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Jimmy Haslam's CEO change at Pilot Flying J frees him up to concentrate more on the Browns

Sep 12, 2012 -- 2:31pm

By Tony Grossi

Extra Points …

Coincidence or fact?: Jimmy Haslam stepped down as CEO of Pilot Flying J two days after his new football team, the Browns, laid another egg to start another season.

That was coincidence, I believe.

You don’t lure a 30-year employee and current president of PepsiCo to take over daily operations of your family business empire with a phone call after a bad game.

But even though John Compton, Haslam’s hand-picked choice to succeed him as CEO of the truck-stop business, is a native of Tennessee, where Pilot is based, a University of Tennessee alum, and an apparent family friend, you have to believe this calculated transfer of power was months in the works.

Coinciding, no doubt, with Haslam’s determined bid to purchase the Browns for what amounted to $1 billion, $50 million.

Still, the timing of the announcement was very curious.

At Haslam’s introductory press conference as Browns future owner on Aug. 3, he was asked how much time he intended to spend in Cleveland on football business.

“We’ll split our time between Knoxville and Cleveland,” Haslam said. “I’m still going to be CEO of Pilot Flying J. It’s a big company and I’ll spend a pretty good amount of time running that, but we’ll take, as I said earlier, whatever time necessary in Cleveland really to do two things: one, to bring a winner back here, but number two, to become a part of the Cleveland community.”

The only reasonable conclusion you can reach is that Haslam has spent enough time walking the halls of Berea, examining the books, and, yes, sitting in on personnel meetings, to realize there is a lot of work to be done immediately with the Browns.

Here, there and everywhere: Haslam’s one-month tutorial on Browns operations has been an eye-opener – to him, no doubt, but also to employees of the Browns.

He has asked a lot of questions. “Do you like white jerseys on white pants, or brown on white?” isn’t among them, is my guess.

Every chance he gets, Haslam peppers GM Tom Heckert about players with which he is unfamiliar.

“Yes, he has (done that), definitely,” Heckert told me two weeks ago.

I wonder if these spot checks had a dual purpose. I wonder if Haslam was using them to size up Heckert’s instant recollection of a player’s evaluation as much as he was learning about his players.

I have heard that Haslam has sat in on personnel meetings. I’m sure it’s to gather a better feel for his team. I’m also sure it’s to gather a feel for his football operations. After all, he spent four years picking the brain of Steelers GM Kevin Colbert. He knows how Colbert evaluates players.

And then there was the surprise appearance Haslam made at his coach’s first post-game news conference of the season on Sunday. Haslam enjoys a solid tan, but his red-faced demeanor after that 17-16 debacle told the story of man not very happy with what he just witnessed, no matter the slim margin of defeat.

In 28 years of covering the Browns and the NFL, I have seen team owners visit their coach’s post-game news conference on happy occasions, such as a playoff-clinching win or a Super Bowl-vaulting victory in the playoffs. But the only owner I’ve seen slip into the room to listen to his coach after such a morbid loss was Jerry Jones.

Culture shock: When Haslam was introduced as the new Browns owner, I asked him if Browns fans should brace for a culture shock. I was referring to fans getting used to sacred cows such as the staid Browns uniforms, the lack of corporate name on the stadium, and relatively low ticket prices.

He didn’t deny that changes are coming.

And I’m sure now, seeing Haslam in action during this holding pattern until he is formally approved as Browns owner on Oct. 16, that fans won’t be the only ones experiencing a culture shock. Accountability is the new order in Berea.

Since Haslam has not denied that ex-Eagles executive Joe Banner will head his Browns organization, I think it would be naïve not to think that Haslam and Banner already are forming their new executive team behind the scenes.

He did it for Pilot Flying J. He’ll certainly do it for the Browns.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and

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

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi


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