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The Suburbanite
  • New Browns duo brings promise of progress

  • A look inside the minds of Joe Banner and Jimmy Haslam. What do they understand? What can’t they possibly know?

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  • Far above the clouds, on the side where an overcast day is a shimmer of blue and white, Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner flew from Chicago to Cleveland.
    What lurked beneath is known to them, but has not been experienced.
    They and anyone with a pulse can sense the pain in Browns Town. It is highly doubtful the new big bosses can feel it.
    On the ground, we set out on the road from Canton to Berea to meet them. Along the Ohio countryside, the forested landscape was tinged in orange pastels suitable for Paul Brown and Otto Graham emerging through the trees as elusive ghosts.
    On this side of the clouds, the overcast day looked dank and gray, the colors of the expansion era.
    Those who have lived here know that beneath scant sprinkles of hope are cold, dry, enormous roots of misery.
    Haslam, with the effervescence of a favorite-son senator, and Banner, with the icy countenance of a tax lawyer, now merge with this singular environment.
    Neither is willing to say how long it will take for the roots to take on water and send up any fruit. Banner, smart in sensing clichés are a loser on this stage, took a chance on a key observation.
    This isn’t another dreaded five-year plan, is it?
    “If it takes that long,” the new CEO said, “I’ll be in a straitjacket.”
    The Browns have records of 4-12, 5-11, 5-11, 4-12 and 1-5 during this five-year block in progress.
    Progress?
    “It’s not something that gets done in a couple of minutes,” Banner said.
    Haslam practically guaranteed Banner as the deliverer of better times. Glancing at Banner’s wife, Haslam talked of getting to know his new CEO over the last few months.
    “Joe and Helaine probably thought I was crazy,” Haslam said. “I checked out Joe as thoroughly as anybody I ever checked out.”
    Haslam has made a career out of scouting potential executives to run the Pilot Flying J travel-center empire that has enabled him to pay cash for a football team with a $1.1 billion price tag.
    Haslam and Banner aren’t the biggest football guys in the NFL. Haslam was a rather fast high school running back in Knoxville, Tenn., but it has been more than 40 years since he wore shoulder pads.
    Banner calls sports in general “a phenomenal microcosm of life,” but his was no football life for the longest time. He was a big Red Sox fan when he grew up in Boston. Then a friend chanced to put him in to Denison College in Ohio.
    He played lacrosse at Denison. That’s not football, but maybe it is somehow poetic. Jim Brown played lacrosse at Syracuse. Bill Belichick played lacrosse at Wesleyan.
    Page 2 of 2 - Poetry can uplift. It can be tragic. Brown played for Cleveland’s 1964 NFL title team. Belichick was the last head coach before a past owner hijacked the team to Baltimore.
    Banner will have a big voice in deciding the fates of head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert. Those three worked together in the Eagles franchise through much of the 2000s. Haslam will have final say.
    Both say Shurmur and Heckert will be evaluated at the end of the season. It doesn’t sound as if the coach or the GM will get any “hometown discount” in the evaluation.
    “You need to fill the organization with the best people in the business,” Banner said, “if you want to be the best in the business.”
    Banner parlayed a friendship with Eagles owner Jeff Lurie into a job with the franchise in 1995. He became president in 2001 and held the job through 2011.
    The Eagles weren’t the best team, but they were one of the better ones. Their records with Banner as president were 11-5, 12-4, 12-4, 13-3, 6-10, 10-6, 8-8, 9-6-1, 11-5, 10-6 and 8-8.
    In that time, the Browns have been 6-10 or worse eight times.
    Both Banner and Haslam did a lot of kissing up to downtrodden customers in their remarks.
    “I know these fans have been through a lot of hopeful starts,” Banner said. “I don’t want to sit up here and be the next promiser.
    “Actions will speak louder than words.”
    Banner, incidentally, used to own a chain of clothing stores in the Boston area.
    He arrived Wednesday in a dark striped suit with a Browns helmet pin on the lapel, a white cloud of a shirt and red tie.
    He knows his stuff in the clothes world, but even those who don’t are on the mark in supposing no one ever looked good in a straitjacket.