BEREA — When Browns president Mike Holmgren speaks, people listen. When he doesn’t talk, some people gripe.
Holmgren, who commands the room with his size, speech and presence, has heard the criticism from media and fans that he hasn’t been vocal enough. Owner Randy Lerner hired him to be a “serious, credible leader,” but many have questioned his commitment to Cleveland and passion for the job.
Holmgren said Thursday he believes the perceptions are connected, so he is changing his approach. When he arrived he believed he should stay in the background publicly — he’s been a dominant presence inside team headquarters — to allow the coach to be the primary voice.
But after consulting with people he trusts, he decided to assume a larger public role. That chiefly includes talking to the fans more often through the media.
“I just had a feeling,” he said in an hour-long news conference. “The question about not caring or leaving, I heard that one at some point and I said … if I don’t fix anything, that one I have to fix.
“I am going to be more available. I want it to help. I do not want it to be a burden on the coach or our general manager. And if I can help and open things up and make some things a little clearer for our fans, that’s my goal and that’s my only goal.”
Holmgren, who is at the midpoint of a five-year contract, has consistently expressed his commitment to Lerner, the organization and turning the Browns into a winner. Yet that dedication has continuously been questioned, as critics have pointed to his low profile, lack of ties to Cleveland and age — he turns 64 today.
“You have to have thick skin in this business. But when I heard that, I was sensitive to that and it bothered me because if anything I think I care probably too much,” Holmgren said. “I’m committed. I made promises to our owner, and he’s kept his promises to me.
“Kathy and I, we love the community. The people here have been great to us. We like it here. But this is my last great adventure. This is my last job, and what I really want to do is make sure that this thing is turned around and going in the right direction, so we can talk about those things before I ever think about retiring.”
Has he gotten the feeling that a faction of fans doesn’t trust him?
“If they feel that way, then that’s probably a good reason for me to be out there a little bit more, let them get to know me a little bit, if they feel that way,” he said.
Holmgren never held the president’s role before he was hired here in January 2010. He made his name as a coach, going to three Super Bowls and winning one.
That history led to his decision to stay in the background and let coach Pat Shurmur be the voice of the franchise. It also led to the fans’ desire to hear more from Holmgren.
“It was really important to me as a new president to come in and support the coach in anyway I could,” he said. “As a coach for a long, long time, anytime the president got involved with football stuff it used to irritate me a little bit.
“So I’ve tried to do that honestly for a couple years. And not that I’m hardheaded, but I’ve started to listen to some people in this room and people I would meet around town saying that, ‘Gee, we would like to hear a little bit more from you about things.’”
Holmgren doesn’t regret his plan to stay off the grid. In fact, he thinks the change could backfire.
“I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing this time,” he said. “But I feel like as long as you don’t embroil me in a big controversy with my coach, that’s how I’d like to do it.
“I talked to both Pat and Tom (Heckert, general manager) about this idea and they have to know the president is on your side. There can’t be any controversies created by things that I would say or Pat would say or Tom would say. But the bottom line is that I’m going to try to be more available.”
What the fans really want is a winner in brown and orange. The Browns have been to the playoffs one time since 1999 and have gone 4-12, 5-11, 5-11 and 4-12 the past four years. Holmgren has been in charge for the last two.
“It’s not acceptable,” he said. “I’m not going to give you a won-loss record, but I will say what I’ve told the coaches and what I’ve told the team is that I expect us to take a good, healthy jump this year.
“I know we’re a better football team. We’re a more talented football team. I think there’s more continuity on the coaching staff, we’ve had the offseason program.”
He expects the progress to be obvious on the field.
“The first thing is the record,” he said. “The things we did poorly last year, like dropping passes, I want to see improvement there. I want to see vast improvement in the running game, fewer sacks, more interceptions — all the measurables you would use. If those things happen, it should equate to a better record.”
And Holmgren will be there to talk about it.