Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Marty’s reunion: Former players had lost touch in recent years with Marty Schottenheimer, the coach of the Browns teams in the 1980s that came closest of any to the Super Bowl.
So when Earnest Byner planned for a 30th reunion of the 1986 Browns team – which takes place this weekend at various Northeast Ohio locations – Schottenheimer’s attendance was not assured.
At the Pro Football Hall of Fame weekend in August, Browns alums Felix Wright and Reggie Langhorne sought out Brian Schottenheimer, Marty’s son and the quarterbacks coach of the Indianapolis Colts, who were scheduled to play in Canton.
“Your dad has to come to this. We all want to see him,” they said.
There were whispers that Schottenheimer was ill. The whispers were true.
About five years ago, Schottenheimer, 73, was diagnosed with Early-onset Alzheimer’s, a form of the brain disease that affects some 5 million people in the United States and is the sixth-leading cause of death in America.
On Friday, Schottenheimer and Pat, his wife of 48 years, will attend Byner’s reunion with about 25 players and coaches from the last Browns team to win 12 regular-season games and come within five minutes of reaching the Super bowl.
“He’s in the best of health, [but] sometimes he just doesn’t remember everything,” Pat said. “He functions extremely well, plays golf several times a week. He’s got that memory lag where he’ll ask you the same question three or four times.
“He remembers people and faces, and he pulls out strange things that I’ve never heard, but he’s doing well. It’s going be a long road. We both know that.”
But this is not a sad story.
Marty Schottenheimer takes over the phone in his home overlooking Lake Norman just north of Charlotte, NC, and says, “I’m sitting here looking at a lake and it’s a spectacular setting. Pat and I, the Lord’s blessed us. I mean, there’s no other way I can identify it. We’re doing really good.”
Martyball: Marty Schottenheimer may be remembered by some Browns fans for his failings in the postseason, or for his ineffective “prevent defense,” or for his caveman, “Martyball” offensive philosophy, or for his stubbornness, or for his corniness (“There’s a gleam, men.”).
The truth is he is the last man to post a winning record as Browns coach.
That’s right. Schottenheimer’s 46-31 overall record, which included three division titles, four playoff appearances and a 2-4 post-season record, is the only one above .500 since he left in a huff following the 1988 season. Twelve coaches have followed Schottenheimer, and even the great Bill Belichick didn’t have an overall winning record in five seasons in Cleveland.
“Well, that’s unfortunate, I guess, for the Browns,” Schottenheimer said, when informed of the drought that followed him.
“It is amazing,” Byner said. “But it goes to show you that you can’t get rid of good coaches. If you’ve got a good coach, then you should try your best to keep the coach. You can bring in as many talented guys as you want, but if you don’t have a guy that can mold the team and lead the team in such a way like Marty, then you’re itching for failure.
“I’m telling you, if it wasn’t for Marty, that  team would not have been what it was.”
Schottenheimer wasn’t fired. He stomped out following a wild-card loss to the Houston Oilers concluding the 1988 season when owner Art Modell demanded he make changes on his coaching staff, including reassigning his brother, Kurt, who was his defensive coordinator.
Ernie Accorsi, Browns general manager at the time, has said his biggest regret was not interceding between Modell and Schottenheimer to avoid the parting.
“Like I’ve said to any number of people, it was the dumbest thing I did,” Schottenheimer said. “I mean, what the hell, leaving there. God only knows I might still be there. I’ve said to my wife and a number of people, of all the decisions I made in my life, it’s the one I regret the most.”
Connecting eras: Thirteen years after leaving the Browns, Schottenheimer was hired to coach the Washington Redskins in 2001 by owner Dan Snyder. In putting together his staff, Schottenheimer added his son, Brian, who was coaching tight ends at University of Southern California, and the USC offensive coordinator. His name was Hue Jackson – now the Browns’ head coach.
“My time with him, I watched one of the most passionate football coaches I had ever been around,” said Jackson. “I know everybody has the stories about Marty crying, and that is him because he is so passionate about what he does and how he does it. He taught me a ton about the running game, being tough, just what it meant to be a part of a team, because it was his way and that is how he did things. I think all the players respected him because he was a winner. He believed in doing things right. A lot of that has rubbed off on me.”
The Redskins started 0-5 under Schottenheimer, then won eight of their last 11 games. Despite an 8-8 record, Snyder fired Schottenheimer after one season.
“One thing we all know about Marty, it is Marty’s way. Marty does not back down from anybody,” Jackson said. “He has a belief system. He believes in what he believes. He has won a lot of games, and he knows how to do it. He has shown that everywhere he has been. I have great respect for that. I am kind of like that myself.”
Schottenheimer soon will begin a trial with a new drug that may slow down the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease. He was introduced to the drug trial at the Nantz National Alzheimer’s Center in Houston, which was started by CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz to honor his father, Jim Jr., who died of the disease in 2008.
Pat Schottenheimer said the family’s time in Cleveland, which began in 1980 as Sam Rutigliano’s defensive coordinator, was special. Their daughter, Kristen, graduated from high school in Cleveland and Brian was a ninth-grader when the Schottenheimers moved on to Kansas City, where Marty would coach for 10 NFL seasons.
“I think a lot of things that were special [about their time in Cleveland],” said Pat. “It was his first head coaching job. I think he’ll always be indebted to the Browns. So many of the players are some of his favorites, players he enjoyed on a personal level. And it was a lot of fun. I mean, we won some games, lost some games. I still remember Mayor [George] Voinovich with his head sticking out of the Dawg Pound … barking. I think Cleveland had fun with those days.”
Back then, failing to win the AFC Championship game against Denver following the 1986 and 1987 seasons became epitaphs on Schottenheimer’s coaching tombstone.
“I don’t think people realize all the stars that need to line up to get to the Super Bowl,” said Pat Schottenheimer. “The longer you’re around it, the more you figure it out. Just a lot of things have to fall into place to make it happen. Older and wiser, I guess, but you can see it now.”
It’s so clear now, that Schottenheimer was one Browns coach to be appreciated more and more over time.
In the 25 years since Schottenheimer left, the Browns have had 21 losing seasons.