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Browns Browns Archive The Man Who Wasn't There
Written by Dave Kolonich

Dave Kolonich

Perhaps lost in the haze of the past few months of Mike Holmgren’s arrival in Berea is the fact that Lerner is still the team’s owner.  While the Browns appear to finally be in capable hands – at least based on the window dressing of the last few months – it’s still striking that what appears to be Lerner’s best move as owner – in bringing in Holmgren - completely reduces him to a non-entity moving forward.

Yet, a stunningly huge portion of Browns Nation continues to support the man who - for lack of a better description – “fell into” owning an NFL franchise.

As for that soccer team – let’s all remember that one wasn’t given to him.

And so it goes…

I’ve made this point before: there is nothing that occurred between 1999 and 2003 that can be solely laid at the feet of Randy Lerner.  Without question, Lerner inherited a complete mess.  We’ve all read Terry Pluto’s excellent False Start - which honestly could be shelved in the Horror section of your local bookstore.

It goes without saying that the expansion Browns were ill-equipped to begin the 1999 season.  This is not Randy Lerner’s fault.

However, the issue here is found with the phrase “trying to do a good job.”  I’m all for effort, but too often Lerner’s attempts at such have been stained with a stunning lack of vision.  For an alleged businessman such as Lerner, his failure to first identify and then fix the dysfunctional system of management present in Berea – both before and after he became owner – is far too sinister to overlook.



I know from having interviewed a few hundred people in my time that it isn’t easy to cut through all the crud sometimes especially if the person sitting across from you is a good salesman. Policy and Davis and even Savage to an extent seem like “smoothies” to me. If they weren’t in football they’d probably be on a used car lot in a plaid, polyester sport coat selling lemons.

In some ways, Savage was kind of a “no-brainer” pick.  Coming from a rock-solid Baltimore organization, Savage was kind of the equivalent of a college defensive end projected to play NFL outside linebacker.  Or, in other words – he was projected to be the organizational leader – one who would emulate the success of Ozzie Newsome and return the Browns to success.

And like GWBear suggests, certainly there was some “selling” involved on Savage’s part.  However, the issue with the Savage era was not the initial hiring, but rather the complete lack of structure found in Berea throughout his tenure.  Because no one was ever clearly identified as being “in charge”, various members of the Browns’ front office became more engaged in a battle for power.

For evidence of this, just recall the struggle between Savage and John Collins.  Because the ultimate scope of each executive’s role was never clearly defined, Collins and Savage spent a good portion of their Browns’ tenure battling each other – often at the expense of the franchise as a whole.

Who’s to blame for this?  Certainly not Collins or Savage – they were simply following human nature in trying to acquire power and influence.  Without question, since there was never a legitimate authoritative presence at the top of the organization, the blame rests exclusively with Lerner.

Did he err in hiring Mangini first? Maybe, but he was so excited that a coach who had ACTUALLY been a head coach and had winning records two of his three seasons was available that he felt if he didn’t strike he might miss out. His decision was logical if a bit rash for that he can’t be faulted and it turns out the guy he hired might not be too bad.

Because of the prior power struggle, and the handcuffing of previous coach Romeo Crennel within the organization, Mangini represented everything that Lerner thought he needed at the top of his organization.  Mangini no doubt “sold” himself as the type of franchise architect – the kind that the team had lacked in previous years – and also represented everything that Lerner was not – meaning a focused, competent football person who truly had a vision for the Browns.

Of course, handing over the keys of an entire franchise to one person proved to be problematic in 2009.  Regardless of anyone’s personal opinions of Mangini – yet again it was proven that one person can’t do everything.

Again – the lack of front office structure completely ruined the team in 2009.  Because Lerner again failed to identify another top executive – again picking from the Baltimore tree in acquiring the ill-equipped George Kokinis – another power grab culminated.

A year removed from this situation – the question remains.  Can anyone blame Mangini for his 2009 actions?  Or, in other words – what else was he going to do?  Saddled with an ill-prepared GM and not having the benefit of working within a clearly-defined front office structure, Mangini was forced to assume practically every major role within the organization.

Once again – whose fault was this?

Put yourself in his shoes. If you were born rich would you give it all away so you had some feeling of self worth? I know I sure wouldn’t. You can’t dispute that he grew up a Browns fan. Fandom isn’t the exclusive birthright of the middle and lower classes, rich people like stuff too and lots of times as passionately as we do. They just have the means to pursue it whereas we for the most part don’t especially when it comes to actually owning a franchise.

Perhaps this is another problem with Lerner.  Is he too much of a fan?  And not enough of a real businessman?  Actually, strike that last offering.  The Browns franchise as a whole is an amazingly profitable operation, despite the team’s recent on-field performance.  There’s little doubt that Lerner – thanks to his family’s sweetheart stadium deal with the city – has grown richer by the day.

However, much like a fan sentiment that seeks to establish Bernie Kosar as team President, or an annual draft of nothing but OSU Buckeyes, perhaps Lerner needs to distance himself from true fandom.  While I’m not suggesting that Lerner becomes cold and detached towards his product; I do think that the franchise and fan community as a whole needs to move away from being complete homers and focus on a more progressive approach.

Or how about this?  What if Lerner wasn’t a fan?  How would people defend him?

It just seems too convenient for Browns fans to give Lerner the benefit of the doubt, solely because he grew up rooting for the team.  Would the same leeway be given to say Kosar – if he ran the team into the ground?  Claiming a passion for something is no excuse for continual failure.

Give the guy a break, he’s trying to do the right thing by the franchise and may have finally found the right people to run it for him. So he likes soccer too. It’s not a fatal flaw, a big one nonetheless but not fatal. I’d rather have an owner like him instead of one of these idiots like Jerry Jones or Daniel Snyder who keep meddling instead of trusting the people they hired to run the whole thing.

The “meddling” point is a signficant one.  Certainly, Daniel Snyder has done more damage to his team’s on-field product than any other owner in the league.  There’s no doubt that Lerner is light years away from being associated with such actions.

However, the point I’ve been trying to make for years now is that for Lerner to assume his “in the shadows” role at the top of the organization, he needs to create a functioning system first.

I’m all for “hands-off” ownership, but if there is no structure in place to support this kind of non-action, then the result will likely prove catastrophic.  Or, in the Browns case – a decade of futility will result.

As for the “soccer” comment, I fully realize that just because Lerner owns an elite soccer team, it doesn’t mean the Browns’ franchise will suffer.

However, the point is this:  the two teams are a direct contrast to each other in terms of management and structure.  Lerner’s Aston Villa club is a model Premier League team, whose head is an accomplished general manager.  Because a structure was put into place, the team has been able to improve dramatically over the past few years – and are now poised to become a major player in the world’s top soccer league.

Or, put it this way – Lerner didn’t buy a soccer club, then completely disappear like he did in Cleveland.  With Aston Villa, he helped to create a functional system – then disappeared.

The Browns, on the other hand, have never been given this same opportunity.  Because of the carnage of the early years, and Lerner’s hopeless – and devastatingly hopeful – hires, the team has been playing catch-up for close to eight years now.

Speaking of more hope, perhaps Lerner has indeed finally figured it out.

Because Mike Holmgren is trying to do what Lerner was either unable, unwilling or unprepared to do – that is, actually build a competent system of management – perhaps the Browns are finally on the path towards respectability.

And if such a thing occurs – meaning Holmgren puts this exact system into place – then Lerner can finally do what he’s always wanted to do - and probably what he’s been destined to do – which is to firmly place himself in the shadows of the franchise he cares about so dearly.

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