CHICAGO: As Jimmy Haslam walked into a room full of powerful men seated under bright chandeliers in black high-back chairs, thunderous applause signaled his acceptance into their fraternity and a new era for the Browns.
NFL owners unanimously approved Haslam’s purchase of the Browns at about 10:40 Tuesday morning in the swank Burnham Ballroom at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Chicago.
“There’s 100 people in the room, and they’re all looking at you and you’re not sure whether to smile or to look up or look down, but it’s very exciting,” Haslam said. “Our entire family is very excited. It’s a great opportunity.”
Haslam, whose family owns truck-stop empire Pilot Flying J, struck a deal Aug. 2 to buy the team from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion, and he needed 24 of the league’s 32 owners, or three-fourths, to vote in his favor for it to become formal. There was never any doubt he would receive the blessing of his peers.
“He just seems like a real solid individual, a lot of integrity,” New York Giants owner John Mara said. “He has a great reputation in the business community. That was about the quickest vote we’ve ever had in there approving him.”
The sale is expected to close Oct. 25, the same day Haslam said former Philadelphia Eagles President Joe Banner will become his right-hand man as CEO of the Browns and begin to oversee all aspects of the organization. President Mike Holmgren has decided to leave the Browns and retire after this season, Haslam said.
“Joe and Mike will work together over the next three, three-and-a-half months until the end of the season to transition in what I would call a seamless fashion to do everything we can to bring a winner to the Cleveland Browns,” Haslam said. “If you think about the experience that the two of them have, it’s probably over 50 years of experience in the NFL, and I don’t think we could have two better people to help us turn this transition around.”
Haslam reiterated he won’t make any other personnel moves until after the season. So even though the futures of coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert are uncertain, their jobs appear to be safe for the rest of the year.
“I just looked them in the eye and told them that,” Haslam said. “I told Pat that. I said, ‘No decisions have been made,’ and I’m very comfortable saying that. And listen, these men, they’re big boys. They understand the profession they’re in, they’ve been through it before, and they understand it.”
Haslam continued to stress his commitment to reversing the fortunes of the franchise. The Browns (1-5) snapped their 11-game losing streak Sunday with a 34-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Since their rebirth in 1999, the Browns have earned only two winning seasons and one playoff berth.
“I think Jimmy has a lot of views of how he’s going to bring that franchise to life and really take it to another level,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “It’s a great franchise. It’s a great tradition in the league and that’s something that’s really valuable to build with. But he wants to take it to the next level, and that kind of energy is only good for the fans and only good for the NFL.”
In 2008, Haslam bought a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, a reported 12.5 percent. Haslam said he is in the process of divesting his share and expects it to be sold by the end of the year. Haslam, a native of Knoxville, Tenn., learned valuable lessons from the Steelers and recently visited with other owners, including Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, to gather advice.
“I do think having been around our organization, he’s got some knowledge of what goes on, how an organization makes certain kinds of decisions, so it certainly, I would think, will help him as opposed to being somebody that maybe just comes in completely fresh with no experience,” Steelers President Art Rooney II said. “He certainly was somebody who took a very active interest in our franchise and tried to understand what was going on and spent the time to learn. So I’m sure that’ll provide some benefits to him, at least in the early years.”
Haslam, 58, has already displayed a hands-on approach to ownership and proved he’s all in with the Browns by hiring PepsiCo’s John Compton to assume his old role of CEO of Pilot Flying J and buying a house in Bratenahl. Since August, Haslam has regularly attended practices at the team’s practice facility in Berea and has watched all of the regular-season games in person. Lerner, on the other hand, avoided the spotlight.
“This isn’t any kind of indictment on how things have been done previously, but [Haslam’s style is] very much welcomed and there’s a certain presence and a certain energy that he brings, a certain level of accountability just by his mere presence here,” Browns kicker Phil Dawson said. “Has it been a distraction? No. Has it been welcomed? Yes.”
Lerner, who became owner after his father, Al, died of brain cancer in 2002, will retain a 30 percent stake in the team for four years before Haslam takes complete control. Neither Lerner nor Holmgren attended the league’s meeting Tuesday, leaving Bryan Wiedmeier, the team’s executive vice president of business operations, to cast the Browns’ vote.
“He’s got an awful lot of energy and he’s very positive and that’s really what it takes,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said of Haslam. “This is a game of emotion and passion, energy and commitment. And when you have an owner that has those characteristics, it definitely feeds throughout the entire organization. So I think Cleveland’s in a very good place, and I’m sure he’ll bring in some really good people to work with.”
The Browns’ depressed fan base certainly hopes it’s compelled to applaud Haslam the way the NFL’s movers and shakers were.
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