BEREA — CEO Joe Banner is the first hire by new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. He’s also the latest in a long line of people brought in to turn the floundering franchise into a winner.
Banner was introduced at a news conference Wednesday morning. He sat behind a microphone, smiled and answered questions, much like Carmen Policy, Pete Garcia, John Collins, Phil Savage, Mike Keenan, Eric Mangini and Mike Holmgren had done in the first 13 years of the expansion era. They, too, had been given the immense responsibility of restoring the proud tradition of the Browns — and all fell short.
“I know these fans have been through a lot of hopeful starts and I don’t want to sit up here and be the next promiser in their lives,” Banner said. “We’re just going to have to deliver. I know this, nobody will work harder, nobody will have a clearer direction.”
Banner wouldn’t put a timetable on the turnaround and a series of pivotal personnel decisions to be made after the season will affect the process. But he cringed when a five-year plan was mentioned.
“I’ll be in a straitjacket if it takes that long,” he said.
Haslam, who was approved Tuesday by league owners, met Banner in June as he began the search for an executive who could run the Browns if the $1 billion deal came to fruition. No matter whom he talked to in the world of sports, Banner’s name kept coming up.
They struck up a relationship and met several times to discuss the opportunity. When the agreement was reached with previous owner Randy Lerner, Haslam had decided on Banner as his top executive. He will replace Holmgren, who will retire at the end of the season after the transition.
“I’ve spent more time with this senior executive making sure he was the right fit for the Cleveland Browns than any we’ve ever interviewed for Pilot Flying J because I do think it’s so important,” Haslam said, referencing his truck-stop business. “He’s very bright, he works very hard, he’s very focused, very intense, and he has extreme passion for bringing a winning team to Cleveland.”
Banner, 59, worked for the Philadelphia Eagles for 19 years — the final 12 as president — under owner and childhood friend Jeffrey Lurie. Banner’s expertise is business and he helped get a stadium and practice facility built.
He was also heavily involved in player contract negotiations and managing the salary cap. The Eagles turned from NFL also-ran to consistent Super Bowl contender, making the playoffs 11 times in his tenure, reaching five NFC championship games and appearing in one Super Bowl.
Banner, who watched practice with his wife and two sons, will begin work Oct. 25, the day the money transfers from Haslam to Lerner. Banner will oversee the day-to-day operations, including the football department. The scope of his involvement in personnel decisions has yet to be determined.
“It would be impossible to exaggerate how happy I am to be here,” he said.
Haslam and Banner will use the final 11 weeks of the season to evaluate the organization and everyone in it. They said they won’t decide on any changes until after the season.
The most obvious decisions will concern general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur. Banner worked with both in Philadelphia, as well as many of the player personnel staff and assistant coaches.
The Browns have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL but appear headed in the right direction. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and rookie running back Trent Richardson are among the reasons for optimism. Banner said it was premature to evaluate the roster Heckert has assembled.
“I don’t want to get into the specifics at this point,” he said. “I know Tom well, I like him as a person and I respect him professionally a lot.”
Shurmur was with Banner for 10 years with the Eagles.
“Extremely smart man (who) had a large part in the development and building of that program into a consistent winner,” Shurmur said.
Banner returned the compliment.
“Pat’s just a really good person, he’s a very hardworking guy, he’s a very principled man and I don’t think you’ll find anybody as more passionate at trying to do the best they can and succeed as well as they can,” he said.
Personnel changes are standard for a new regime, but Banner said they aren’t a given, and Haslam has told Heckert and Shurmur the same.
“I think there will be a thorough evaluation of everything that we do,” Banner said, “but whether there will be changes or not, I think time answers that for us.”
The front office and coaching positions at Browns headquarters come equipped with revolving doors. Shurmur is the fifth coach since 1999 and Heckert the fifth GM. Haslam will provide stability, and Banner wants it throughout the organization.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll keep the current staff.
“I view continuity as an important element,” Banner said. “You have to pick the right time to kind of begin the clock on continuity. When you feel like you’ve got the organization set up with the right people, then you have continuity.”
Banner said his decision to step down as Eagles president wasn’t because of a power struggle with coach Andy Reid. He was looking for a new challenge.
“I really enjoyed my first years in Philadelphia the most,” he said. “It may be not so healthy, but that’s just the way I’m wired. A big challenge with almost more to do than you have time to do and putting together the organization and driving a vision.”
The Browns present a stiff challenge. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1994, have only two winning seasons since returning in 1999 and have won 19 games since the start of the 2008 season. They were the NFL’s last winless team are 1-5 following a win Sunday over Cincinnati.
“For me, it’s like a chess game. It’s just like an intellectual challenge,” Banner said. “Can we put together the pieces, which is really about can we put together the right people?
“Can we create the right environment and culture that all that comes together and you’re literally in the top four to eight teams in the NFL and you’re there on a consistent basis? From where we are to where we are, that’s a big job, and I’m confident we can get there, and I’m excited by the challenge of getting us from here to there.”