How All The Changes In Cleveland Came Down
By Steven King
What just happened in Cleveland?
Why did Browns owner Jimmy Haslam force out CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi on Tuesday morning?
It was a long time in the making.
In running Pilot Flying J – a national longtime travel service center that employs 23,000 people – Haslam knows how to operate big businesses. When he officially took over the Browns on Oct. 16, 2012, Haslam was a wet-behind-the-ears owner who was given Banner by the NFL to run the day-to-day operations of the team. Banner then brought in Lombardi, someone with whom he had worked. Haslam signed off on both moves.
Haslam would grow to rue the day he did that.
Haslam was unaware that Banner did not have a good reputation nationally from his days with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was viewed as being hard to work with and not a good football decision-maker. He reportedly did not get along with then-coach Andy Reid. Browns fans held their breath that the rumors were untrue and that Banner wouldn’t be coming to Cleveland. When he did come, the fans were irate, disappointed and despondent. It was a public relations disaster.
Lombardi also did not have a good reputation locally, something of which Haslam was also unaware. He worked in scouting and personnel with the original Browns during their last nine years of existence (1987-95). He was behind the unceremonious release of highly-popular QB Bernie Kosar midway through the 1993 season with the team in first place in the AFC Central. It remains one of the darkest moments in team history.
In fact, Lombardi’s persona was so bad that, following his appearance at his introductory press conference, he was pretty much shielded from the media. Banner said it was because Lombardi was “a lightning rod.” Simply put, Lombardi was viewed as someone who was dishonest and couldn’t tell the truth. Browns fans know football and have long memories. They knew who and what Lombardi is. They didn’t trust him. They didn’t like him. They had no faith in him.
Daily in the media in Cleveland, both print-wise and on talk shows, Banner and Lombardi were skewered, sometimes tremendously so. People wanted them out. The pair’s reputation was a public relations disaster the size of Lake Erie for the club and growing bigger every day.
Lake Erie became the Atlantic Ocean when, just hours after the Browns had finished a 4-12 season in 2013 with a 20-7 loss at Cleveland, first-year coach Rob Chudzinski was shockingly fired. It came just 11 months after he had been hired, making Chudzinski the first one-and-done coach in team history and one of the few in NFL history.
Chudzinski was popular with the fans after growing up in Toledo, Ohio as a big Brown fans and then going on to serve two different stints as an assistant with the team. The reaction from fans was incredibly negative. They didn’t think Chudzinski had been given a fair chance.
It was thought that, before making the decision to fire Chudzinski, Banner and Lombardi had a Plan B to immediately bring in a name coach. When the coaching search dragged on, name coaches turning down the Browns’ offer to take the job or simply declining to even be interviewed, the club’s coaching situation was viewed nationally as being “toxic.” Haslam, Banner and Lombardi were labeled as being “Larry, Curly and Moe” of The Three Stooges.
As the search continued, a completely-embarrassed Haslam reportedly put Banner and Lombardi on notice that they had better get the right man for the job or else. Meanwhile, something else was going on behind closed doors. The Browns interviewed New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for the job in large part because Lombardi – still a good friend of Patriots coach Bill Belichick from their days together in Cleveland from 1991-95 – had a strong connection with McDaniels. Haslam, on the other hand, did not like the New England assistant.
Lombardi then reportedly went behind Haslam’s back and tried to rally support for McDaniels, who eventually withdrew his name from consideration. Haslam obviously caught wind of this and became incensed. He no doubt felt double-crossed by this and viewed it for what it was, insubordination.
It’s likely that Haslam wanted to immediately fire Lombardi, but Banner stepped in and tried to defend his friend. Banner probably refused to fire Lombardi, and when Haslam went ahead and did it anyway Tuesday, Banner decided to step down as a show of his non-support. It’s also likely Haslam wanted Banner out because he had allowed such dysfunction to go on.
The Browns went on hire Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine – a virtual unknown – as the coach, and again, much to the dismay of the fiercely-proud Haslam, the club had egg on its face nationally.
That, along with Lombardi’s insubordination, proved to be the final straw. Haslam knew he had Ray Farmer, a much-respected assistant general manager who could take over for Lombardi. That’s why Farmer pulled out of the running to be general manager of the Miami Dolphins when he was on the precipice of being hired. Vic Carucci, a co-host of Cleveland Browns Daily – the Monday-Friday two-hour radio show the club produces and airs on one of its two flagship stations – lauded the move as being a good one because Farmer chose the Browns. He had no idea that Farmer was choosing the general manager job in Cleveland in place of the same role in Miami. Farmer was wooed to remain because Lombardi was going to get axed.
Haslam also knew he had the highly-regarded Alec Scheiner, who was wooed away from the Dallas Cowboys to be team president, much to the chagrin of Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones. Scheiner could run the club’s business operations in place of Banner. Thus, it made it easy for Haslam to get rid of both Banner and Lombardi. Neither one will be missed because it’s a huge upgrade at both spots, at least in the owner’s estimation.
It should be duly noted that at Tuesday morning’s presser to announce the changes, Haslam was joined by Farmer, whom the owner said was “anxious” to talk to the media. Haslam couldn’t do that with Lombardi.
That tells, in a nutshell, the whole story of what happened Tuesday in Cleveland.