December 21, 2014

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Browns find their “Curly,” defend length of search, disagree with perception of organization

Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine, right, smiles as he sits next to the NFL football team's CEO, Joe Banner. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine, right, smiles as he sits next to the NFL football team’s CEO, Joe Banner. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

BEREA — Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner aren’t oblivious to the barrage of criticism they received from the media and fans throughout their 25-day coaching search.

“Since (general manager) Mike Lombardi and I are Moe and Larry, we went and set out to find Curly and we succeeded,” Banner said Thursday in his introduction of new coach Mike Pettine, who has a shaved head.

He was referencing a question from the previous news conference — Dec. 30 to discuss the firing of coach Rob Chudzinski after one year — that compared the Browns’ front office to The Three Stooges.

“That’s why it took so long. There aren’t a lot of Curlys running around the country,” Banner said.

A lot of Browns fans felt more like crying than laughing during the long and winding journey to replace Chudzinski. Many of the headlines had to do with coaches withdrawing from consideration or taking other jobs, the organization was referred to as “radioactive” by the national media and Jay Leno used the franchise as a punch line.

Haslam didn’t see much of the humor. Literally or figuratively.

“I’ve never watched TV and I don’t read blogs,” he said. “I just worry about what we can control. If we hired the right guy, which I strongly believe we did, we’ll win games and that will go away.”

Haslam said the Browns interviewed 10 candidates in person and talked to others over the phone. He said they didn’t have a candidate in mind when they fired Chudzinski and stuck to their plan of conducting an extensive, open-minded search, even if it left them the last of seven teams to fill their vacancy.

They met with Pettine three times for a total of about 11 hours. Haslam and Banner said spending as much time as possible with a candidate was a lesson learned from the Chudzinski hire a year earlier.

“We’re going to spend thousands of hours researching whether to pick a quarterback in the draft or not,” Haslam said. “Why would you not spend a lot of hours researching who the head coach of your organization is going to be? This thought that the first person to finish the coaching search is the winner I think is extremely farfetched.

“This is an important hire. To not take your time and talk to people and do the research, the background checks we’ve done would be inexcusable. We think it was a great process.”

The Browns didn’t interview Pettine until Jan. 16 despite him being available since the end of the season Dec. 29. The second interview was Tuesday, and the clincher Thursday afternoon at Browns headquarters.

Banner said Pettine was on their list of candidates the whole time after pursuing him as a defensive coordinator candidate last offseason before he wound up with Buffalo as its coordinator.

“I know everybody else was in a rush, but we knew it would take two to three weeks at least, so whether we interviewed somebody on Day 3 or Day 12 really became a logistical issue,” Banner said.

Pettine wasn’t a done deal as late as Thursday. Banner said there was a second finalist, and it sounded like it was Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, even though Banner wouldn’t say. The Browns interviewed Quinn on Jan. 1, but would’ve had to wait until after the Super Bowl on Feb. 2 to offer him the job.

“We felt that we knew him well enough to make the comparison,” Banner said. “That was a tough decision, frankly. He’s an outstanding guy, an outstanding coach. There’s no doubt in our mind that he’ll be an excellent head coach, so that was a tough call.”

Banner said each candidate asked about the decision to fire Chudzinski after one season, but he didn’t think it limited their search. He also disputed reports that it was difficult to find someone interested in the job.

That was how many people portrayed the decisions by Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to take themselves out of the running. Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo accepted other jobs.

“(The fans) have no idea who didn’t want to interview,” Banner said. “They know who you’ve reported didn’t want to interview, but they have absolutely no idea who wanted to interview and who wanted the job.
“We are not going to go through the particulars of who we spoke to and who we didn’t, but the perception that there were people that didn’t want the job or the job wasn’t desirable or any of that kind of stuff is just completely false.”

Banner was asked to clear up the discrepancies, but said, “No need to, that’s not my job.”

Fans are exhausted by the franchise’s seventh coaching search since returning in 1999. The frustration of 15 years of near-constant losing has taken its toll, and they have little patience for the front office. They grew weary as the search dragged on, and Banner referred to the criticism as a “pummeling.”

Haslam pointed the finger at the media.

“I think that’s a perception that you all have generated,” he said. “That’s not the perception among the candidates. We had a very qualified list of people who were interested in being coach of the Cleveland Browns. It’s viewed as a very positive place.”

Pettine certainly agrees.

“I think Joe is brilliant, the smartest guy in the room,” he said of Banner. “He has a proven track record while he was in Philadelphia and what he was able to do with Andy Reid that is a model a lot of teams are trying to follow.

“Mike Lombardi has a history of talent acquisition, just another voice in the room, a voice of reason. A guy who has seen a lot of things and a lot of football. To me, I can’t wait to pull from both of their years of experience.”

Banner was asked if the comparisons to The Three Stooges stung.

“It never burned,” he said. “It didn’t feel justified. But there was humor in it and there’s still humor in it and there’s nothing wrong with being able to poke a little fun at yourself from time to time.”

There was plenty of time for that during the search.

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