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Jimmy Haslam on being Browns owner: Everything you do and say is magnified way more than it should be

Feb 14, 2013 -- 6:00am

Photo/AP


By Tony Grossi

The Morning Kickoff …

The Haslam Chronicles: Jimmy Haslam is a quick study on things he doesn’t know. And in his brief term as owner of the Browns, he has learned a lot – especially in the last week.

“The demanding part (is) that it’s so high profile,” Haslam said to me in a phone conversation Wednesday evening. “Everything you do and everything you say is just magnified way more than it should be. You just have to be careful in what you say. That’s just the way it is.

“You know, we’ve lived in Knoxville all our lives, we own a pretty big company there, but  … I’m much better known in Cleveland than in Knoxville and that’s because of the Browns. But we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Haslam stirred the Browns fan base when he reassumed the role of CEO of family truck-stop business Pilot Flying J this week, calling it his “first love.” The backlash was fear that Haslam, despite all the fiery oratory about passion and commitment to the Browns, would retreat to absentee, or part-time, ownership -- a la Randy Lerner. And that the Browns’ fortunes would be left in the hands of an unsupervised Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi.

“The main reason for doing these (round of interviews) is to communicate that nothing’s going to change,” Haslam said. “We’re going to be just as involved as we said we were. The proof’s in the pudding. I think everybody will see that there is going to be no difference. We feel a tremendous responsibility as owners of the Browns to turn this thing around and turn it into a winner.”

I said to Haslam that this wouldn’t even be a story if he hadn’t resigned as CEO of Pilot Flying J in the first place. He did so in September and recruited former PepsiCo President John Compton to succeed him. That hand-off enhanced the perception that Haslam would be a hands-on team owner with his hands on everything. That would be a welcome change from the previous owner.

So why did Haslam resign from his day job at that time?

“I thought about that a lot myself,” he said. “It all transpired (buying the Browns) pretty quickly. The NFL mentioned in June there might be a team (for sale). I met Randy in July. And then we just bought another company (Maxum Petroleum). At the time, I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed. And the opportunity to get a man like John Compton to run our main company seemed to make a lot of sense. But sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. Not that this went awry, but I just had a change of heart and decided I missed it.”

Moving forward: I asked Haslam if he has any concern that both Banner and Lombardi are filling positions they’ve never held before. Banner, a business executive with the Philadelphia Eagles, intends to head football operations. Lombardi has never had the accountability and influence in football decisions that he has under Banner.

“I have great confidence in Joe and Mike,” Haslam said. “They’re both very smart. They work tremendous hours. They care deeply. I feel really good about the team we’ve put together, with (President) Alec (Scheiner), Chud (coach Rob Chudzinski), Norv (Turner, offensive coordinator) and Ray (Horton, defensive coordinator).  Now, I tell them every time we meet that the proof’s in the pudding. I can assure you there’s nobody working harder than those guys.”

I asked Haslam to clarify contrasting perceptions about the Browns’ plans in free agency. At the Super Bowl, Haslam said not to expect “big splash” signings. But national football writers have since maintained that Haslam and Banner want to make a big splash in free agency.

“I think this: Go back to (his introduction) on Aug. 3 and one of the first things we said is we’re going to build the team by the draft,” Haslam said. “The vast majority of teams that have been successful, that’s how they’ve done it. We are going to use free agency judiciously and try to fill some holes that way.

“I just think you have to be really smart because you’re probably paying over market value because the players are in their prime and teams are bidding on them. But just because we’re way under the cap, you don’t have to spend foolishly, and we won’t.”

Change for sake of change?: I brought up two things that concern me – the apparent pre-determination to change quarterbacks and change the defense to a 3-4 system.

“What if Chudzinski and Turner decide they can win with Brandon Weeden at quarterback?” I said. “Would (Banner and Lombardi) still make a change?”

“Chud and Norv, I don’t think you can have a better duo in teaching, coaching and developing quarterbacks,” Haslam said. “I think they’ll evaluate Brandon and see what our needs will be. I believe every position has to have competition, but everyone understands the quarterback is the key to the NFL and we’re going to have competition there.”

I asked Haslam if there was a pre-determination to switch to a 3-4 defense, no matter who the head coach ended up being.

“No,” he answered. “I think our bias was to hire an offensive coach because we think the NFL has turned into an offensive league. It happened that Ray (Horton) was real impressive in his (head coach) interview and he was real close to Norv. So it was a good fit. There might have been others we would interviewed that were 4-3 guys. I think Ray has great experience in tailoring the defense to the personnel. We knew him with the Steelers. He’ll be able to do that here.”

Before the conversation ended, Haslam wanted to re-emphasize one point.

“Just rest assured that we are more committed to bringing winning back to the Cleveland Browns,” he said.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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