Change can be exhilarating. It can also be scary.
Tuesday was one of the most important days in Cleveland sports history, as NFL owners unanimously approved Jimmy Haslam III as the new owner of the Browns.
He will never throw a pass, take a handoff, make a tackle or call a play (hopefully). But he will have the greatest impact on the organization, and its dream to reach its first Super Bowl and end the city’s championship drought that stretches to 1964.
An NFL team is like any business, it starts at the top. So the change should have a profound effect on the franchise and the city. If the new boss runs the team as successfully as he operates Pilot Flying J, the Browns will soon be celebrating their first playoff win since 1994.
The hope is exhilarating.
Haslam has received a hero’s welcome in the two months since the $1 billion sale from Randy Lerner was announced. Browns fans didn’t know much about the truck-stop magnate from Knoxville, Tenn., they just knew he wasn’t Lerner.
Haslam has struck the right chords since being introduced to Cleveland. Many of those are as the anti-Lerner.
Haslam said again Tuesday in Chicago he plans a visible presence. He’s already done about as many interviews as Lerner did in his nine years of ownership.
Haslam and wife Dee bought a mansion on Lake Erie and plan to spend much of July through January in Northeast Ohio. Lerner was in and out of town, preferring New York and England.
“We think it’s important for ownership to be present and to be involved,” Haslam said Tuesday. “I’ve said this a thousand times and will continue to say so, we’re going to do everything we can to bring a winning team to the Browns.”
The most important thing he can do is employ the right people and let them do their jobs. The most significant hires are top executive, general manager, coach and quarterback.
He’s already got his top executive, while the one he inherited is on his way out.
Here’s where change can get scary — dealing with the unknown.
Joe Banner will be introduced as CEO this morning in Berea and assume the role Oct. 25. He was president of the Philadelphia Eagles for 10 years and came recommended by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and the league office. His background is in business and he will oversee the day-to-day operations of the organization, including football operations.
President Mike Holmgren, who went to three Super Bowls as a coach, held that role until Tuesday. He will help with the transition to Banner, then retire at the end of the year with two years left on his contract.
Holmgren’s deal was with Lerner, and it was to run the organization. Haslam even referred to him as the “de facto owner.” That job no longer exists, so Holmgren will take his settlement and head back west.
His tenure is similar to so many who’ve stopped in Berea. Arrive with a strong resume and high hopes, leave a few years later with broken dreams and a huge severance.
Haslam must stop this cycle.
Holmgren didn’t win here — the Browns are 10-28 since he arrived — but his legacy isn’t all losses and could improve with time. He restored a measure of credibility to an organization that had become dysfunctional on and off the field. He oversaw the overhaul of the roster to its current state, which includes running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden. He hired GM Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur.
Haslam reiterated he won’t consider any other personnel changes until after the season. He delivered the same message to Heckert and Shurmur over the weekend.
“I just looked them in the eye and told them that,” Haslam said.
That didn’t stop the reports that Heckert is worried he’ll be next on the chopping block. And despite positive reinforcement from Haslam, Shurmur knows no number of wins will guarantee a third season. New owners and new CEOs like to bring in their own people.
Another organizational overhaul is what scares fans the most.
The Browns are headed in the right direction with a young, promising team that is actually exciting on offense. They are a year away from challenging in the AFC North. The continuity that’s been so elusive was guaranteed with the triumvirate of Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur. Then Lerner called an end-around and sold the team.
When the season’s over, it’s possible — even likely — Haslam will hit the reset button yet again. New GM, new coach, new schemes, new players. Same old rebuilding pains.
That right comes with a billion-dollar investment. It may even be the correct call.
But whether he keeps Heckert and/or Shurmur or chooses a different path, Haslam is fully aware those decisions will determine the fate of the franchise.
“It’s all about people,” he said. “The franchises that win and win consistently — and that’s what we want to do — have the best people. Whether that’s in the front office or the coaching staff or on the field, they have the best people.”
It’s his job to identify those people, then provide direction, leadership, consistency and character. He started with Banner.
New owner, new CEO. A scary proposition, but exhilarating at the same time.