CHICAGO -- Something was out of place on the third floor of the Marriott hotel in downtown Chicago. Upstairs, 32 men in expensive suits were making Jimmy Haslam one of their own with a unanimous vote approving the $1 billion sale of the Cleveland Browns. Down the stairs from there was the media room, where a gaggle of reporters in department store dress shirts were waiting to talk to him. In between was a guy wearing a Jim Brown replica jersey.
Phil Stokes was not here for an interview. He was not here to photo bomb the NFL Network. All Phil Stokes wanted was a glimpse of Haslam as he walked by and to be a part of the moment. Phil Stokes is a Browns fan.
"It's a banner day in Cleveland Browns history," Stokes said. "I had to be a part of it. If I get a chance to shake his hand, just see him, just to say 'go Browns' to him, I would love that opportunity."
Browns fans have had a tortured experience. Winning seasons and playoff appearances are the exception. The team has made the playoffs and recorded winning seasons just twice since 1990. The Browns became a staple of bad jokes and crutch for lazy football writers.
After years of kicking fans in the gut, fate aimed a little lower in 1995 when Art Modell announced a deal to move the team to Baltimore, where it would become the perennially successful Ravens. At issue was a stadium, the usual cause of a divorce between a team and its city. Lost in the custody battle are the fans.
Al Lerner brought the Browns back in 1999. Cleveland built a stadium. The NFL let the team keep its records and its roots, which unfortunately included losing records. Fans rejoiced at having their team back, but even Browns fans have a limit to their patience.
"The fan base has wanted a winning Cleveland since 1965, and hasn't seen one," Stokes said. "With the team leaving in '95 and getting a new team back in '99 we expected a winner. We expected what we had in '95 to be back on the field in '99. When that didn't happen, it put a lot of pressure on ownership, on the front office, on the coaches and on the players."
Owners matter in professional sports, especially in the NFL. Throughout the fall meetings here in Chicago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Jimmy Haslam and others repeated the words "active" and "involved" over and over again.
"We're going to work hard," Haslam said of his commitment to building a winner. "Nobody is going to work harder than us."
"We all know Jimmy and his family and their passion for football, their tremendous business acumen and what we think they will bring to the NFL and to the Cleveland Browns in particular," Goodell said. "Cleveland Browns fans should be very excited."
Early in the process of buying the Browns, Haslam made a second home in Berea. He talked to the media. He made the rounds at training camp. In the preseason, he joined the most die-hard fans in the Dawg Pound, albeit without any face paint.
The move resonated with fans, enough to convince one to stand around a hotel lobby for a glimpse at the future.
"Seeing him in the Dawg Pound in the preseason, seeing him interviewed in the media, getting the Browns out there, I think it's huge from a PR standpoint," Stokes said.
The Browns previous owner, Randy Lerner, did not enjoy the same reputation. Many cite Lerner's lack of involvement as a primary cause of the team's recent struggles.
Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports noted that it was hardly the league's best-kept secret:
Lerner's son is more interested in soccer, having developed a love for the game when he was in college and then buying Aston Villa of the English Premier League in 2006. Randy Lerner was an absentee NFL owner in a league that wants active owners.
"Al Lerner was certainly involved in the team and certainly wanted to be part of the team," Stokes said. "I think his death in 2002 propelled us to where we are today. Randy has never really been present. You never would have seen him sitting the Dawg Pound. I know his mom was present on game days, but the owner was nowhere to be found. That can have a negative impact on your team and your organization."
Haslam talks to the media at the NFL owners meeting, photo via Ryan Van Bibber - SB Nation
Change started immediately in Cleveland. The new owner accepted team president Mike Holmgren's retirement this week and announced Joe Banner as the incoming CEO. The team's new executive will answer directly to Haslam.
"We're going to be involved, but involved in the proper way," Haslam acknowledged. "I had five people that reported to me at Pilot Flying J. They're all smarter than I am and they're all better at their role than I am, and we let them do their jobs. On the other hand, we question them, we push them, we challenge them, we hold them accountable."
Haslam will start slow with physical and personnel changes to his team, promising to evaluate the rest of the staff after the season. Bringing more urgency, more energy to the Browns will not wait. That's where the real changes in Cleveland begin.
"Any time there is an ownership transfer, though, there is a new generation of leadership and focus," Goodell explained. "Jimmy has a lot of views on how he is going to bring that franchise to life and really take it to another level."
"I'm hoping to see an attitude of winning, a culture of winning in Cleveland," Stokes said.
Stokes and other fans see the new owner's energy and involvement as the first step toward improving the product on the field. They see that organizational vigor as a lure for free agents, the best and brightest coaches.
Haslam himself was quick to acknowledge that all the other changes, from the uniforms to the stadium, were secondary compared to building a winning team.
Cleveland fought through injuries and mistakes last Sunday against the Bengals, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter for a comeback win, the team's first win of the season. Haslam was there for it. He wants it to be the template for every game his team plays.
"Walking out of stadium was remarkable to me," Haslam said of his experience following Cleveland's Week 6 win. "Like I said to my wife, ‘I feel like I'm in Pittsburgh and we just won the AFC Championship.' We want to create that kind of environment."
The Browns have 10 more games left to play this season. Odds do not favor them as a contender for the Super Bowl, the AFC North or even a Wild Card spot, but at least the team is now on a new path forward.
Haslam radiated excitement when he saw a Browns jersey here among the suits. Stokes shook the new owner's hand. They talked for a moment like two fans meeting in a faraway place.
"It's a huge day in Browns history," Stokes said.