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The future of the Browns hangs as Jimmy Haslam seeks to save his family's company

May 08, 2013 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/ClevelandBrowns.com

The Morning Kickoff …

Brother, can you spare a B?: According to Forbes, there are now a record 1,428 billionaires in the world. Which isn’t a lot, considering the current estimate of 7 billion people on this planet.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam ranks 831st on the most recent Forbes list of world billionaires. His net worth of $1.8 billion ties him with 36 others.

Haslam’s inclusion on this exclusive list is the result of his truck-stop and diesel fuel company, Pilot Flying J, doubling in size since 2008. Haslam, a Knoxville, TN, good ole boy, is running in the same circles with, among others, world bankers, a European cable TV scion, a Russian real estate developer, a Chinese plastic pipe manufacturer, a Peruvian miner of copper and tin and gold, a Canadian homebuilder, a Brazilian cosmetics king, a Malaysian timber tycoon and the creator of Slim-Fast.

Also in the $1.8 Billion Net Worth Club are, coincidentally, two other NFL team owners – Steve Bisciotti of the Baltimore Ravens and Bob McNair of the Houston Texans. They happen to be among the top 10 best team owners in the NFL, in my opinion.

When I think of the perfect owner of the Browns, a combination of Bisciotti and McNair would be fairly ideal. Bisciotti is young, vibrant, passionate, demanding. McNair is well-reasoned, involved, patient yet not overly so, and ever conscious and sensitive of doing the right thing for his team and community – a master of public relations without being manipulative.

And their teams are first-class operations.

Bisciotti just celebrated his second Super Bowl championship since bailing out Art Modell’s financially bungled franchise in 2000. McNair’s expansion organization was born three years after the new Browns in 2002. McNair has developed the NFL’s 32nd franchise into a relevant AFC contender with legitimate Super Bowl expectations.

We need Haslam to do that in Cleveland as Browns owner.

For if that would happen, if Haslam could resuscitate the moribund Browns into a dynamic NFL player, the whole Northeast Ohio region would explode economically. No other team owner in town has that potential. Why? Simply because it’s a football town, region, state. And that will not change.

The FBI probe: For Haslam to realize his potential as Browns owner, he has to be proved innocent. Yes, in this country you are innocent until proved guilty. But in the court of public opinion, unfortunately, the opposite is true. And Haslam has suffered some substantial losses in credibility, trust and confidence.

The FBI probe into charges of defrauding smaller trucking companies of thousands of dollars -- in some cases, millions -- in promised rebate payments reeks of corporate greed and white-collar crime. The callous disregard of human decency described in a damning, 120-page FBI affidavit that contained secretly tape-recorded conversations of high-level sales executives is galling.

Haslam addressed the “embarrassing” allegations with reporters Tuesday night after a six-minute speech at the Northeastern Ohio Chapter of the National Football Foundation's 25th annual scholar-athlete banquet in Westlake. As he has done two other times in Knoxville since the unsealing of the FBI affidavit on April 18, Haslam declined to answer questions.

“It was really sickening to me,” Haslam said of the contents of the affidavit. “… The apparent behavior of some of our sales people, behavior that's not characteristic of how the 20,000 employees of PFJ act and behave towards anyone. We don't talk that way. We don’t act that way.”

While the ominous FBI investigation has reverted back to secrecy, a half-dozen civil lawsuits have added to Haslam’s crises. The civil suits present potentially severe financial damages.

Haslam’s company can buy its way out of the lawsuits, through restitution and the payment of any future fines or penalties. There also will be exorbitant legal costs, as Haslam has hired a team of the finest and most expensive lawyers. These costs should not be minimized. The financial livelihood of Pilot Flying J is the single biggest determinant of whether Haslam survives as Browns owner.

As embarrassed as it may be that one of its club owner’s companies is federally accused of white-collar crime, the NFL won’t revoke Haslam’s ownership of the Browns – unless he proves incapable of financing it. In 1999, the league essentially ordered Modell, a former beloved league kingpin, to find a buyer for the Ravens because Modell was near bankruptcy and couldn’t finance the team any longer.

As much as the NFL liked Haslam as a person, the most attractive thing about him was his net worth. If that plummets as a result of this scandal, the NFL will turn on him as if he were a running back with two broken knees.

Haslam has been consumed with repairing his company’s obliterated reputation since the incriminating affidavit was unsealed.

At the onset, Haslam said the alleged fraudulent rebate program under investigation represented an “insignificant” number of Pilot Flying J’s 3,300 trucking customers. On Tuesday, he said he has talked “to literally 250 to 300 trucking companies in the last three weeks” and has written “several checks” to correct underpayments.

Haslam also has instituted sweeping changes to his company, including suspending “several members of our sales team” and appointing an independent investigator to report to his company’s board of directors. Through the ordeal, Haslam has unflinchingly projected personal innocence of wrongdoing, abject disgust that some rogue employees would cheat customers, and steely determination to restore his company’s once-lofty reputation.

“We're going to begin to rebuild our reputation and we understand that it's going to take a long time to do,” Haslam said. “But, we are big boys, we've been in this business for 54 years and I hope we are in business another 54 years, candidly.”

What about the Browns?: Until now, all of Haslam’s pronouncements have addressed his company’s and his family’s influential standing in the Tennessee community. On Tuesday, he turned his apologies to Cleveland.

“I apologize to the city of Cleveland, Northeastern Ohio and all Browns fans because the last thing we ever wanted to do as a new owner was to detract from football and the Browns and just what a great football area this is,” Haslam said. “I apologize for that, we feel badly about it, and we're very comfortable that we'll work through this situation.”

Haslam then delivered a positive speech about the highly-criticized draft completed by his new management team and talked excitedly about the coming season.

“I think we'll have a better football team this year,” Haslam concluded. “As I've said on several occasions, we're going to do this the right way. It's not going to happen overnight. You don't go from winning 14 games in three years to winning 14 games in one year.

“I’m convinced we will have a better team this year and we'll be better in 2014. I think Joe (Banner, CEO) articulated it very well after the draft. We stand very accountable for what happens this year and we are not at all throwing this year away. I think it's very important. I think we’ll have a good team.

“I think we've put together a really good coaching staff. Several of the players have remarked to me that the intensity in the building, in the weight room and on the practice field is definitely amped up and I think that will result in a better football team.”

I was never more excited for the Browns’ future than when Haslam burst onto the scene in August. Cleveland needs Haslam to prevail in this federal case and be completely exonerated. There are only so many Bisciottis and McNairs on the world billionaire list.

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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