Paul Brown was uncomfortable, his manner belying the confident, calculating, brilliant coach/owner who has had such a profound impact on pro football during five decades. It had taken a nudge from the NFL to get him to meet with a small group of reporters the other day, and as the interview began he rubbed his hands nervously; the right leg he had crossed over his left swung, pendulum-like.

Twenty minutes into the ordeal, the ice broke. A smile suddenly cracked Brown's facial crust and he stood. Now a 73-year-old quarterback, his hands in position to receive the snap from an imaginary center, he said: "I don't know if I should tell you this."

He did.

"The Eagles had a guy named Thompson, Tommy Thompson, who played quarterback (in 1950). And when he would stand like this"--Brown moved his left foot slightly ahead of his right--"it was a running play. He was gonna hand off. When he'd get like this"--here Brown's feet were parallel--"he was gonna run back and set up (to pass).

"Old (Alex) Agase would stand over there behind the line of scrimmage and go like this"--Brown's right hand shot into the air--"and we knew what it (the play) was. It was almost unfair." Laughing, he caught himself and said: "It was in the pictures (films)."

This may have been the pure truth, or an attempt to coax us into believing Brown had never stooped to spying. He had. A former aide said the Browns once infiltrated the College All-Star camp with an assistant young enough to pass himself off as a water boy.

Brown is the only compelling figure at this Super Bowl. The major factors in the game, coaches Forrest Gregg and Bill Walsh, quarterbacks Joe Montana and Ken Anderson, and the other players clearly belong, having beaten the best teams in their respective conferences.

But PB, as he is known within the Bengal organization he runs, transcends his game. Not a half-dozen men have been more influential in shaping pro football. He so dominated a rival league in the '40s that the NFL had to admit his Cleveland Browns. He won NFL titles before many of Sunday's stars were born, with Bert Jones's father, Dub.

Undermined and driven in the early '60s from the team he thought worthy of his name, Brown conceived the Bengals in the late '60s. No internal plots will unseat him this time, for Brown has every flank protected in the safest way possible. Vice president and general manager, he is the Bengal owner with ultimate clout. One son, Mike, is assistant general manager and team counsel; the other, Pete, is director of player personnel.

As coach, Brown took the expansion Bengals to the playoffs, the championship of the AFC Central Division, in two years. They won the division three years later and made the playoffs again in '75.

Then Brown kicked himself upstairs for good, retiring as coach, at 67, and making back-to-back bad judgments on his successors before hiring another Cleveland outcast, Forrest Gregg, two years ago. The man Brown failed to hire in '76, Bill Walsh, will be coaching against his Bengals Sunday.

His talking about that last good-bye from coaching evolved into an indirect crackback block against Cleveland owner Art Modell and the premier runner in NFL history, Jim Brown. Said PB: "Some of you people are gonna find out that the moment you get to be 50, a segment of society wishes you'd blow away. And, really, I was way beyond that (in Cincinnati in '76).

"I just felt it was time--and I did it myself. I'm still up to my head in this, having my cake and eating it, too. I don't look back (when people say the Bengals might have won a Super Bowl had he stayed another two years) . . . I thought I'd coach (with the Bengals) two or three years, take the worst of it and then have somebody else take it over.

"I got caught up, carried away--for eight years."

In the '40s, Brown brought off-the-field teaching and other organizational innovations to pro football. Some say he took a lot of the fun out of it. But more of his football progeny have become successful coaches than anyone else in the NFL, although Jim Lee Howell did have Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry on the same Giants staff.

"I was a teacher," he said. "Primarily a teacher. Coaching is teaching." No teacher ever had a hotter competitive fire in him.

When his All-America Football Conference Browns won admission to the NFL, their first game, in 1950, was against the defending champion Eagles. Before the players went onto the field, Brown, his voice soft but sarcastic, said: "Just think. In a minute, you'll get to touch Steve Van Buren."

Cleveland won, 35-10.

The haughty NFL still strutted.

"Greasy Neale (the Eagle coach) said I should be a basketball coach," Brown said, "(because) all I did was throw the ball. We did throw quite a lot for that time, and very effectively. They made these remarks--'All they do is draw, trap and pass'--which was about right.

"So the next time we played in Cleveland, and it was bad weather. We never threw a pass. And won the game."

Having confounded critics who a generation ago began saying the game had passed him by, does Brown feel vindication this week?

"Satisfaction."

He said he had to work to pry $5,000 from a Cleveland utility company for television rights to Browns games in the early '50s. Now each NFL team gets $5.8 million a year from television.

"When we first started the Browns (in 1946)," he said, "I was not acquainted with professional football, and I coached 'em just like I did Ohio State. In those days, so many (pro) teams had big, heavy guys who would straggle out on the field, and I'd say (to the Browns): 'Don't go out like a tired old pro team. I want you to look like a college football team that's out there just to lick somebody for the sheer pleasure of lickin' 'em.' "

The 1950 NFL title game, between Brown's Cleveland team and the one that left town to become the Los Angeles Rams, had more players who later made the Hall of Fame than any other, he said. The Browns won it, 30-28, on a 16-yard field goal by Lou (The Toe) Groza with 28 seconds left.

"Never forget it for a reason you'd never think of," Brown said. "We get it down there to where we can kick the field goal, and our guys are on the sideline shakin' hands with each other. Made me so bloomin' mad. We hadn't kicked it yet. I sorta let go with 'em. They all watched then, too, with a little bit of interest.

"He made it, of course."

What would those full-throttle 1950s Browns--Otto Graham, Mac Speedie, Dante Lavelli, Jones, Marion Motley, Mike McCormack and Groza--have done with 1980s rules?

The old coach's eyes twinkled and he said: "We would sure have had fun."