Who Started The Cleveland Browns Dawg Pound?

Some sports traditions have hazy origins. Why is it called the “bullpen?” Who gave the first high-five? Which hockey fans were the first to celebrate a hat trick by tossing hats on the ice?

But with the famous Dawg Pound in Cleveland, there’s no ambiguity. The origin of the famous Browns fan section is clear, and it goes back to an especially competitive summer training camp in Kirtland, Ohio.

In 1984 the Cleveland Browns were terrible — so bad that after a 1-7 start, the team fired head coach Sam Rutigliano and replaced him with Marty Schottenheimer, who had never been a head coach at any level. The following summer, the team assembled at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, which is north and east of Cleveland and otherwise only noteworthy for having a really popular arboretum. Yes, really.

During training camp, the competition for jobs was fierce. Schottenheimer made it clear that no position on the roster was safe. Veterans or rookies, you had to work hard to earn a jersey.

“That camp was a wake-up call,” said former defensive back Hanford Dixon, who was entering his sixth NFL season. “Coach Schottenheimer challenged every man in camp to find the motivation to be better. That’s where the ‘Dawg Pound’ came from.”

Dixon and teammate Frank Minnifield decided to refer to their defensive unit as “dawgs” who were chasing the quarterback, or “the cat.” As days turned into weeks, play in camp turned tougher and uglier, with Browns slamming into each other with hopes of making the team. It was on some of the plays when the Dixon and some of the others became really canine-ish.

“A few times we’d sack [the quarterback], and one of us would start to bark or growl,” Dixon says. “Fans started to pick up on it.”

Several of the training sessions were open to fans, and football-mad citizens of Kirtland poured into the stands. When some of them noticed the barks and howls on the field, they responded. Soon, a handful of fans were wearing dawg collars. Dixon and Minniefield took notice and even arranged for a “Dawg Pound” sign to go up on the sidelines.

When can you bet on sports?: Ohio Casino Control Commission expects late 2022 sports betting launch

The Dawgs Have Their Day And More

“The 1985 season, with Coach [Schottenheimer], we were a different team,” Minnifield says. “It showed in camp, and when we started that season we were having more fun and playing better.”

The 1985 Browns got lucky early in the season when they were scheduled to face their archrivals, the Steelers in Monday Night Football in Week 2 at Cleveland Stadium. That night, the invigorated defense manhandled the Steelers and won 17-7.

At the north end zone, there was something curious, something new. It was a pack of fans (about 6-8) wearing dog masks and collars. The large sign hanging over the barrier said it all: the “DAWG POUND” had arrived in Cleveland.

The Browns started 4-2, and even though they cooled off as the season wore on, they clinched a playoff spot on a snowy Sunday in December and earned the right to face the Dolphins in the Wild Card round. They lost, but the Dawgs were off their leash, and subsequent seasons proved that.

In both 1986 and 1987, the Browns delighted their fans, and the Dawg Pound just got crazier and crazier at Cleveland Stadium. Flea collars, dog bones, top hats, construction helmets, and even real dogs, started to show up in the end zones at the stadium. Both seasons, the team advanced to the AFC Championship Game, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion both times.

It didn’t matter how good the Browns were, when an NFL broadcast went live in Cleveland for about a decade, it was obligatory to show the dog-food-loving fans waving their dog bones and hiding behind their rubber dog masks with long, hanging tongues.

The Dawg Pound could be unruly. The fans were known for throwing objects at opposing players and referees. In the fourth quarter of a 1989 game against the Broncos, Dawg Pound members tossed batteries, rocks, and other items onto the fields. In response, the referees made the teams switch sides, which placed the wind at the Browns’ back. To the delight of the Dawgs, the Browns won on a Matt Bahr field goal that barely cleared the crossbar.

After Schottenheimer was fired, the team spiraled out of contention in the early 1990s, until the unthinkable happened.

How many wins?: QB uncertainty means limited options for Cleveland Browns season wins total

Browns Leave, Dawgs Are Homeless

During the 1995 season, Browns owner Art Modell revealed that he was seeking a way to move or sell the team to owners in a different city. When it was leaked in mid-season that Modell would move the team the following year, the fans were furious, including the Dawg Pound.

At the final home game at Cleveland Stadium in 1995, the behavior in the Dawg Pound bleachers section was out of control. Bitter fans rained debris and beer bottles onto the field, which once again forced officials to delay the game and move teams to opposite ends. The Browns won, but an era was over, and the members of the Dawg Pound were strays.

“It felt like a family member was leaving and never coming back,” said Allen Cheatle, who for three years had season tickets with a friend in the Dawg Pound sections at Cleveland Stadium.

Signed, sealed, delivered: Cleveland Browns name Bally’s sports betting partner

The Return Of The Bark

The Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens. And for a few years, the Dawg Pound was silent. Not a single bark. Until the NFL announced that Cleveland would get an expansion team for the 1999 season.

“I don’t even want to think about those three seasons we didn’t have a team,” Cheatle said. “When the Browns came back, it was the greatest day ever, and I had to dig in my closet to find my dog mask [because] I was going to wear it again.”

On Sept. 12, 1999, the Browns hosted football again in Cleveland, and Cheatle and others were there at the new Cleveland Brown Stadium in a designated Dawg Pound section. Whereas some team officials had worried about the rowdiness of the Dawgs under the old franchise, this time the new Browns embraced the Pound.

Just like the old stadium, the Dawg Pound section at the new Browns venue is all bleacher seats. But now there are upper and lower sections, with a more genial atmosphere than the raucous “anything goes” feel of the old Pound. Still, many of the original fans are still there, including John Big Dawg Thompson, who had his name legally changed so Big Dawg is his middle name. Thompson is known as the “Canine-in-Chief.”

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

About the Author

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes has written three books about sports. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball. He enjoys writing, running, and lemon bars. He lives near Lake Michigan with his daughters and usually has an orange cream soda nearby.