By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Browns owner Jimmy Haslam stole the spotlight Thursday about 15 minutes into the first full-squad practice of training camp, attempting to alleviate fears that another shakeup at the top of the organization could be on the horizon.
Despite Haslam’s family business, Pilot Flying J, being at the center of an ongoing federal investigation into a fraud scheme, he seemed confident he will not be forced to sell the team.
“We’re committed to owning the Browns for a long period of time,” Haslam told reporters gathered under the media tent shortly after practice began at 4 p.m. “I understand in Cleveland there’s a great deal of uncertainty because of past history, but the fans should not worry. Our family is going to own this asset for a long, long time. We’re excited and we feel [it’s] a privilege to own not just an NFL team, but to own the Cleveland Browns with all the heritage and history it has.”
An estimated 2,692 fans flocked to the team’s headquarters to watch quarterback Brandon Weeden operate in the fast-paced, downfield, vertical passing game installed by new coach Rob Chudzinski and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. They saw running back Trent Richardson carry the ball, catch passes and show an impressive burst after missing spring practices with a strained muscle in his right shin. And they got a sneak peek of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4, multi-front, attacking scheme.
The fans were certainly there for football, but Haslam’s legal woes will serve as the backdrop to everything that happens with the Browns until the situation is resolved.
The FBI and Internal Revenue Service raided the headquarters of Pilot Flying J April 15 in Knoxville, Tenn., and an affidavit made public days later alleged that Haslam had knowledge of fuel rebate fraud that cheated trucking-company customers out of millions of dollars. Haslam has repeatedly denied that he knew about the scheme. So far, five former Pilot Flying J employees have pleaded guilty to federal charges.
So does Haslam have a succession plan in case he is indicted?
“When the government investigation happened on April 15, one of the very first calls we made was to the NFL,” said Haslam, whose wife, Dee, joined him at practice. “We’re in constant contact with them. They have been very supportive in working with us, and I’d say we’re very optimistic on the outcome.”
In addition to the criminal investigation, about 20 trucking companies have filed civil lawsuits against Pilot Flying J. Eight of them have agreed to a settlement, but some question whether Haslam’s finances could be drained enough to force him to sell the team, which he bought for about $1 billion.
“There’s absolutely no worry about cash flow,” Haslam said, citing the renovation of the team’s headquarters, free-agent signings and planned stadium enhancements as proof.
Most fans hope Haslam is right simply because they want stability. Some of them even showed support by chanting his name Thursday during practice.
On the first day of training camp last year, news broke about Randy Lerner entering negotiations to sell the team to Haslam. The shift in power created a distraction that affected virtually everyone in the organization, even if they didn’t know it at the time. President Mike Holmgren left the organization during the season. Coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert were fired one day after the team finished the season with a record of 5-11.
“That was a big hit,” inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “First day, everyone is excited, and you get news like that. You never saw it coming.
“Hopefully no news like that will be happening anytime soon. It’s a good thing right now.”
Jackson attended Haslam’s introductory news conference last August and felt the excitement generated by his arrival. He believes a high level of optimism is still warranted, especially because of Chudzinski and the coaching staff, and he doesn’t think Haslam’s issues will distract the players.
“That excitement is there, and it’s not going to leave anytime soon,” said Jackson, a team captain last season. “What’s happening with [Haslam] is so far above our heads. We’ve got so much to work on here and so much to focus on, so we don’t worry about it.
“Half the young guys don’t even know who he is. They wouldn’t know him if he was sitting next to them. So, no, it’s not an issue. It’s not an issue at all. These young guys are more worried about getting to meetings on time and getting something to eat around here.”
Haslam apologized again for the negative attention the investigation has created, but he doesn’t believe the legal crisis will harm his football team.
“I don’t think anybody senses distraction here,” Haslam said. “Everybody is entirely focused on the two things we talked about — winning games and providing a great experience for our fans.”
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 www.facebook.com/browns.abj.