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Haslam again CEO of Pilot Flying J; calls it his “first love”

By Pat McManamon

If there was any lingering doubt that the Browns now belong to Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, Monday’s news out of Knoxville, Tenn., that owner Jimmy Haslam will return to Pilot Flying J as CEO pretty much confirms it.

This in and of itself is not catastrophic.

Several NFL owners have other jobs that demand their time and attention. Not all of them are away from the town where they own the team, but the Browns are always a little unique.

But … it is interesting.

Especially when Haslam tells the Knoxville News that he returned as CEO of Pilot Flying J because he was returning to his “first love.” As everyone knows, the first love is the deepest.

This decision came five months after Haslam resigned as CEO of Pilot. He had other business interests, and he had just purchased the Browns. At that time his wife Dee said that “there is no way that Jimmy could continue at the pace he was keeping and have a life.” And Haslam added: “And a wife.”

Back in September Haslam hired the former president of Pepsi to take his place. That CEO now becomes an adviser with Pilot and the Browns and Haslam’s other businesses.

If this seems like some abrupt shifting, it might be. Then again, not many of us are that acquainted with corporate board rooms and their inner workings to know exactly what goes on there other than the tables are long and shiny and usually dark. So Haslam no doubt had his reasons for both decisions.

Too, the team assured the public at large the decision would not affect Haslam’s involvement with the Browns or the city. Which clearly makes everything OK.

So, there’s that.

But the kind-of-conflicting statements might prompt some head-scratching among fans who already have dealt with an owner who had a soccer team in England. Calling Pilot a “first love” may be completely understandable given Haslam’s rise with the business, but it won’t ease any concerns that it might mean Haslam will run the Browns with his mind a little bit on Pilot.

The flip side: It’s tough to see a guy who spent $1 billion on a team and bought a lakefront home in Bratenahl totally withdrawing from said team. So Haslam will remain involved. He’ll just go back to the faster pace his wife referred to back in September.

Clearly and most important, Haslam feels comfortable with the management team he has hired to run the Browns.

And on the football end that team is led by Banner and Lombardi.

Banner left the Eagles last fall saying he wanted a new challenge and to build an organization. Word from Philadelphia was that he was forced out because he was stepping out of his expertise as a business guy, and into football.

So he quit, somehow was partnered up with Haslam — an NFL management specialty … think Randy Lerner and John Collins — and became CEO when Haslam bought the team. That was the second-worst kept secret in NFL circles this past year. The worst? The one that Lombardi would be the guy picking the Browns players, a secret denied over and over by the principles but one that naturally came together in the few days leading up to Lombardi’s hire.


In the Browns power structure, Banner will have input on players. A lot of input. Perhaps even final say. The team talks consensus and working together with coach Rob Chudzinski and all that, but when it comes to salaries and last word the road map leads to Banner.

It can work of course, and the new crew deserves a fair chance and to be judged on the moves they make and will make.

But the facts are the facts: The Browns are in the hands of a business guy turned CEO/football guy and a personnel guy who spent the last several years analyzing on TV.

Only in Cleveland?

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