August 2, 2014

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New Browns CEO Joe Banner observing, learning, but glad for the challenge

BEREA — Joe Banner moved into his office Oct. 31 and attended his first game as Browns CEO on Sunday.

Cleveland Browns new CEO Joe Banner answers questions after a his introductory news conference Oct. 17 in Berea. Banner, on the job full time now, is studying the situation knowing he has some big decisions to make. (AP photo.)

“That was neat. It made it very real,” Banner said Wednesday in an interview with The Chronicle-Telegram.

Reality isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He’s just getting to know how things work inside team headquarters and has meetings scheduled every hour with employees in different departments to advance the process. On the organizational flow chart, he’s at the top of everything.

“It’s a steep but quick learning curve,” said Banner, who started six days late because of the death of his father. “It’s really start from scratch, which is part of what I wanted and that’s part of the excitement. Then I can’t complain about it, right?”

Banner, who was hired by new owner Jimmy Haslam to be his right-hand man, spent 19 years with the Philadelphia Eagles, 12 as president. He teamed with owner Jeffrey Lurie and coach Andy Reid to build the Eagles into a financial success and perennial playoff participant.

The plan is to do the same with the Browns, and he has important decisions to make on the football side. The most obvious is if he’ll keep general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur after the season.

While many league insiders expect Haslam and Banner to make their own hires, Banner said he wouldn’t be surprised if Heckert and Shurmur are kept.

“I consider that well within the realm of the range of possibilities,” he said. “Those are open decisions from our perspective. And I have the benefit of knowing those people.”

Heckert worked with Banner in Philadelphia for nine years, the final four as GM. Shurmur spent 10 years there as an assistant coach. Banner wants to evaluate them in their new jobs and surroundings.

“How are they doing in this specific role? How are they with each other? How are they with the rest of their staffs?” Banner, 59, said. “Quality of leadership? The quality of people they’ve hired around them? Can you look two years down the road, one year down the road, five years down the road and feel like we’re building a great organization?”

Heckert left the Eagles because he wanted to have final say over the roster and be in charge of the personnel department. Banner contradicted the rumors out of Philadelphia that he welcomed Heckert’s departure.

“There’s nothing in our relationship that would be anything other than a positive in working together,” Banner said. “We like each other, we respect each other, we’re both driven, we have the same priorities. So whatever the decision is, pro or con, will not have anything to do with anything other than a very good and constructive relationship.”

Heckert was the driving force behind the hiring of Shurmur in 2011 and they began a long-term plan to transform the roster and turn the Browns into a consistent winner together. Randy Lerner’s sale of the franchise to Haslam drastically changes the landscape, and Banner said he will determine the fates of Heckert and Shurmur individually.

“It’s probably hard to say there’s not some linkage but, yes, they’re separate decisions,” he said.

Banner said his involvement in the football department will be similar to when he was with the Eagles as president. But instead of Reid reporting directly to Lurie as coach and head of the personnel department, everyone will report to Banner.

Some fans fear a CEO without a football background — Banner played lacrosse at Denison University and never worked in the NFL until Lurie, a childhood friend, bought the Eagles — interfering with the coaching staff, GM and scouts. Banner said he was part of the decision-making process in Philadelphia and will continue here.

“We’re going to create a team of people that work together and drive to consensus and make the football decisions. I’ll be in that group,” he said. “In Philadelphia, I was criticized for being too involved. And I felt like we’re doing pretty well, if I’m too involved I should get complimented.”

Banner said he left Lurie and the Eagles for a new challenge. He sought a true reclamation project because that’s what gets his blood pumping.

But some inside the organization feel the Browns have achieved a level of stability in the last 2½ years under outgoing president Mike Holmgren, who is helping Banner in the transition.

“I think that that’s the perception,” Banner said. “I’m still trying to figure out whether I think that’s fully true or if it’s stable or if it’s still evolving into true stability. There’s no question that since Mike and Bryan (Wiedmeier, executive vice president) and Pat and Tom came in, they’re implementing their program, their plan, their beliefs in the ways to do things.”

So just how extreme a makeover is necessary at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.?

“The answer is it’s different in different areas,” Banner said. “In some cases I’m learning maybe the way I was doing it isn’t the best way and they’ve got an idea here. Other things I look at and I go, ‘Gee, I think the way I’m used to doing that is better.’

“So it’s kind of a mixed bag. There’s enough things here they do really well that some things I’m learning from and some things I think I can contribute to.”

Banner isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and won’t hesitate to gut a department if it doesn’t meet his standards.

“When we came to Philly, the first thing I had to do was evaluate how many of the people that were there I felt could be part of a championship-caliber organization,” he said. “That’s the exact same thing I’m doing here now. Whether it’s about people or a process or human resources rules or benefits. I’m just trying to look at it like it’s a new organization and put in all the best of everything.”

The response suggests he would’ve been happier starting an expansion franchise. While he acknowledged the extra draft picks and empty salary cap would be nice, he’d rather be in Cleveland.

“The opportunity to come into a marketplace in which there’s such a powerful emotional connection with the team, there’s such a history that’s been passed on generation to generation within the city — that’s not something you can really create,” he said. “To come someplace that that already exists is exciting, it’s really an asset of the organization. Frankly, it makes it fun.

“The years in Philadelphia where you had a playoff run and the whole city got behind us were some of the most fun moments I’ve had on this job in all the years. And just seeing the passion here and picturing what that’s going to be like, that’s really exciting.”

Banner will take the remaining eight weeks of the season to evaluate every piece of the organization. He knows changes will come in January but doesn’t know exactly what they will be.

“Frankly, it’s the first question I’m trying to figure out the answer to,” he said. “So it’s not just everybody else, it’s me, too.

“You want to stay objective and open-minded. I just can watch and learn and listen and meet with people and understand, which should increase the chances of making the right decisions.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.