|Based in||Cleveland, Ohio, United States|
|League||American Football League (1926)|
|Team History||Cleveland Panthers (1926)|
|Team Colors||Brown, Gold, White
|Head coaches||Ray E. Watts|
|Owner(s)||Charles X. Zimmerman|
|Home field(s)||Luna Bowl|
The Cleveland Panthers were a professional American football team that competed in the first American Football League in 1926. Owned by General C. X. Zimmerman (the vice president of the AFL), the Panthers played their home games in Luna Bowl in Luna Park. Coached by Roy Watts, the team drew its players from Ohio colleges and universities and raided the rosters of National Football League teams based in Ohio 
The veteran squad led by tailback Al Michaels was one of only two AFL franchises (the other was the New York Yankees) to average more than 12 points per game. Other former Cleveland Bulldogs Dave Noble and Doc Elliott helped provide offensive firepower, while two-sport star Cookie Cunningham excelled at end, scoring twice on long passes in an October 3, 1926, game against the Los Angeles Wildcats.
In terms of fan support, the Panthers appeared to have had a good start, defeating the Yankees in their first game, at Luna Bowl in front of a reported 22,000 people, but after a second home victory (17-13, against the Wildcats) in which the attendance figures were apparently not reported, and a third straight home win (this time 23-7 against the Rock Island Independents) in front of only 7000 people, it was becoming evident that the Panthers were in trouble despite being in first place with an undefeated record. A 19-12 defeat in front of only 3000 spectators in Chicago's Comiskey Park foreshadowed the inevitable as the similarly-troubled Newark Bears withdrew from the league on October 24, 1926.
The next week, the Panthers returned home to Luna Park for a rematch with the Los Angeles Wildcats, a hard fought game dominated by defense, with Cleveland guard Al Nesser dictating much of the game until a fourth quarter fumble by Al Michaels led to the only score of the game in a 6-0 Wildcats win. While the game was stellar, the attendance was not: only 1000 fans saw it. Shortly after the end of the game, the Panthers called it quits.
Four Panthers subsequently found roster spots on AFL and NFL teams to complete the 1926 season, while six who had played in the NFL had their professional football careers end with the demise of the Cleveland Panthers.
The exodus from the AFL continued through November 1926, and after the last official game was played (December 12, 1926), the league itself went out of business.
The "Cleveland Panthers" name had come from an independent team that had played several years before and would continue for several years afterward. The independent Panthers, founded in 1919 from the remains of the Youngstown Patricians, had played, with various degrees of success, continuously since 1919 and eventually, as fewer opponents played them each year after 1926, sputtered to a quiet folding in 1933.
Players in the first AFL
|Norty “Mope” Behm||End1||Iowa State|
|Cookie Cunningham||End||Ohio State|
|Myles Evans||Tackle||Ohio Wesleyan|
|Billy Gribben||Tailback||Case Western Reserve|
|Eddie “Red” Kregenow||End||Akron|
|Al Michaels||Tailback||Heidelberg, Ohio State|
|John Otterbacher||Guard||Ohio State|
|Guy Roberts||Back4||Iowa State|
|Bob Spiers||Tackle5||Ohio State|
|Al Thornburg||Center||Iowa State|
|Ralph Vince||Guard||Washington & Jefferson|
|Leo Virant||Guard||Iowa State|
|Jay Winters||Blocking back6||Ohio Wesleyan|
|Dick Wolf||Blocking back||Miami (Ohio)|
1 Also played fullback
2 Started 1926 season as coach of Akron Indians, then left to play for Panthers
3 Also played tackle
4 Played wingback and American football
5 Also played guard
6 Position currently known as quarterback
Aftermath & legacy
Immediately after the sudden dissolution of the Panthers, four of the team's members managed to join other rosters in either the NFL or the AFL. Doc Elliot found a spot in the eventual AFL champion Philadelphia Quakers, while Al Nesser returned to the NFL, this time playing for the New York Giants. Guy Roberts and Jack Sack both found a new “home” with the Canton Bulldogs. While Sack finished his career in 1926 and Elliott was out of professional football until 1931, the other two former members continued their careers after the end of the first AFL.
They were not the only 1926 Panthers to play for the NFL afterwards:
Cookie Cunningham – 1927 Cleveland Bulldogs, 1929 Chicago Bears, 1931 Staten Island Stapletons
Doc Elliott – 1931 Cleveland Indians
Al Nesser – 1926-28 New York Giants, 1931 Cleveland Indians
Guy Roberts – 1926 Canton Bulldogs, 1927 Pottsville Maroons
Jack Sack – 1926 Canton Bulldogs
Dick Wolf – 1927 Cleveland Bulldogs
On the other hand, six former NFL players had their professional football careers end with the folding of the Panthers:
Al Michaels – 1923-24 Akron Pros, 1925 Cleveland Bulldogs
Dave Noble – 1924-25 Cleveland Bulldogs, 1926 Cleveland Panthers
Red Roberts – 1922 Toledo Maroons, 1923 Akron Pros
Bob Spiers – 1922 Akron Pros, 1925 Cleveland Bulldogs
Ralph Vince – 1923 and 1925 Cleveland Bulldogs
Red Weaver – 1923-25 Columbus Tigers (coach 1924-25)
When Cleveland was getting a new team to play in the All-America Football Conference in 1944, the team's head coach, Paul Brown, was reluctant to use his own name, and the Panthers name still had some popular support. Brown would later be informed by former Panthers owner Zimmerman that he still held the rights to the Panthers name. Brown ultimately acquiesced, and the team would be named the Cleveland Browns. The Browns joined the NFL from the AAFC in 1950 and continue to play in the NFL today.
- “A.F.L. Fields Nine Teams”, New York Times, July 17, 1926
- David S. Neft, Richard M. Cohen, and Rick Korch, The Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of Professional Football, From 1892 to the Present (St. Martin’s Press 1994), ISBN 0-312-11435-4
- 1926 American Football League from Elias Sports Bureau and Pro Football Research Association Linescore Committee
- Sye, Roy. Cleveland Panthers all known games. Professional Football Researchers Association.