There wouldn’t have been a Dawg Pound in Cleveland without Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield.
Before the first exhibition game of the 1985 season, the two Pro Bowl cornerbacks strung up a “Dawg Pound” sign in front of the bleachers at the old Cleveland Stadium. Whenever the Browns would get a sack, the linemen and linebackers would bark. It became infections, and soon the fans in the bleachers were barking themselves, wearing dog masks and showering the end zone with dog bones.
It became a feeding frenzy for the Browns and their Dawg Pounders. Over the next five seasons, that pass rush would produce 195 sacks. and those defensive backs would intercept 99 passes. That defense would power the Browns to five consecutive playoff appearances, four AFC Central titles and three AFC championship games.
Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes were the NFL’s dominant cornerback tandem for the Raiders at the start of the 1980s decade. But Dixon and Minnifield replaced them as the top unit by the end of the decade.
Haynes is now in the Hall of Fame. and Hayes has been a finalist for Canton four times. But Dixon and Minnifield? Neither has been as much as a semifinalist, much less a finalist, for the Hall.
They deserve better, especially Minnifield, who joined Hayes and Haynes on the 1980s' NFL all-decade team.
Maybe Minnifield has been overlooked because of his humble beginnings. He walked on in college at Louisville and went on to become one of the NCAA’s elite return specialists, leading the nation in kickoff returns with a 30.4-yard average in 1981. But as a 5-9 cornerback, he didn’t much look like Hayes or Haynes, who both filled out 6-2 frames with almost 200 pounds of bulk.
So Minnifield went undrafted by the NFL in 1983 and wound up signing with the USFL Chicago Blitz. In his two seasons in the USFL, his team went to the playoffs twice and reached the 1984 title game. He intercepted four passes that season, then sued to get out of his USFL contract and signed with the Browns.
Minnifield played a staggering 30 professional games in 1984 with the Arizona Wranglers (who by then had moved from Chicago) and Browns, intercepting five passes. He paired with Dixon to give Cleveland an in-your-face, bump-and-run coverage tandem that picked off passes and allowed the pass rush to feast on coverage sacks.
The banner went up in 1985, the Dawg Pound opened and the winning began in Cleveland. Minnifield went to four consecutive Pro Bowls from 1986 through 1989 and Dixon went to three. Minnifield intercepted 14 passes during that stretch and Dixon 11.
But all three AFC championship games during that run ended with losses to the Denver Broncos. Had Cleveland won just one of those games and gone to a Super Bowl, it’s likely that Minnifield or Dixon, perhaps both, would have been discussed as Hall-of-Fame candidates by now.
Minnifield retired after the 1992 season with 123 career NFL starts and 20 interceptions. Cleveland lost its team in 1995 when the Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens, but the NFL restored the franchise as an expansion franchise in 1999.
Now the Dawg Pound is back but the winning isn’t. Cleveland hasn’t come close to a Super Bowl in the 26 years since Minnifield’s departure.
The Dawg Pound hasn’t forgotten Minnifield. Neither should the Hall of Fame. His career deserves discussion.