BEREA: As Jimmy Haslam III formally introduced himself to Northeast Ohio on Friday, he vowed to keep the Browns in Cleveland and transform them into a winner by any means necessary.
Haslam, the new owner of the Browns, is already feeling the heat to restore glory to the franchise. The Browns compiled a record of 47-97 under Haslam’s predecessor, Randy Lerner, who took control of the organization after his father, Al, died of brain cancer in 2002.
Upon Haslam’s arrival in town, the bellman at his hotel spent about five minutes stressing the importance of reversing the fortunes of the franchise. His 2-year-old grandson called from the family’s hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., and left a voice message saying, “Go Browns.” More than 3,000 fans attended practice Friday morning, cheering for Haslam as he strutted onto the field with his wife, Dee; father, Jim Haslam II; President Mike Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert.
“I feel a lot of pressure to make sure we win because everybody takes it damn serious up here,” Haslam said Friday after his introductory news conference. “That’s what we like, but it’s like, ‘All right, we’d better win.’ But that’s good. I’m glad everybody takes it serious.”
Haslam, the president and CEO of travel-center empire Pilot Flying J, reached an agreement with Lerner on Thursday to buy the Browns for more than $1 billion. Lerner will reportedly retain a 30 percent stake in the team before selling it Haslam over the course of four years.
Haslam met Lerner for the first time July 2, and they closed the deal 31 days later. Haslam said he agreed not to move the team.
“I can’t tell you how excited our family is to be part of Cleveland and more important the Cleveland Browns,” he said. “I know there’s some people who think that maybe we might want to move the team out of Cleveland, and I can assure you there is zero chance of that happening.”
Vote still to come
Haslam’s purchase of the team will become official once the NFL’s finance committee reviews it and 75 percent of the league’s owners vote for approval. The owners aren’t scheduled to meet until Oct. 16-17 in Chicago, but NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said it’s possible a special meeting could be called to expedite the process, and teams received a memo notifying them they would be kept informed of developments.
The 58-year-old Haslam also must divest his minority interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers, which he bought in 2008, and he’s in the process of doing so. When Haslam became part owner of the Browns’ archrival, he turned into a self-proclaimed “1,000 percent” Steelers fan.
“Do I wish I hadn’t said that? Yeah,” Haslam said with a laugh. “But, hey, there’s no doubt where my loyalty lies now.”
Haslam switched his Steelers watch for its Browns counterpart. He wore a Browns T-shirt and shorts at practice and changed into a blue suit and a tie peppered with orange helmets before his news conference.
He believes his knowledge of how the Rooney family runs the Steelers will help him succeed, and he wants to emulate their philosophy by building his team through the draft. Haslam said he’s on a mission to resurrect the Browns’ rivalry with the Steelers, who have appeared in eight Super Bowls and won six.
“If we build every year, if we get five, six, seven good players every year, selectively use free agency, I think we can put together a good team” Haslam said. “There’s no reason you can’t win here. This isn’t college football where we don’t have the resources and they do. We have the resources and let’s face it, the way the NFL works, it’s a pretty level playing field. It’s our execution. If five years from now we’re still sitting here at 4-12, I’ll say I haven’t done a good job.”
Haslam will try to learn the business of running an NFL franchise from another one of the league’s noted owners, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots. The two will meet next week.
“Robert Kraft was nice enough to call and said, ‘Come spend the day,’ ” Haslam said. “I’m going to go spend the day with him one day next week. I’m going to take my little note cards and learn everything I possibly can.”
Haslam wants the Browns to become a major part of his family’s legacy. He helped turn the Pilot Corporation, which his father founded in 1958, into a multi-billion dollar enterprise featuring more than 600 travel centers in North America. He said his three adult children, Jim, Whitney and Cynthia, might eventually work for the Browns.
“We’ve had our main business 53 or 54 years, and it’s an integral part of who we are, and we feel the same way about this opportunity,” said Haslam, who will continue to run his truck-stop chain. “We’re all in. It’s a significant investment, but that’s just how we do things.”
Haslam and his wife will maintain residence in Knoxville, but they plan to buy a home in the Cleveland area and split time between the two. Haslam said he plans to be “open and transparent” with the public and media. And he wants his family to become involved in its new community.
The Haslams will certainly be embraced by Browns Town if they breathe life into the organization.
“We’re going to devote whatever time necessary it takes to get things right in Cleveland,” Haslam said. “I believe we’re on the right path now. We’re going to take whatever steps necessary to bring winning football back to Cleveland.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.