It was now a decade ago that Jimmy Haslam, at the time a minority owner in the Pittsburgh Steelers, purchased the Cleveland Browns along with his wife, Dee. While they did finally get back to the playoffs, once, and even won a playoff game, it’s hard to argue that they have exactly changed the franchise’s fortunes.
They are banking on their latest move—the blockbuster and highly volatile trade for three-time Pro Bowl quarterback and 22-time sexual misconduct-accused Deshaun Watson—completely rewriting the story of their ownership in a positive way. It will certainly rewrite it one way or another.
The Haslams first purchased a minority share in the Steelers in 2009, when the team was forced to expand the ownership group in large part due to new rules regulating owners’ interests, which led some members of the Rooney family to sell off their shares. Evidently, three years as a minority owner in the Steelers wasn’t the sort of tutorial for full-fledged primary ownership they may have counted on.
Jimmy Haslam confessed as much this past weekend during the annual league meeting as they marked 10 years with the Browns as owners. “You don’t know anything”, he said, about wielding controlling ownership as a minority owner, especially of a franchise like Pittsburgh’s, via Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.
“You go, ‘That’s a model franchise. Just do it like them’”, he recalled. “But you’re not the ones making the decisions, and the people were already in place. Kevin Colbert was already there. Mike Tomlin was already there. [Dan] Rooney was still there. So you had he and Art [Rooney II]”.
Minority owners aren’t much more than money exchangers. They wield very little sway, let alone power, particularly in an organization constructed such as Pittsburgh’s, built on a three-generation familial ownership structure coming from a football background.
Tomlin was there before Haslam even bought into the Steelers. He has already hired five different head coaches during his tenure in Cleveland, with Kevin Stefanski having the opportunity to be the first to complete three full seasons there since Romeo Crennel in 2005-2008—before Haslam was even in the Steelers’ ownership group.
They’ve had a similar amount of general managers, Andrew Berry being the latest, brought on at the same time as Stefanski. For the Steelers, Colbert is only now stepping back after being hired in 2000. Being a part of that group was, in a word or two, hands-off.
“In business, the hiring cycle is different. There are usually people to train you”, Haslam said. “The NFL is great, but you’ve all heard us say this: There’s no primer”. He even admitted, “Let’s just face it, it’s probably fair to say we didn’t know what we were doing”, calling it “a hard 10 years”.