Banner confident in hiring

BEREA – As hirings go, the naming of Michael Lombardi as vice-president in charge of player personnel for the Browns isn’t one of the most popular in recent sports moves in Cleveland.

Just rumors of Lombardi coming to town lit up phone lines on radio talk shows. The majority of fans didn’t hesitate in sharing the opinion that they want no part of Lombardi, who worked in the Browns’ front office from 1987-95.

No one is aware of the negativity more than Browns CEO Joe Banner. He admitted that he took a bold step in hiring Lombardi.

“Listen, I understand that I’m going out on the limb myself by hiring Mike,” Banner said. “So I didn’t do this casually. I’ve spent a lot of time personally; I’ve spent a lot of time talking to him about everything that matters before I put him in front of Jimmy (owner James Haslam) or Chud (coach Rob Chudzinski). Time will tell if it’s right or wrong, but I made (the choice) confidently and with my eyes open about the perceptions, about the realities, about my own time I spent with him. I feel comfortable with it.”

The criticism of Lombardi is due largely to the lack of success the Browns had during the tenure of former coach Bill Belichick (1991-95). Lombardi worked closely with Belichick as director of player personnel during a period in which the Browns went a combined 36-44. Their best season was when they advanced to the playoffs in 1994 with an 11-5 record and won a first-round game against New England.

The Belichick-Lombardi era was also remembered for the departure of popular quarterback Bernie Kosar. Although Belichick made the call that Kosar’s skills had diminished, Lombardi is associated with the decision.

Lombardi has long been aware of the criticism, but it didn’t stop him from jumping at the opportunity of accepting the post. He said his heart was broken when the Browns moved to Baltimore after the 1995 season. He pointed out that his two sons were born in Cleveland.

There’s no place Lombardi would rather be today than in Cleveland as director of player personnel for the Browns.

“I stand very humbled and honored to be back in the Cleveland Browns’ organization,” Lombardi said. “I think I can speak with authority. I know how passionate fans are and how important football is in northeast Ohio.

“I’m excited to show that I can do the job effectively and be part of a winning team with Jimmy and Joe. When we left in ’96 it was heartbreaking to me. I think we’ve all grown from those days. I know I have. I stand in front of you different, professionally and personally.”

Those might have been the most important words spoken during a 30-minute press conference Friday. Lombardi had issues with some people in the Browns’ front office before parting ways when the team moved to Baltimore.

“Anytime you grow older you change,” Lombardi said. “If I was the same guy I was here 20 years ago, I’d say that Jimmy and Joe shouldn’t have hired me. You have to change and grow intellectually and personally. I view change as good.”

Banner became close with Lombardi during the two seasons they worked together with the Philadelphia Eagles (1996-97). He agreed that Lombardi has made significant changes in his life and hopes that fans are willing to give him a second chance.

“There are criticisms of Mike that are warranted, based on who he has been,” Banner said. “My assessment is that he has changed. All I’m asking for is for people to give him a fair opportunity and a fresh start and make a judgment if what he’s doing here professionally and personally warrants them changing their opinion to the extent they had it.”