BEREA — As the CEO of Pilot Flying J, Jimmy Haslam III describes his management style as “hands-on.”
When it comes to making football decisions as the new owner of the Browns, he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I think it’ll be a learning curve,” Haslam said Friday in his introductory news conference. “So we’re gonna ask a lot of questions and learn it first. And I’m a believer in collective wisdom and if you have five smart people sitting around a table, it’s better than four.
“We’re gonna take some time to get up to speed before we get real involved in any football decisions. It’ll probably come a little quicker on the business side.”
Randy Lerner’s sale of the team to Haslam has been greeted with cheers by a frustrated fan base. Haslam is viewed as a breath of fresh air.
Someone who genuinely wants to own the Browns and will be more accessible to the fans.
But Haslam was the first to admit the applause will go silent if the losing continues, and he will ultimately be judged on wins and losses. So the first major decision facing him is what to do with the football operations.
President Mike Holmgren has 2½ years left on a five-year contract, and he handpicked general manager Tom Heckert in 2010 and coach Pat Shurmur in 2011. The triumvirate speaks the same language and had a unified plan to rebuild the Browns.
It could be blown up if Haslam decides on a major overhaul.
“It would be the wrong thing for us to do and we’re not gonna make any comments on any current personnel situations and any future personnel situations,” he said. “We’re so far down on the learning curve now that to say anything more than that would be inappropriate.”
Lerner will officially remain the owner until the NFL approves the sale, and until then the senior executives will remain in place. Haslam pointed to that when he declined to comment on numerous reports that former Eagles president Joe Banner will have the same role in Cleveland.
“We’re just not going to go there,” Haslam said.
If Banner does come aboard, Holmgren would seem to be the odd man out.
“My sense is — and I’ve been in the Cleveland community one day, so I don’t pretend to be an expert — but I sense there’s a strong feeling here that Mike and the team do have things headed in the right direction,” Haslam said. “So I just think we’ve got to listen, learn and observe.
“And in football you either win or lose, so there’s not a question, well, how’d we do? I think over time, these guys will be successful.”
Haslam became a minority owner of the Steelers in 2008 and has been studying how the Rooney family and general manager Kevin Colbert operate. In his short time there, the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl and lost another.
“They build through the draft,” Haslam said, before referencing Cleveland’s poor history of first-round choices. “Your first-round draft pick has to not just make the team, not just start, he’s got to be All-Pro. That’s the most important decisions you’re gonna make for the franchise.
“It looks to me over the last two years they’ve done a really nice job.”
Heckert has been preaching the same thing for three drafts and believes he has transformed the roster into one that can compete inside the rugged AFC North. His latest draft haul focused on offense and brought running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and receivers Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin.
Weeden had one of his best days of camp with Haslam spying. The team fought through intense heat and the distraction of the sale to have a spirited session.
“First impressions are pretty important,” Weeden said. “I got a chance to meet him, his wife, his father, and I congratulated him. They said they’re excited to be on board.
“We knew he was there, but we just wanted to get better. I think today, offensively, we got better.”
Haslam acknowledged he didn’t know much about the Browns — other than their struggles — until the last couple of months, when the opportunity presented itself. He then began to follow all the news.
“But I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Cleveland Browns and won’t for quite some time. I think it’s my job to get there,” he said. “Mike’s probably thinking, ‘God, I wish this guy would go back to Knoxville,’ because I’ve asked him 7,000 questions. He walks away and I ask them to Tom. I think that’s the only way you learn. I think it’s a good, young, exciting team that’s on the upswing.
“The excitement for this season is tremendous.”
Haslam has been to Cleveland Browns Stadium four times for Steelers games. He witnessed Cleveland’s 13-6 win in December 2009 and had a story to tell.
It was a prime-time game and bitter cold with howling wind. Steelers president Art Rooney II wouldn’t get off the heated benches before the game to say hello, and Haslam quickly joined him. Joshua Cribbs dominated the game, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggled.
Haslam walked back to Burke Lakefront Airport after the game. In a Steelers jacket.
“I thought, ‘This is great. I’m freezing to death and some guy’s going to whip my (butt),’” he said. “It was terrible.”
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