By Bruce Hooley
It takes much longer to shake a reputation than it does to make one, which is something Browns owner Jimmy Haslam would do well to learn from his counterparts in Cleveland.
Haslam is still in the honeymoon phase of his stewardship of a franchise he termed, “a civic treasure,” upon announcing its purchase in August en route to taking control in October.
He still has time to go either way with the citizens of Northeast Ohio, be it toward the positive end of the ownership scale, like the Cavaliers’ Dan Gilbert, or the negative end, where Indians owner Paul Dolan has long been mired.
Until this week, when Haslam surprisingly announced his re-taking of the reins of the family business, Pilot/Flying J, Browns fans were almost-universally behind him.
While he may have over-promised and under-delivered with the hiring of Rob Chudzinski as head coach and Michael Lombardi as player personnel czar, Haslam nevertheless remained popular as long as he continued to wear orange neckties and as long as he continued to not be Randy Lerner.
But now that Haslam has framed his return to Knoxville as a return to his “first love,” his actions may be sending a different message than the one he continues to preach.
“Nothing’s going to change,” Haslam told ESPNCleveland’s Tony Grossi. “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 sense of responsibility as owners of the Browns to turn this thing around and turn it into a winner.”
That’s great, and hopefully it’s true, but no Browns fan can be blamed for wondering how Haslam can be “just as involved as we said” when he’s now running two billion-dollar business enterprises, not just one.?
Likewise, how can there be “no difference”, when Haslam once cultivated the image he would be living in his new home on the lakefront and reporting to 76 Lou Groza Blvd. most every day, but he now admits Knoxville will remain his primary base of operations?
Those images on the Travel Channel production of Road Tested -- where Haslam arrived at Browns headquarters before dawn in his sharply-tailored suit, then changed into team gear for a workout in the weight room before sunrise -- resonated with the fan base.
It was refreshing, and comforting, to know that the boss was on the job, holding every employee accountable with his very presence, subliminally sending the message he was all-in, up to his elbows, and everybody else had better be, too.
It’s not easy to buy a team and show up in a fiercely-proud and appropriately-suspicious place like Cleveland and not only inspire the locals with your passion, but do so in a manner that seems genuine and heartfelt.
Haslam appeared consumed with winning, not just because it would make his investment in the Browns multiply, but because he oozed competitiveness and relished the chance to pour everything into a role as team owner than he had craved as a minority share-holder in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now, in some way, a lot of Haslam’s infectious enthusiasm seems gone. It may not be, but the helium of excitement that took the balloon of expectations so high in his initial days feels as if it’s leaking away.
Maybe things have gone south at Pilot/Flying J and Haslam needs to return home to steady matters.
Maybe he trusts the management team in place in Berea and finds there’s little left for him to impact on a daily basis.
Maybe it’s just an alarmist reaction born of the Browns’ constant losing to wonder if Haslam has tired of his new toy now that he’s played with it awhile.
But whatever path Haslam has chosen toward finalizing his reputation with Browns fans, he should know there’s very seldom a U-turn available.
Gilbert remains a popular Everyman, despite being a billionaire who lives at least part of the time in Michigan. His letter incinerating LeBron James after The Decision may account for some of that good standing, but Gilbert acquired most of his popularity by creating the reputation he would do whatever it took to bring an NBA championship to the city.
His actions since James departed have not lived up to that image at all. Both Gilbert and the Cavs seem content to lose in order to magically ascend to title contention again. Or, they hope to get better by James reversing field and returning to Cleveland.
Neither plan shows much all-out commitment to winning, yet Gilbert remains the most popular owner in town.
Dolan will likely forever own the reputation as a cheapskate, even though he coughed up $117 million in free agent spending this off-season. The Indians managed to remake their pathetic roster without trading either Chris Perez or Asdrubal Cabrera – the strongest trade-able commodities they possessed – and they added a two-time world champion manager.
But if the Tribe doesn’t win this season, the blame will almost assuredly center on Dolan being a skinflint. Unless a division championship results, he will get no lasting credit for a massive paradigm shift from, “We’ll spend if the fans show up,” to,” We’ll spend so the fans show up.”
It seems – no matter what they do -- both Gilbert and Dolan have their reputations forever etched in stone.
Haslam still has the chisel in his hand.
Choose your tablet wisely, Jimmy.
Bruce Hooley hosts The Hooligans from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR. He is the author of, “That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story.”
Email Bruce firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Bruce on Twitter @bhoolz
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