Browns CEO Joe Banner discusses his vision for franchise, stadium in exclusive interview

By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer

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Cleveland Browns new CEO Joe Banner answers questions during a news conference in Oct. 2012, in Berea, Ohio. Banner spent 19 years with the Eagles, spending 12 seasons as president before leaving the club last season. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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BEREA: New Browns CEO Joe Banner concedes changes are inevitable as he and owner Jimmy Haslam seek ways to put their stamp on the organization.

But Banner is still in the phase of figuring out what needs to be altered and how drastic those modifications will be.

“There is a huge challenge here,” Banner said. “I consider that kind of good news because that’s what I thrive on.”

With the Browns in the midst of their bye week, Banner addressed several issues facing the franchise Thursday in an hourlong interview with the Beacon Journal. Potential changes were at the forefront of the discussion.

Coach and general manager

Banner said he and Haslam are standing by their plan to wait until the end of this season to decide the fate of coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert. There’s a widespread belief that Shurmur and Heckert will be gone at the end of this season.

“I’m aware of the perception, and it’s not fair,” said Banner, who began working at the Browns’ headquarters on Oct. 31, six days later than originally planned because of the death of his father. “We’re going to make an objective evaluation. The outcome is not predetermined. I’m aware that the perception is out there. I can’t tell you that’s not a possible outcome. But anybody thinking that that’s a predetermined outcome is on the wrong track.”

Earlier this week, Shurmur expressed hope that the new regime would look at the big picture instead of focusing solely on wins and losses.

“You want to build a team that’s a consistent winner, and sometimes building is painful,” Shurmur said. “Trust me on that. It just is. Now how everybody looks at it and how we paint that into the picture of the hard numbers, that’s for somebody else to decide.”

The Browns have a record of 2-7 and won’t play again until they visit the Dallas Cowboys (3-5) on Nov. 18. Still, Banner indicated the team’s record at the end of this season wouldn’t be the only factor in determining the futures of the coaching staff and front office.

“We’re not stuck on exactly how many games we win between now and then,” said Banner, who spent 19 years with the Philadelphia Eagles, including 12 as their president. “We’re wanting to see the qualities and the decision making at any level of the organization that we think says that person or that group two years from now, as we implement our systems, our culture, can function at a championship-caliber level.”

When evaluating coaches, Banner asks himself, “How do they lead? How do they think? How do they strategize? What kinds of players do they like? Do players grow under them? What’s the quality of their staff?”

Banner said general managers must excel at player evaluation, possess many of the same qualities he seeks in coaches and stick to their philosophies.

“Sometimes they get accused of being stubborn,” Banner said. “But I actually welcome people that have thought it through and have strong convictions about what they do.”

During his tenure with the Eagles, Banner worked with Shurmur and Heckert for 10 and nine years, respectively. He said they’re not a package deal, meaning one could be retained and the other let go.

Heckert left the Eagles to join the Browns in 2010 because he wanted final say on roster decisions. Banner admitted he was fine with the move but rejected the notion that he did not have a good relationship with Heckert.

“There was nothing negative in either my or Tom’s departure from the Eagles,” Banner said. “It was more a reflection of our desires and the organization being well structured and having a lot of levels of quality people that left it OK for that kind of move. So in that sense, I was OK with it because it was what Tom wanted and we were in good shape in terms of replacing him. But I’ve always had a very good relationship with Tom, and we like each other. That hasn’t been different and isn’t different here.”

Banner, 59, said he believes the Browns have made good moves and are on the right track.

“I’ve seen people take over a franchise in which you looked at the roster and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God. There’s nothing here to build on,’ ” Banner said. “This is not the case here. Exactly how many of those players we can build on, exactly how good some of the younger players are going to be, some of that we have to project, some of that time will tell. There’s clearly a foundation of players that you can start to add to and move forward from as opposed to needing to get to begin with.”

Banner was asked about Jason La Canfora of CBS reporting that the NFL Network’s Mike Lombardi, who worked for Banner in Philadelphia, is viewed as a candidate to help oversee personnel for the Browns.

“Well, since I haven’t even decided whether the people that are here are staying or going, I think speculation that I’m actually deciding or have decided who I’d bring in if we made a change is not right,” Banner said. “And then getting into comments about who we would be looking at if we made a change when we haven’t made a decision whether to make a change is not anything I’d engage in.”

Football decisions

Banner will be one of four or five people who are involved in making decisions about the team and its roster. And he’ll implement his philosophies on that decision-making process.

“You increase the chances of getting a higher percentage of the decisions right by having that quality of intelligence, that number of people and an open dialogue and debate to come to a conclusion,” Banner said. “You want to create consensus … because then you have everybody pulling in the same direction.”

He prefers the coach to have the ultimate authority on roster decisions. Eagles coach Andy Reid wields such power.

“When you get to the 53-man roster, who’s dressing each week, who’s playing, you certainly want to give the coach an awful lot of freedom,” he said. “Whatever he may contractually have, I think when you get down to that level, I think you really want to have the coach either deciding or having an overwhelming influence over it. But if you had somebody in personnel that was particularly strong and a coach was comfortable with that, you don’t have to etch that in stone.”

Stadium

On Sunday, Banner attended a game in Cleveland for the first time since he began working as Haslam’s right-hand man. Banner said he and Haslam have had a few conversations with architects about their ideas for stadium enhancements, but they have yet to hold any meetings.

Banner doesn’t favor the idea of adding a retractable roof to the stadium, but he said the scoreboards and sound systems would be changed eventually. He gushed over scoreboards with high-definition screens.

“I’m kind of inherently, personally, an old-fashioned, play-the-game-outdoors-and-deal-with-it person,” Banner said. “But there may be some rationale, so we’re going to have a full menu and, frankly, look at the thing from scratch on all aspects. Now clearly in the area of technology as it relates to scoreboards and sound systems, things have advanced so far from when these systems came from. I don’t want to prejudge anything, but it’s inconceivable we won’t be making some very dramatic changes there.”

Banner also said the stadium would be equipped with wireless Internet in the near future.

“We’ll have Wi-Fi in the building,” he said. “Now will we have it by next year, meaning 2013? I hope so. It depends upon how it fits into the more comprehensive changes.”

Banner was instrumental in striking deals for the Eagles’ new stadium and practice facility. He said he prefers the set-up of the Browns’ training facility to that of the lakefront stadium.

“The stadium has more variation from if you were starting from scratch what you’d like to see than what you have, and trying to figure out what to do about that will be one of our big challenges and, frankly, from a long-term perspective, is one of the most important issues the organization has to deal with,” Banner said. “You want from a player, from a fan, from a business, from a community-relations perspective, to have a stadium that gives us the opportunity to do everything the best it can be and to do so going forward, not just in the moment. We’ll have to figure that out.”

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.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.


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