Haslam celebrated with 69,661 of his newest friends Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium, where the Browns forced eight turnovers in a 20-14 upset of the hated Pittsburgh Steelers.
It marked Cleveland’s first win over Pittsburgh since 2009 — and just the second time the Browns have defeated their AFC North Division rivals in the last 18 tries.
“This was huge and it was a great win,” the Tennessee billionaire said during an impromptu press conference in the center of Cleveland’s locker room. “We want to re-establish this rivalry, and this is a good place to start.
“If you think about it, in our division, we played the Ravens tough both times, we split with Cincinnati, and we just won one with Pittsburgh with one game to go. Everything starts by winning games in your division, and I think we’ve made some progress there this year.”
Haslam’s initial win after taking over the Browns came on Oct. 28 over San Diego, but it pales in comparison to beating Pittsburgh. He purchased approximately 10 percent of the Steelers in 2008 and has attended every Cleveland/Pittsburgh game since.
This, however, marked the first time he has done so while rooting for the Browns, making his personal record in the series 7-1.
“You know, the biggest thrill today was seeing who was leaving early — and it was the Steelers fans,” said Haslam, whose Steelers stock has been placed in a blind trust by the NFL until it can be sold. “I’ve been here when it was the other way and (Pittsburgh’s) fans were the only guys left, so it was good to see their fans leaving and our fans staying and cheering.”
Haslam also recounted the moment when he realized how incredibly passionate Cleveland is about its team. He sat on the Steelers’ bench during their 13-6 loss at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Dec. 10, 2009, braving minus-6 degree wind chills with gusts up to 48 MPH.
“I’ve said all along, we have the best fans in the country,” said Haslam, who first spoke about that experience in an exclusive interview with the Chronicle-Telegram/Gazette in August. “Because I was here that cold night, that Thursday night when the Browns won.
“We had a tremendous crowd today — I guess y’all saw it — not just in numbers, but in noise. And to see everybody stand and cheer at the end was great.”
While Haslam once said, “I am 1,000 percent a Steelers fan,” and admitted to waving a Terrible Towel, his loyalties to the brown and orange are now beyond reproach.
The 58-year-old football junkie has spent countless hours inside Cleveland’s training facility, endearing himself to players, coaches and executives with his passion for building a winner.
“He’s so into it and he comes down here, and we’re so happy to see that positive energy,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. “We just like to be around the dude.”
Haslam, obviously, reciprocates that feeling, which is why he was beaming when talking about his hopes for the future.
“I’m gonna be real careful what I say, guys, because (coach) Pat (Shurmur) doesn’t need me providing billboard fodder,” he said, chuckling. “But everything in life — and especially in sports — is about momentum and confidence.
“This should give our guys a lot of it because that’s a very good, very well-coached football team that we beat today.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.