New Browns CEO Joe Banner laughs at the thought of someone trying to describe his personality.
“Good luck,” he said. “I don’t think my wife can even do that.”
To say Banner is complex might be an understatement. After spending 19 years with the Philadelphia Eagles, including the past 12 as their president, Banner has brought his expertise and multilayered identity to Northeast Ohio.
He’s the tough negotiator who sometimes draws the ire of players and agents with his ultra-competitive nature.
“If we have a negotiation and it’s over a dollar, 99 percent [of the time] I’ll approach it and be more than happy to let you take 50 cents if you let me take 50 cents,” Banner said. “On the other hand, if you go into the negotiation feeling like, ‘Hell with that, I want to get the whole dollar,’ I will fight back at you and try to win as hard as anybody you’re going to come in contact with.”
He’s the philanthropic leader who helped a nonprofit organization called City Year, which uses mentorship programs to combat dropouts in low-performing schools, expand from its Boston roots.
“The notion of giving back and not living your life just for yourself, I feel like I heard that from my parents from the day I can remember hearing them tell me anything,” said Banner, who had a middle-class upbringing in Brookline, Mass. “I always believed it.”
He’s the no-nonsense businessman who is willing to play the role of a villain, make unpopular decisions and take heat from the media and a rabid fan base.
“The stuff that’s about football, the team, a trade you made, who you drafted, a contract that you screwed up, a holdout that shouldn’t be a holdout, that just comes with the territory,” Banner said. “You better have a tough skin.”
He’s the loving father who couldn’t avoid feeling helpless as he spent nearly two weeks in the hospital beside his son, Jason, who’s doing well after undergoing brain surgery in 2010 because he had been suffering epileptic seizures for years.
“[We have] this innate sense that we’re here to protect our kids, and then you find yourself with a kid who really needs protection and you can’t do anything for them,” said Banner, who has three children, Jill, 23, Jason, 18, and Jonathan, 15, with his wife, Helaine. “You can hopefully find them the right doctor. You can hopefully be there emotionally, but you can’t really fix what’s wrong.”
New York lawyer Joe Leccese introduced Browns owner Jimmy Haslam to Banner in late June. Leccese was representing Haslam in his pursuit of an NFL team and knew Banner sought a new venture. Banner insists his hunger for the challenge of building another organization into a success was his reason for leaving the Eagles, not a perceived power struggle with coach Andy Reid.
Haslam, whose family owns truck-stop empire Pilot Flying J, named Banner his right-hand man on Oct. 16, the day NFL owners unanimously approved the Tennessee billionaire’s purchase of the Browns from Randy Lerner. Banner began working at the Browns’ headquarters in Berea on Oct. 31, six days later than originally planned because of the death of his father.
Now Banner, 59, faces an uphill battle in trying to reverse the fortunes of the Browns, who have a record of 2-7 and a merciful bye today. He relishes the daunting task.
Path to NFL
In 1993, Leccese represented Jeffrey Lurie when he called Banner, his childhood friend, and asked for help in a quest to buy an NFL franchise. After Lurie’s bid to acquire the New England Patriots failed, he purchased the Eagles for $195 million in May 1994. In September, Forbes estimated the Eagles are worth $1.26 billion.
Prior to joining the Eagles, Banner volunteered at City Year for about two years. He also volunteered once a week at Children’s Hospital in Boston, which elicited flashbacks to when he was hospitalized at age 7 with a tumor surgeons removed before discovering it was benign. He found office space and spearheaded fundraising for City Year, which now has 24 U.S. locations, including one in Cleveland with which Banner plans to become heavily involved.
“The Joe that I know is totally compassionate, totally committed to improving the lives of others, totally about getting people of different backgrounds together, passionate about making our democracy a stronger place,” said Michael Brown, CEO and co-founder of City Year. “He gets misty-eyed when he talks about young people and service and the affects it has on him.”
Banner owned a chain of clothing stores in Boston for about 13 years before turning his focus to City Year. Opening the business ended his brief career as a sports producer and reporter for WCAU Radio in Philadelphia. He got the gig after interning at the station while he was a student at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he became a diminutive lacrosse goalie.
Although Banner had no previous experience in the NFL, he jumped right in with Lurie and began overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Eagles. He became the organization’s chief contract negotiator and quickly developed a reputation.
“I started really tough,” Banner said. “Sometimes a first impression sticks with you whether it remains fair or not. So I do think it was fair to call me almost overly tough, trying too hard to win negotiations in the early phases of doing player contracts.”
Banner learned the value of compromise over time.
“As long as you’re fair with him and treat him with respect, you’re going to be able to get a deal done with him within reason,” agent Jeff Nalley said. “But when you try to back the organization into a corner and embarrass it … that’s where he draws the line and that’s where he gets tough. When you take negotiations with Joe into the media, that embarrasses the organization. That’s when you’ve made a mistake.”
Banner also negotiated with politicians as he pushed for the development of a practice facility and stadium. NovaCare Complex opened in 2001 and Lincoln Financial Field opened in 2003.
“I think when people hear that someone is a shrewd negotiator, a tough negotiator, they have this image that there’s a lot of yelling and screaming,” said Leccese, who worked with Banner on the complex and stadium deals. “That’s not the case. Joe is a very analytical person, so Joe makes his points with enormous research behind them and enormous logic behind them. So he’s tenacious.”
The Eagles posted a record of 162-124-2 during Banner’s tenure. They also earned 11 postseason berths, advanced to five NFC Championship Games and the Super Bowl in 2005.
“There’s no question Joe was a hands-on president,” Howie Roseman, who’s in his 13th year with the Eagles and became their general manager in 2010, wrote in an email. “Joe has always been a [salary] cap expert, and I learned a lot from him. He was very detail oriented in every aspect of the job. If it involved the players on the field, he was directly involved. During my first two years as GM, no football decision was made without him.”
In 1999, Banner made one of his best decisions when he lobbied for the hiring of Reid. Banner believes his lack of NFL experience in his early years with the Eagles allowed him to think outside the box and see something in Reid others overlooked.
“The year we hired Andy Reid to be head coach, there were eight teams looking for a head coach,” Banner said. “Not even one other team interviewed Andy. He was the first coach ever hired in the NFL who had never been either a college head coach or an NFL coordinator.”
Banner’s management of the salary cap also proved to be vital. The Eagles were almost never forced to cut a player because of the cap.
“Joe was able to blend good football talent and balance the cap like no one else has done thus far in the era of salary-cap football in free agency,” said Troy Vincent, a former cornerback for the Eagles who’s now the NFL’s vice president of player engagement. “He set the bar. Never had they faced not being able to go out and acquire the best talent that was available and [they] never had salary-cap challenges.”
But the Eagles didn’t hesitate to part ways with players when they got older, either. Public outrage often ensued.
“[Players] never want to accept that our skills are declining,” Vincent said. “If you were willing to be your own negotiator, that was part of the negotiation, and you’re going to be told that you’re not worth what you’re asking for at this stage of your career. But you have to have someone in the organization that’s going to make that call.”
Although Banner’s intellect and business acumen are widely praised — Vincent described him as “the professor” and “the human calculator” — player evaluation is not thought to be his forte. Still, when it comes to roster decisions, Banner is not shy about voicing his opinions, demanding the most of his staff and holding it accountable. He’ll be one of four or five people involved in making football decisions for the Browns with either the coach or general manager having final say on the roster.
Bryan Broaddus, an analyst for the Dallas Cowboys’ website who worked in the Eagles’ personnel department, recalls Banner routinely engaging in debates about prospects in preparation for the 1998 draft.
“He was trying like heck to get his point across, and the scouts were trying to get their points across,” Broaddus said. “I saw that as a good competition among us to maybe get the best board we could.”
Banner’s thirst for intense competition might be impossible to satisfy. He believes he was born with that craving, though it doesn’t solely define him.
“I’m highly competitive, driven to win and when I’m competing, fight hard to win,” Banner said. “That’s a piece of me. That’s part of an accurate description of me as is an incredibly compassionate person as is somebody who wants to live a life that’s bigger than himself and makes a difference in other people’s lives. Those things are kind of what make me up.”
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.