Browns owner Jimmy Haslam sidestepped questions during a news conference Tuesday about what role the organization’s 25-day, head-coaching search played in his decision to oust CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi and promote assistant GM Ray Farmer to Lombardi’s post, but it clearly was a significant factor, if not the deciding factor.
In a column published Wednesday on the Monday Morning Quarterback website, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King outlines two instances in which Banner either ruffled the feathers of coaching candidates or was flat-out dismissive. Those scenes, King wrote, could’ve contributed to Haslam’s shocking decision to shake up the front office.
Haslam and Banner ran the search after firing coach Rob Chudzinski the night of Dec. 29, when the Browns lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers and finished Chudzinski’s only season on the job with a record of 4-12.
The drawn-out quest ended Jan. 23 with the Browns hiring former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, a move in which Haslam and Banner might not have been in complete agreement. Following Pettine’s introductory news conference that afternoon, Banner praised the other finalist for the job, Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and lamented how difficult it was to move on from Quinn instead of waiting until after the Super Bowl to interview him a second time.
But before Haslam pulled the trigger on Pettine, the Browns talked to about a dozen known candidates. At least four of them withdrew from consideration or declined an opportunity to interview and a few others took jobs with other teams.
Former San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt accepted the Tennessee Titans’ head-coaching job Jan. 13, two days after he interviewed with the Browns for the second year in a row. Whisenhunt also interviewed with Haslam and Banner in January 2013 after the Arizona Cardinals fired him following his sixth season as their head coach and before the Browns hired Chudzinski.
According to King’s column, the following scene unfolded last month during the meeting between the two sides:
Whisenhunt asked the Browns’ brass why it didn’t hire him in 2013. Banner told Whisenhunt he didn’t think the staff he was assembling at the time was “a championship coaching staff.” Whisenhunt, an unnamed NFL source told King, became angry that Banner, who had never coached and who had been involved in football primarily on the business side, would judge his potential coaches. “Who are you to tell me what makes up a championship coaching staff?” Whisenhunt said.
A Browns spokesman said the team didn’t have a comment on the report.
Citing another unnamed source, King also reported that Banner “was cold to” former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano and “not participating much in the interview” when the Browns met with Schiano on Jan. 22. King wrote that created “a major rift in the organization” because Haslam was intrigued by Schiano after receiving a strong recommendation from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
So did any coaching candidates say they would consider taking the job if Banner or Lombardi were not with the Browns?
“I think that we got the best head coach that we could get,” Haslam said Tuesday when asked that question during the news conference. “And I’m very excited about Coach Pettine.”
Then there’s the debate surrounding whether to wait for Quinn.
The Browns conducted the first known interview of their search when they met with Quinn on Jan. 1. The Seahawks went on to advance to the Super Bowl, which they won by stomping the Denver Broncos 43-8. Banner wanted to interview Quinn again, but Quinn wanted to wait until after the big game for his follow-up meeting. Instead of waiting for Quinn, the Browns hired Pettine, who conceded he told his agent, Trace Armstrong, that he would’ve backed out of the search if it dragged beyond the Feb. 2 Super Bowl.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that [Quinn will] be an excellent head coach, so that was a tough call,” Banner said Jan. 23, moments after Pettine’s introductory news conference. “But in the end, we felt we knew [Quinn] well enough and had the chance to spend time with Mike [Pettine], went ahead and made the decision. That’s probably the toughest decision because there’s no doubt we were very impressed with [Quinn] in the interview. He’s going to be a head coach. He’s going to be an outstanding head coach. He’s got a lot of people around the league that think very highly of him, but in the end, we decided to move forward.”
So if Banner preferred to interview Quinn again, why did the Browns go another route? Were Haslam and Banner not on the same page?
“I was really committed to Coach Pettine,” Haslam said when he faced that question during the news conference.
However, Haslam was not committed to keeping Banner and Lombardi around for another season in the wake of an elongated coaching search that was anything but smooth.
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.