When it comes to the polarizing Browns’ hire of Mike Lombardi as vice president of player personnel, the voice of CBS Sports believes the Northeast Ohio media is “picking on the wrong guy.”
Jim Nantz, who has covered the league since 1991 and been the network’s top NFL play-by-play man since 2004, staunchly defended his close friend Lombardi again Saturday evening in a telephone interview from the Boston area.
A little over an hour later, Nantz’s partner Phil Simms called, also to voice his support for Lombardi. The pair were in Foxborough, Mass., to broadcast Sunday’s AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens.
“All of this trashing of him has gone overboard,” Nantz said. “It’s gone beyond overboard in fair and accurate.
“Forget about what Jim Nantz says. Forget what everybody else who covers the Browns has to say. I’m trying to talk to the Cleveland fans because they don’t even know what they’re being told. They only know what they’re hearing on the radio and they’re reading in the paper or they’re reading on the Internet.”
Nantz insisted he wasn’t blasting the Cleveland media, although he used the words “smarmy” and “personal vendetta” during the impassioned 17-minute conversation. He said he might sound over the top because he was briskly walking to his hotel in the cold. It was difficult to get a word in, just as it had been Friday when Nantz spoke on the Bull and Fox show on 92.3 The Fan, an appearance originally scheduled by the CBS affiliate to discuss the AFC title game.
“I’ve been reading the vicious remarks and character assassination by some people in the media there who ought to be ashamed of themselves,” Nantz told The Fan.
Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland 850, myself and Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer have been Lombardi’s most vocal critics.
Nantz did not name names on The Fan, although his pointed comments were clearly directed at Grossi. When I brought Grossi up, Nantz said he respects the former PD beat writer, has “no ax to grind” with him and asked for his cell phone number so he could speak with him this week. Nantz said he was not upset with what I have written.
But Nantz is clearly paying attention. In June he married a Clevelander, Courtney Richards, who used to work for IMG. He said he’s been reading everything written here and getting feedback from Richards’ family.
“Maybe I was speaking in broader terms, really, about just the overall climate in Cleveland. I’m not into attacking anybody in the media, ever, because I live in the same world,” Nantz said. “But I do think it has gone beyond the overall coverage … who are all these people who think they know more about football than Mike Lombardi?”
Nantz said he met Patriots coach Bill Belichick through Lombardi in the 1990s when they went to dinner together. He and Simms may have broadcast more Patriots games than those of any other team. Owner Robert Kraft and quarterback Tom Brady reportedly attended Nantz’s wedding on the seventh hole at Pebble Beach.
Nantz said the statement Belichick gave the Browns about Lombardi should be all the fans need to know.
The Browns distributed two pages of quotes on Lombardi, mainly from those who have worked with him. Not surprisingly, all were glowing.
“The foundation of our program in New England had its roots in Cleveland,” Belichick’s statement said. “Mike was instrumental in setting up the personnel structure of that program, which is the basis for our current system. Mike is one of the brightest football minds I have ever worked with. He has a strong understanding of every aspect of the game and the process of putting a team together. Mike’s strong work ethic combined with his extensive experience in the NFL will give the Cleveland Browns an exceptional man for this position.”
Nantz said he was with Belichick Friday when they learned the Browns had hired Lombardi. Nantz said the fact that Belichick put his title game preparation on hold for five minutes to talk about Lombardi spoke volumes.
“If Bill Belichick had that to say about Mike Lombardi, we shouldn’t even have to go to the second sentence in this interview,” Nantz said. “That should be the greatest endorsement you could ever get from anybody in the league. If you’d want one guy in the league to make a testimonial about a guy’s ability, I think that would be the first guy you would go to. You’re not going to get Bill because Bill never does that, but he did it for Mike.”
Belichick and Lombardi worked together in Cleveland from 1991-95. Lombardi’s son, Mick, is a scouting assistant for the Patriots.
But the biggest question looming is that if Belichick thinks Lombardi is such a bright football mind, why didn’t he hire him again? After he was fired by the Oakland Raiders after the 2007 season, Lombardi spent the past five years with NFL Network.
“First of all, Bill doesn’t hire the general manager,” Nantz said. “But how do you know that Bill hasn’t offered him jobs in the past? I’m not going to say any more than that. How do people know that Bill hasn’t tried to bring Mike there?”
Nantz said he longs to broadcast more Browns games. At the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards in 2009 he predicted former coach Eric Mangini would take the Browns to the Super Bowl. Nantz did not respond when I brought that up, going back to the subject of how much Belichick’s praise of Lombardi meant.
I understand Nantz’s loyalty to Lombardi, although I don’t like him taking shots at our media corps’ credibility, whether he intended to or not. I was stunned that he responded to my Saturday e-mail so quickly. Normally it takes longer to set up an interview with a sports network star. Then former New York Giants quarterback Simms called from the same phone after Lombardi’s name came up in a meeting he and Nantz attended. I apologetically told Simms I was on deadline.
Still, the unusual circumstances made me wonder. Is this all just about friendship.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.