Browns owner Jimmy Haslam insists there’s no reason for fans to panic about him resurrecting his role as CEO of his family’s truck-stop empire.
A month after Haslam struck a deal in August to buy the Browns from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion, he hired former PepsiCo President John Compton to fill his shoes as CEO of Pilot Flying J. But on Monday, Pilot Flying J announced Haslam would re-establish himself as its CEO, and Compton would become a strategic adviser to the travel-center company, the Browns and the Haslam family.
The news has prompted some to question Haslam’s commitment to the Browns. However, during a phone interview Tuesday night with the Beacon Journal, Haslam vowed to remain involved in all of the organization’s key decisions, including those made this offseason in free agency and the NFL Draft.
“You can assure everybody we’re going to be extremely involved,” Haslam said. “One, we have a huge investment. And two, I think more importantly, we want to win and we want to bring a winner to Northeastern Ohio and Cleveland. We believe that’s very doable.”
After Haslam’s purchase of the Browns was unanimously approved on Oct. 16, he referred to former Browns President Mike Holmgren as the team’s “de facto owner” because Lerner wasn’t as visible or as involved as most of his counterparts. Now questions are being raised about whether new Browns CEO Joe Banner will become, well, a de facto owner while Haslam runs Pilot Flying J, which is based in Knoxville, Tenn., and ranked by Forbes as the sixth-largest private company in America.
Haslam, though, pointed out he was hands-on with the Browns this past season despite serving as Pilot Flying J’s CEO through Dec. 31.
“I’m not saying everybody will agree with every decision we made,” Haslam said. “But hopefully they could see we were very involved, very hands-on and cared deeply about the Cleveland Browns, Northeastern Ohio and restoring a winning tradition to the area.”
On Monday, Haslam told the Knoxville News Sentinel that running the business his father founded in 1958 is his “first love.” He said he appreciates Browns fans voicing their concerns because it proves they’re passionate about the team, but he promised there’s no need to be alarmed.
“See, that’s where I grew up,” Haslam, 58, said of Pilot Flying J. “You have to remember I’ve worked in the family business since I was 13 years old, OK? And I realized when I stepped aside how much I liked it. … Hopefully a lot of the fans have been around me enough to know that we want to win. And we want to do it the right way, and we want to bring a winner to Cleveland consistently for a long period of time. I’m more committed to that now than I was Aug. 3 [during his introductory news conference].
“I think I have a lot to learn as a rookie owner, but I think I know a lot more now than I did on Aug. 3. And I should know a hell of a lot more a year from now than we do now, right? I think that’s how life is and how things work. … I think I said early on Aug. 3 I was going to split my time between Knoxville and Cleveland, and that’s no different.”
Haslam said he won’t attend the NFL Scouting Combine, which will run Feb. 20-26 in Indianapolis. Free agency will begin at 4 p.m. March 12, and the draft will run April 25-27.
“But I never planned to go to the combine,” Haslam said. “The football guys will go to the combine, and we’ve already begun our planning for both free agency and the draft. … I can assure you [Vice President of player personnel] Mike Lombardi and Joe Banner and the team are working extremely hard to evaluate free agency and the draft. I will be involved at the appropriate time in those decisions.”
Haslam said he’ll also attend the upcoming owners meeting, which will run March 17-20 in Phoenix.
“There’ll be no difference at all,” Haslam said. “Hopefully you felt that we were involved in the proper role this past season, and I anticipate our role being even stronger this season because we really didn’t assume full ownership till mid-to-late October.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. 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.