Saturday, August 4, 2012

A good beginning
After watching the new owner of the Browns in action Friday, one adjective immediately leaps to mind.


After his roughly 25-minute debut news conference with the Cleveland media, one gets the feeling Jimmy Haslam III is the kind of owner fans of this team have hungered for the last 13 years.

Displaying a supremely confident air, Haslam fielded questions like someone who has no problem addressing a large group. He was relaxed, friendly and extremely poised.

If first impressions mean anything, Browns fans around the globe are in for a screeching turnaround in the fortunes of this formerly dysfunctional team. Unless he’s a con man, Haslam appears to be everything Randy Lerner is not.

That’s not intended to be mean, although one can understand it might be taken that way. Lerner was a reluctant owner after taking over the team following the untimely death of his father in 2002. He guarded his privacy zealously.

When you’re the owner of a National Football League team, however, you are automatically thrust upon a gigantic stage. Lerner was uncomfortable on that stage. He and the spotlight were strangers.

Haslam, on the other hand, can’t wait to take over the team. Judging from his first exposure to the Cleveland media, he relishes being on that stage.

He answered all questions with the aplomb of someone who has been doing it his entire life. He deftly and politely deflected those few questions better answered by someone else. The southern gentleman was smooth and downright charming.

Several times throughout the news conference, Haslam praised the person asking the question by preceding his answer with “that’s a great question” or “that’s a good question.” That’s a nice trick of making the persons asking the question feel good about themselves.

Nothing wrong with it, of course, but that shows the savvy that has helped him rise in the business world.

The Browns need someone strong at the top. Someone who can come in, establish the proper culture and make certain every man is doing his job. It has become painfully obvious over the last 13 years that aspect has been absent.

Haslam, who has known nothing but success in his professional life, appears to be that kind of individual. “Our style is we’re going to be involved,” he said. “You’ll find we’re going to be open and transparent. We’re going to be there selling the Cleveland Browns all the time.”

Look for the new boss to be much more involved and proactive than Lerner. “The most important decisions we make are going to be the people we surround ourselves with,” he said. “Who you surround yourself with is very, very important.”

He went on to call himself  “a big believer in collective wisdom. If you have five smart people around a table, it’s better than four.”

Unlike Lerner, whose football interest seems more rooted in England, American football is a huge part of Haslam’s life. “We’ve been around football all our lives,” he said.

As the highly successful CEO of Flying J truck stops all around the country, it’s easy to see Haslam is used to winning. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles the losing culture that has gripped this franchise since the return in 1999.

Having been a minority investor in the Pittsburgh Steelers for the last four years, the new Cleveland owner is well aware of the rivalry that exists between the two franchises.

“I get the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland,” he said. “Our main goal is to return that to a real rivalry.” It was an obvious reference to the Steelers’ domination of the Browns since 1999.

In putting his stamp on his new toy, Haslam hinted that the name of the stadium could change. The NFL’s only generic stadium name, Cleveland Browns Stadium, could he history.

Ever the astute businessman, Haslam has to know that income from stadium naming rights will not hurt the bottom line. Too bad. There’s something about CBS that sets it apart from all the other corporate named ballparks.

As do the Browns’ logo-less helmets. If there’s one thing Haslam should keep his paws off, it’s the helmet. It is truly unique and sets it apart from the rest of the league.

Change the uniform if you must, but leave the colors and helmets alone. They are the last vestiges of what all Browns fans, young and old, hold special.

Haslam’s ultimate goal, of course, is to turn the Browns into a winning franchise. Maybe Lerner’s goal was the same. He just went about it the wrong way for the last 10 years. That’s what happens when you surround yourself with the wrong people.

Haslam, who plans to log plenty of air miles between homes in Knoxville, Tenn., and the Cleveland area, is a welcome breath of fresh air. How long it remains that way depends strictly on how he conducts business.

And, of course, how well the team responds to his stewardship.

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