BEREA — Jimmy Haslam III wasn’t in town long before he got a firsthand feel for Browns fans.
Haslam, a Tennessee businessman who finalized a $1 billion deal Thursday to buy the team from Randy Lerner, arrived at his hotel Thursday night and was quickly recognized by the bellman.
“Five minutes on how important winning is, how the Cleveland Browns are, et cetera, et cetera,” Haslam said Friday. “And it’s been that way. We’ve had the opportunity to see how important football is to this community and how great and how passionate the fans are. We’re all about that.
“And I can assure you we have one mission and one mission only, and that’s to bring winning back to Cleveland.”
Haslam buying the Browns is historic in the context of Cleveland sports. His first full day on the job was a whirlwind.
He watched practice Friday morning in a gray Browns T-shirt and brown shorts. He got a running tutorial on the team from president Mike Holmgren and talked briefly with coach Pat Shurmur and some of the players, including rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden.
“I saw passion in their faces. I felt passion in their handshakes,” Shurmur said of the Haslam family.
When Haslam arrived for his afternoon news conference in a packed media center that included veteran linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Scott Fujita, he was in a blue suit with an orange tie and a Browns watch. He entered with his father and wife, Dee, was introduced by Holmgren and then stood alone behind the microphone for 25 minutes of questions and answers.
The new owner owned the room.
He opened by saying there’s a “zero chance” he will move the team. He quickly transitioned to the importance of building a winner when the “spirit and mood of the city rises and falls” with the Browns’ fortunes.
“Let’s be realistic, it’s all about winning,” Haslam, 58, said. “If we win, things are going to get better. There’s no reason why this can’t be a winning franchise.
“If they don’t, I’ll accept the blame. It’s our fault, we didn’t execute like we should. I mean, every other piece is in place here. Great fanbase, you’ve got the money you need, we’ve just got to execute.”
The transfer of ownership won’t be complete until owners approve, but it’s expected to easily pass.
Haslam’s plan for fixing the often-dysfunctional franchise that is 68-140 without a playoff win since returning to the NFL in 1999 is to run it like his business. He’s the CEO of Pilot Flying J Corporation, the nation’s largest retail operator of travel centers and truck stops. There’s one in Avon, and he said the company’s looking into the Elyria area to open another.
“We’ve been in business 53 years,” he said. “We have a very, very senior group of management, a very set culture and that’s how we plan on doing it here. We’re going to devote whatever time necessary it takes to get things right in Cleveland. I believe we’re on the right path now.”
Haslam will continue to run Pilot Flying J. He’ll keep his main residence in Knoxville, Tenn., but Dee was already looking at houses Friday afternoon.
“I think it’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “If you know us real well, we don’t have a lot of hobbies besides work, so now it’s going to be work and football. It’s exciting, and it’s fun, but it’ll be a challenge for us.”
Haslam told the Knoxville News Sentinel his ownership group is composed exclusively of family members, although brother Bill, the governor of Tennessee, isn’t part of the deal.
Haslam said the NFL called in May to let him know a team may be available, but didn’t say which one. In late June, he got the news it was the Browns. He met Lerner on July 2.
“Randy’s a gentleman, he’s smart, he’s tough and he knew he had something of value,” Haslam said. “But the negotiations went well.”
The deal was done in 31 days, and commissioner Roger Goodell told him he’d never seen one so quick. Haslam wasn’t sure he would ever get the chance to be an NFL owner, because so few teams are sold, and he wasn’t interested in one on the West Coast.
“I thought the odds were less than 50-50 we would ever have that opportunity,” he said. “Candidly, I thought later rather than sooner, and we never thought it would come with the type of franchise like this one.”
He expects the owners to vote on the sale at their scheduled meeting in October but said he’s heard speculation it could happen sooner. He will buy 70 percent initially and the remaining 30 percent in four years.
“First of all, it’s a business. We like business,” he said. “Second of all, we like sports. If you like those two, it’s the ultimate because it is a large business, they’re obviously worth a lot, and we hope that continues and it’s competitive.
“Now, I’m realistic, we bear a great responsibility here and we’ve got to win, because that’s what the Cleveland community wants and deserves.”
Haslam inherited a love of football from his father, who starred at the University of Tennessee. He became interested in owning an NFL franchise and got his feet wet by buying a minority stake in the Steelers in 2008.
Haslam said he learned a lot from the Rooney family, but repeatedly referred to Pittsburgh as “the other team.”
“Our main goal is to return that to a real rivalry,” Haslam said of the series that has seen the Steelers win 22 of the last 24. “They have the Steeler way of doing things, we will now have the Browns way of doing things.
“I have absolutely no trouble wearing orange and brown now. I took my Steeler watch off yesterday and put my Browns watch on today. We’re fired up.”
Haslam is serious about his desire to learn about Browns fans. He will attend Family Night practice Wednesday at Cleveland Browns Stadium and shake hands, and he plans to sit in the stands for the preseason home game Aug. 24.
“See what the facility feels like sitting as a ‘regular’ fan,” he said.
Haslam will break with tradition and sell the naming rights to the stadium. He feels the team will be best served by maximizing its revenue opportunities. He hasn’t made a decision about changing the helmet or uniform but was taken aback by the interest.
“Everybody’s asked me that,” he said. “I can tell it’s a bigger issue than I thought it was. I probably better keep my dang mouth closed. I haven’t even thought about it.
“So no time soon, how’s that? We’ll tread very carefully there.”
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