Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Construction zone: There is a lot of reconstruction going on with the Browns.
Their headquarters facility is undergoing another multi-million-dollar renovation.
Their organization is undergoing another regime change in football operations.
Their team is undergoing another major change in offensive and defensive systems.
But there’s something else, too. They are rebuilding relationships that for whatever reasons were blown asunder in the four years of the Haslam Family ownership.
You can throw money at the other things to make them better. But relationships need a personal touch. And that’s how the Browns apparently are approaching the sensitive issue of repairing relations with their alumni.
Coach Hue Jackson has been the visible lead in trying to reconnect the Browns’ alumni to the team.
He invited former running back Earnest Byner to serve as a “guest coach” at OTA practices. He re-opened the doors of the facility to Browns alums and somehow got estranged former quarterback Bernie Kosar to respond to an invitation to talk to the team. He empowered franchise living legend Jim Brown with more access to current players and more responsibility as a club “special advisor.” The Browns also previously announced they would dedicate a statue to Brown outside FirstEnergy Stadium this season.
Welcome back: Relations with Browns alumni soured soon after Jimmy Haslam purchased the franchise from the Lerner Family Trust in 2012.
Alumni perks, such as complementary game tickets and regular meeting places in the stadium, were reduced initially under former CEO Joe Banner and then cut more sharply under former President Alec Scheiner. The alumni department was reorganized and suffered budget and personnel cutbacks.
Alumni felt disenfranchised from the team. A letter to Haslam authored by 1970s linebacker Dick Ambrose, now a judge of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, outlined alumni complaints that Haslam seemed oblivious to.
Ambrose and others believe that co-owner Dee Haslam has initiated improved alumni relations as a priority as she becomes more involved in the organization.
The creation of an Alumni Advisory Board has improved communications, Ambrose said. The board includes Ambrose and former players from different eras: Greg Pruitt, Ernie Kellerman, Hanford Dixon, John Thierry, Jamel White and Dave Wohlabaugh.
The board has had informal meetings with Jackson, who has impressed the alumni with his desire to bring former players back to the fold.
Ambrose said that in an informal visit to club headquarters on Friday, he felt welcome for the first time since Haslam purchased the club.
“It felt like we belonged. It hasn’t been like that for a long time,” Ambrose said. “I think there is a big difference with this head coach, more so than with any head coach since [the Browns] have been back.”
What’s to come: Beyond game-day amenities that had been taken away, Browns alums would like to see former players be considered for meaningful roles with the organization.
The Browns aren’t shy about rounding up former players for team charity endeavors. But the only former players the organization employs are Brown, special advisor; Doug Dieken, the team’s long-time radio color commentator; and Kevin Mack, a one-man alumni relations department.
“We all agree Kevin needs some support there,” Ambrose said. “If you want to get real about running a top-notch alumni department, you have to properly staff it.”
The fact that Kosar was replaced in 2014 as preseason TV analyst by Solomon Wilcots, a former Cincinnati Bengals player with NFL Network, was a symbolic blow to Browns alums who remained in Northeast Ohio long after their playing careers.
Ambrose is encouraged about the positive turn taken recently in Browns alumni relations. But he thinks more can be done.
“I just think if we take some positive steps toward developing more ties between current and former players, that would be a big step forward,” Ambrose said. “The continuity between past and present is important.
“And for me, it gives the guys an opportunity to see there is life after football in the town you play, which to me would encourage players to stay here after their playing careers. If we get more opportunities for the former players to get more involved in the current organization, that would be the right thing to do.”
Every NFL team has challenges in dealing with its alumni. The Browns should take special care of theirs.
The return of the Browns as an expansion franchise in 1999 was based on the “our name, our colors, our history” mantra of former Cleveland Mayor Michael White. Back then, the glorious Browns tradition was all the new franchise had. Seventeen years later, that’s pretty much still the case.