CLEVELAND: Browns owner Jimmy Haslam made his way through the home team's locker room Sunday afternoon with a huge grin on his face. He paused to shake the hands of several players and to embrace a few others after his new team beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-14.
Before he walked away, the Tennessee businessman with the southern drawl looked each player in his eyes and spoke a few words of encouragement.
“[Haslam] just said ‘great play’ and ‘keep doing your thing,’ ” cornerback Joe Haden said of his brief conversation. “Then he went over to [safety] T.J. [Ward] and said, ‘keep hitting ’em.’ ”
To younger players like Haden and Ward, it means a lot to them to have their boss go out of his way to voice his appreciation.
“He’s just so into it,” Haden said. “He comes down here and we’re so happy to see that positive energy. [We] just like to be around the dude.”
Haslam spoke with Steelers President Art Rooney II on the field during pregame warm-ups. He still owns a stake in the Steelers (reportedly 12.5 percent, which he’s in the process of divesting), but it’s clear where Haslam’s loyalties now lie.
“It wasn’t pretty, but a win’s a win,” said Haslam, who purchased a share of the Steelers in 2008. “We’ve been on the other end of some of those. It’s good to see the guys finish strong and get a win.”
Since agreeing to buy the Browns for about $1 billion on Aug. 2, it quickly became clear that Haslam gets his new adopted town. When he officially took over the team from longtime owner Randy Lerner in mid-October, Haslam talked about the importance of beating the Steelers and winning in the division.
“It’s a great win, a great way to start,” he said. “Think about it: in our division we played the Ravens tough both games, but lost. We split with Cincinnati and won one with Pittsburgh with one to go. You gotta start by winning games in your division — and I think we’ve made some progress there this year.”
Haslam also understands the blue-collar, championship-starved fans.
“You know, the biggest thrill was to see who was leaving early — the Steelers fans,” Haslam said of those with their Terrible Towels. “Because I was here that cold night, that Thursday night [Dec. 10, 2009], when the Browns won. So it was great to see our crowd and what tremendous crowd today. Not just in numbers, but in noise. To see everybody stand and cheer at the end was great. I’ve said all along, we have the best fans in the country.”
It was those long-suffering fans that helped put the kibosh on the marketing folks’ idea to distribute inflatable white flags before the game in an ill-advised attempt to equalize those infamous twirling yellow towels.
Haslam said he was “not involved in that decision,” but was quick to put perspective on the situation.
“To me, that’s much ado about nothing,” he said. “The important thing is we won a very important game against one of our big-time rivals.”
If Haslam has his way, soon all the silly off-the-field distractions that become a big deal without anything else to focus on will soon fall to the wayside, overshadowed instead by his team’s play.
“Everything in life, and particularly in sports, is about momentum and confidence,” he said. “This [win] gives our guys confidence. Granted, [the Steelers were] playing with their third-team quarterback. But that’s a very good, very well-coached football team that we beat.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.