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Drawing the curtain on the Big Show

Oct 23, 2012 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi


The Morning Kickoff …

High hopes dashed: My first reaction when Mike Holmgren agreed to serve as Randy Lerner’s “credible, serious leader” at Christmastime 2009 was “Wow … finally.”

There was a pause and then this thought: “What if this doesn’t work? Lerner will have to sell.”

So here we are.

Lerner has handed off the Browns to Jimmy Haslam for $1.05 billion. And today marks Holmgren’s last appearance in front of Cleveland media as Browns president.

Last week in Chicago, Haslam outlined a graceful exit for Holmgren when Joe Banner arrives as Browns CEO on October 25. Haslam said Holmgren would work with Banner over the next 3 ½ months “to transition … in a seamless fashion” and then retire at the end of the year.

In truth, Holmgren has said his goodbyes to everyone in the Browns’ support staff. He has had no influence on any Browns business since Lerner crushed him with the news of his intent to sell in June. Make no mistake, Lerner’s decision blindsided him.

After today’s press appearance, Holmgren will strap on his helmet for the final time and ride his Harley out of the pages of Browns history, his saddlebags loaded with Lerner’s Monopoly money.

The deal Holmgren signed with Lerner was reported to be $40 million over five years. This was merely the third year.

Whatever the severance package, Holmgren’s likely final contract as an NFL coach or executive – he’ll be 65 next June -- secured him the distinction of hauling in more money in his career than any non-player, non-owner and non-commissioner in NFL history. Bill Parcells had one more Super Bowl championship than Holmgren, but he couldn’t match Holmgren’s career earnings. After leaving the community-owned Green Bay Packers, Holmgren hit the lottery by signing up with billionaires Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, and the Lerner Family Trust.

Holmgren’s legacy: A number of names can be associated with Holmgren’s short tenure with the Browns as – Haslam’s words – “the de facto owner.” There were quarterbacks Seneca Wallace, Jake Delhomme, Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden. There were executives Tom Heckert and Bryan Wiedmeier. There were old buddies Gil Haskell, Ray Rhodes, Nolan Cromwell and Dick Jauron.

And there was Pat Shurmur, the nephew of the late Fritz Shurmur, one of Holmgren’s favorite assistant coaches from his glory days in Green Bay.

Holmgren’s one and only coaching search was symbolic of the minimal effort he put into the awesome position that he held. He interviewed three coaches – Perry Fewell, the minority candidate to comply with the Rooney Rule; Mike Mularkey, whom he didn’t know; and Shurmur. He said he also talked with Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden.

In truth, the job was always earmarked for a young offensive coach in the stable of agent Bob LaMonte, Holmgren’s long-time friend and business associate. The only serious candidates were Shurmur and Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Mornhinweg’s pathetic record as Detroit Lions head coach eliminated him.

To me, Holmgren’s epitaph is this: He fired Jim Brown and Lew Merletti – two icons in their profession. And then he wouldn’t take accountability for either act.  He denied both moves after I reported them with The Plain Dealer.  

Brown would later blow the lid off Holmgren’s denial, through team spokesman Neal Gulkis, that Brown’s role as executive advisor “hasn’t changed.” Brown released a scathing letter in the summer of 2010 lambasting Holmgren for disrespecting him by offering him a token position as a greeter. (The two have since patched up their differences, thanks partially to an intervention by Haslam.)

As for Merletti, the former U. S. Secret Service director and Browns senior vice president of security, a paradigm of class and honor who was personally recruited by Al Lerner, Holmgren banished him from the team’s headquarters in Berea for reasons he never explained. Merletti has spent the past two years at the Lerners’ Brooklyn N.Y. Holdings, LLC, office space on the grounds of the Cuyahoga County Airport.

Holmgren effectively received a retraction, or clarification, from The Plain Dealer on my story of Merletti’s ouster in May of 2011. But the power play by Holmgren destroyed relations, for good, with Norma Lerner, Al’s widow.

The only thing that could save Holmgren from that point was a complete resurgence of the Browns’ football program. And on that front, Holmgren was an abject failure.

No energy: My initial excitement about Holmgren taking over the Browns’ fortunes was based on the assumption he would coach.

Coaching is what made Holmgren a multi-millionaire. He took the Packers to two Super Bowls – winning one, thanks to Clevelander Desmond Howard’s 244 return yards, including a 99-yard kickoff touchdown return – and the Seahawks to one. But by the time Lerner lured him out of semi-retirement with his millions, Holmgren didn’t have the energy to continue coaching. And Lerner gave Holmgren the option of coaching or not.

Holmgren was never one of those coaches who slept in the office, anyway. When he was given total authority by Lerner to shape the franchise whichever way he wished, he did the absolute minimum.

On sales occasions with VIP corporate customers, it was not uncommon for Holmgren to say a few words and slip out before dinner. Certainly, he was not a salesman. But Holmgren’s minimal effort infected the entire organization. If he could coast, anybody could.

There is a story making the rounds that on at least one occasion since Haslam came onto the scene, Haslam beat Holmgren to the office – and Haslam started the day from Knoxville, Tenn.,; Holmgren from his condo in Bratenahl.

I asked Jim Brown what he felt Holmgren’s legacy was with the Browns.

Brown, who has reconciled with Holmgren, said, “I don’t see a lot of positives. It’s obvious that something didn’t work. It’s so obvious it’s just not right to talk about it.”

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 44 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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