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Haslam is working with cautiously optimistic fan base in Cleveland

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By Steve DiMatteo

The biggest news of Browns training camp wasn’t anything that happened on the field. No, what sent shockwaves through the organization and its fan base was the news that Jimmy Haslam III, CEO of the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain, would be buying the franchise for a billion dollars.

It was a surprising move in the sense that many simply were resigned to the notion that Randy Lerner was the owner of the team without any end in sight. Fans grew increasingly bitter that Lerner was such a mystery, preferring to stay in the background, which came off as general apathy to the public.

And now that Haslam has swooped in to buy the team, Browns fans are wondering what exactly they would like to see from ownership.

So, what is the very early consensus in Cleveland regarding Jimmy Haslam III? With the disdain for Lerner’s ownership reaching an almost visceral level toward the end, one would have to assume people are welcoming this change of pace.

And, judging by his introductory press conference, Haslam is going to be anything but another Randy Lerner.

There is a belief that major changes will be coming to the organization. Like any new owner, Haslam wants to put his own stamp on the Browns, which means fans could be looking at a very different team as early as 2013.

“I think it’s a good thing. I think that Randy Lerner was too hands-off and it seems like [Haslam] is going to be a lot more hands-on, and that should be good,” said John Sammon, a Browns fan in Columbus, Ohio. “But it could be bad, too.”

When it comes to hands-on owners who might exercise their power a little too much, familiar names like Jerry Jones in Dallas, Daniel Snyder in Washington and, most notably, the late Al Davis with the Raiders come to mind.

When things are going well, it’s hard to argue with meddling, no matter how slight or overbearing it is. But when things go south, an owner on a power trip can make the wheels fall off that much quicker.

Former NFL DB Dustin Fox is currently a co-host of “The Bull and the Fox” show on FM 92.3 in Cleveland, which means he has a direct line into the feelings of Browns fans on a daily basis. For the most part, he says, fans are looking for an owner who lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum of organizational control.

“You see what happens in Washington and Dallas where these owners are meddling so much in the football side of things that it’s not always the best thing for the team, but you want to have an owner who cares, certainly has committed to winning and has patience, I think, first and foremost,” Fox explained. “I think the fans, more than anything, just want to know their owner. They want to see him and know that he’s there and that he cares.”

In that regard, Haslam has done everything right so far, at least to most people. There is still a fear among some fans that cleaning house — which would consist of replacing both the coaching staff and front office — is simply business as usual for the most dysfunctional franchise in the league.

Like the team itself, Haslam is under plenty of pressure. If he decides to really shake things up, Browns fans will be ready and willing to let him know how they feel if it’s not working out as well as anticipated, whether or not that’s fair.

“A good portion of the fans are nervous about [Haslam cleaning house] because they have seen so much turnover since the team has been back and they’re just scared to see another regime wiped out and start over completely from scratch,” Fox said. “But … this time, it’s a new owner, so he’s going to do what he has to do to get the thing turned around.”

This is why the 2012 season plays such a crucial role in Haslam’s early tenure as an owner. If the team is a complete disaster on the field, few people will raise questions about bringing in a new front office and a new system.

But it gets tricky if the Browns show tangible signs of progress, especially if they are a product of GM Tom Heckert’s draft picks and an improvement in head coach Pat Shurmur’s philosophies. To create upheaval in an organization that actually might be moving in the right direction — that certainly would cause an uproar.

At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to winning. For a franchise as tortured as the Browns, which has seen only one playoff berth since its return to the NFL in 1999 (and it was a loss to the Steelers to boot), Haslam truly just has to win.

“I would take Halliburton owning the Browns if it means [the team] wins,” said Anthony Fabiano, a Los Angeles-based Browns fan.

If that doesn’t describe the current collective psyche of Browns fans, not much else will.

Steve DiMatteo is a freelance writer based in Cleveland who currently serves as the editor/lead writer of Dawg Pound Daily. You can follow him on Twitter at steve_dimatteo.

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