 start in the 1985 season, Danielson tore his rotator cuff against New England and Kosar took over. On cue, he fumbled his first snap.
“It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me,” Kosar said. “Seventy thousand people screaming my name and then 30 seconds later they all turned on me. I never forgot that.”
But he recovered, hit seven straight passes and led the Browns to a 24-20 win. The job was now his.
In 1986 he led the Browns to a 12-4 record, including a 27-24 win at Pittsburgh that snapped a 17-game losing streak in the Steel City. Cleveland had homefield advantage through the playoffs, and Kosar had a memorable postseason baptism. In a 23-20 overtime win against the New York Jets, he threw for 489 yards. That led Cleveland to its first AFC Championship Game.
It looked like Kosar had sent the Browns to the Super Bowl when he hit Brian Brennan for a 48-yard TD and a 20-13 lead over the Denver Broncos with just 5:48 remaining. But John Elway spearheaded a 98-yard TD march to send the game to OT, where Denver won on a hotly disputed 33-yard field goal that some still insist was wide.
Cleveland was back in the playoffs the following season, and again reached the AFC Championship Game. This time the contest was played in Denver. Again a tight tilt was decided in the final seconds, and again it went against the Browns when Earnest Byner fumbled on the 2 while going in for the game-tying TD. Instead it was a crushing 38-33 loss after Denver took an intentional safety.
Still, it seemed like just the beginning for the 24-year-old.
“I fully expect Bernie Kosar to be the best I ever had, ever will have,” Modell said. “The intelligence, the leadership, the arm. He has everything, everything including magnetism I haven’t seen since Jimmy Brown.
“People are attracted to him, something in his presence.”
Unfortunately, that was the high-water mark. Kosar was hurt in the 1988 season opener at Kansas City on a blind-side blitz that wrecked his elbow. He missed seven games and Danielson said Kosar never threw the ball the same again.
Still, the veteran’s savvy remained, and Kosar again led the Browns to the 1989 AFC championship game, in Denver. This one wasn’t nearly as thrilling, as the Broncos earned a 37-21 victory.
Cleveland made five straight playoff appearances, won four central Division titles and made it to three AFC Championship games in four years. But the Browns’ Super Bowl window was closed.
In 1991, rookie coach Bill Belichick took over and Kosar had a solid season on a rebuilding team. But in 1992 he broke his ankle in Week Two and missed the next eight games.
Belichick looked at his 29-year-old, injury-ridden veteran and decided he needed an upgrade at the quarterback position. Ironically, he turned to Testaverde. The two college teammates were again embroiled in a quarterback controversy that dominated the first half of the 1993 season. Worse, Kosar and Belichick feuded and when the quarterback overruled the bench and threw a garbage-time TD pass in a loss to Denver, the coach was furious.
Kosar was cut the next day — which cast a pall over the franchise. It also put in motion Belichick’s eventual firing and the team’s move to Baltimore after the 1995 season.
Meanwhile, Kosar was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys as a backup to Troy Aikman on Nov. 10, 1993. He paid immediate dividends, subbing in the second half of the NFC Championship Game to fire a 42-yard TD pass to Alvin Harper, clinching a 38-21 win over the San Francisco 49ers. Kosar picked up a Super Bowl ring that season after taking the final snap in Dallas’ 30-13 beating of the Buffalo Bills.
His days as a starter were over, and he retired in 1996 after three years as a backup in Miami. His 12-year pro career included 124 touchdown passes and an 81.8 QB rating.
He had only one regret.
“My goal was to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland,” Kosar said. “It’s why I wanted to play here in the first place. It’s home.”
Those interested in learning more about Ohio’s football history are strongly encouraged to purchase Ohio’s Autumn Legends, Volume I & Volume II, by Larry Phillips. Both editions come in Kindle, paperback and hardback, and all are available at Amazon.com.