July 25, 2014

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Getting to know the Browns’ Joe Banner

BEREA — The irony isn’t lost on Joe Banner.

Then again, Banner doesn’t like to lose at anything.

Joe Banner

Before he was a clothing magnate, a philanthropic force and a feared and respected football executive, Banner was a voice on sports talk radio in Philadelphia. He occupied the same airwaves that decades later buzzed with complaints and criticism — often laced with personal attacks — about the job he was doing with the Eagles, despite their 11 playoff appearances in his 19 seasons running the organization.

Banner spent two years at CBS-owned WCAU as a producer and reporter after being hired following an internship. Even without velvet pipes or a resume as a professional athlete, he could’ve made a career behind the microphone.

The short stint befits a man with grandiose ideas and divergent interests. His arrival in the radio world is illuminating.

He was simply being supportive by accompanying a friend to auditions at the Denison University station in Granville.

“I ended up auditioning as well and I got rejected,” Banner said recently in an interview with The Gazette. “So then, of course, the mission became reauditioning and convincing them they made a mistake and getting on the air.”

He did as talk show host and play-by-play announcer for the college and high school football and basketball teams.

“I had no intention of being in broadcasting or being on the radio and then they told me I wasn’t good enough and then it became something I had to do,” Banner said.

Browns fans, meet your new CEO. The man in charge of fixing all the problems you’ve grumbled about for the last 14 yards and returning the franchise to consistent championship contender. The man you’ll inevitably rip on talk radio.

“It’ll happen some,” he said.

He doesn’t take no for an answer. Finds motivation in being told he can’t do something. Can be competitive to a fault but is proud of it. And is so smart and prepared he’s had success across a broad spectrum of endeavors.

He means business

The characterizations that followed Banner, 59, from Philadelphia aren’t all flattering. Ruthless, smug, money-driven and deceptive were among the harshest depictions of a man who helped turn the Eagles franchise into one of the NFL’s most valuable ($195 million to $1.16 billion) and successful (11 playoff trips, six NFC East titles and an NFC championship from 1994-2012) despite no professional sports experience.

“That’s unfair. He’s not ruthless,” said Proskauer chairman Joseph Leccese, who brokers high-level professional sports deals and introduced Banner to new owner Jimmy Haslam. “Joe can be relentless when pursuing a goal. But he’s a very compassionate person. He’s a very ethical guy who approaches things with integrity.”

Banner redefined how teams look at the salary cap and instilled a philosophy in which young talent was re-signed early while aging veterans were often let go regardless of their contributions. He ruffled plenty of feathers inside the Eagles locker room with the cutthroat approach and his willingness to disparage players publicly during contentious contract negotiations.

“In the earlier phase I was more focused on the tough than the fair,” Banner said. “In time, I learned that the fair was at least as important and you could really kind of accomplish both and there’s a value in that.”

Agent Jack Bechta first negotiated a deal with Banner in 1996.

“He’s tough but fair. He’s a good listener,” said Bechta, who wrote a column about Banner for NationalFootballPost.com. “He will compromise, but you’ll end up compromising more than he will.”

Banner blames his competitiveness for the hard line he took in early negotiations. He credits it for his success in a plethora of projects.

“I think I was born with it,” he said. “I just have to win. I’m just not good when I don’t.

“I was frequently one of the littler or even the littlest guy on the field and there is a part of wanting to prove that doesn’t mean you’re any less tough than anybody else.”

Banner, who never let his daughter or two sons win at games, played a variety of sports at a summer camp in Maine he loved. He graduated to Denison’s lacrosse team despite being 5-foot-5.

“Size obviously is one of the areas you could grow up and feel you have something to prove,” he said. “I just always had a deep drive to prove I was good enough or prove somebody else who didn’t think I could do something wrong.”

A football mind

Banner had sold the chain of clothing stores he owned with his father, become deeply involved in charity work, particularly City Year, and was close to becoming a teacher in Hawaii when childhood friend Jeffrey Lurie offered him a job.

Lurie had just bought the Eagles despite no background in professional sports and needed someone to run the organization. Banner had never been involved with a sports franchise, but Lurie knew it had been a dream of his and believed he possessed the skills necessary to learn the ropes and climb to the top.

The pair of East Coast natives — Banner grew up outside of Boston — weren’t deterred by a lack of experience. Banner oversaw the construction of Lincoln Financial Field, which has been sold out for every game, and a state-of-the-art practice facility.

How did two guys with no NFL pedigree win in the rough-and-tumble league?

“My sarcastic answer but it’s actually not meant to be sarcastic because I really mean it is that’s why,” Banner said.

Lurie and Banner used their perspective as outsiders to hire Andy Reid, who has become the longest-tenured coach in the league. He had never been a head coach or coordinator.

“The league wasn’t even exploring where we found Andy Reid,” Banner said. “It’s not like we were brilliant, we were just looking in some places they weren’t. I don’t think if we had come through a traditional football background, with a traditional experience people running teams generally have, we would have been open-minded enough to think maybe we should consider a guy who’s just a great leader but hasn’t already been a coordinator or head coach.”

Banner will run the day-to-day operations of the Browns on the football and business sides. While his business background is impeccable, some question his qualifications to make football decisions.

He was too small to play at a serious level and didn’t spend time on the road as a college scout. But he was one of a handful of people involved in all the big decisions for the Eagles, did the research that unearthed Reid and has watched his share of game tape.

Banner will be even more involved here. Everyone in the organization will report to him, including the coach and player personnel department. If there’s a coach or general manager to be hired, he’ll do the research, put together the short list of candidates, participate in the interviews and advise Haslam.

“We’re going to create a team of people that work together and drive to consensus and make the football decisions. I’ll be in that group,” Banner said.

Those who’ve worked with Banner say Browns fans shouldn’t be worried that he’ll be helping decide which players to acquire and keep.

“I always thought he demonstrated a very thorough knowledge from a personnel standpoint,” said agent Drew Rosenhaus, who represents seven Browns. “You can tell he spent a lot of time immersing himself in the football side of things and spent a lot of time talking to personnel people that worked for him.”

A charitable heart

Warm and fuzzy would be well down the list of adjectives to describe Banner. He comes off way more bulldog than teddy bear.

But the same man who’d cut a cornerback for turning 30 had a regularly scheduled appointment reading to sick children, then worked out of his teenage son’s hospital room as he battled debilitating epileptic seizures. Jason chose brain surgery for a shot at a normal life, is doing great and looking at colleges.

The compassion of Banner is most evident in his work with City Year, a non-profit that sends teams of young adults to urban schools to teach and mentor at-risk children. He helped co-founders Michael Brown and Alan Khazei build an infrastructure in Boston, then was instrumental in the start of the Philadelphia chapter. He wore a City Year tie at his introductory news conference in Berea and will build a partnership between the Browns and the Cleveland chapter.

“We knew him as a great volunteer with a heart of gold,” Brown said. “Then we found out he has a mind of steel. It’s a powerful combination.”

Arthur Block, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Comcast Corporation, is co-chair of the Philadelphia chapter with Banner. Block recognized the traits that made Banner a force with the Eagles but not the villain blasted on talk radio.

“It’s unreconcilable. I never saw any of that. I don’t think anyone in City Year did,” Block said. “In many ways, he was the opposite of the harshest criticism.

“While he was demanding, it was appropriate and always in a very caring, very compassionate and very constructive way. He helps people do their jobs better.”

Banner gave up golf because of his long hours on the job. He dedicates his free time to wife Helaine, daughter Jill and sons Jason and Jonathan. Philanthropy that benefits children is next on his priority list, and he will use his position with the Browns to give back.

“I can almost kind of steal off a little piece of work and satisfy my sense of how to live a good life,” he said. “We have a unique opportunity by being the Browns to be able to make a difference and we’re going to utilize that. If you don’t take advantage of it, and I mean really making it part of your mission, I say shame on you.”

Banner’s competitive streak was obvious to his City Year brethren as the Philadelphia chapter competed for money from the national organization and federal grants.

“He made sure Philly got its fair share of resources and retained the best people,” Block said. “He has a genuine compassion and a genuine belief in what inner-city kids can achieve.”

“He’s a game changer for City Year Cleveland, just like he’s a game changer for the Cleveland Browns,” Brown said.

Path to Cleveland

The game changed for Banner when Lurie called in 1994.

Banner had always envisioned himself with a job that helped children. He thought he wanted to own a summer camp like the one that gave him joy and confidence, but took a detour into the clothing business. Then came an opportunity to teach in Hawaii in a life that seems perfect to many people. But Lurie made an offer too good to pass up.

Banner vacationed in Hawaii before joining the Browns and considered what might have been if the opportunity to run the Eagles had never materialized.

“I honestly do wonder this, could I have been satisfied doing that? Because it doesn’t speak to any of the kind of drive and competitiveness that’s so deeply in me,” he said. “So I suspect I would’ve done it for a short time and that would’ve been the end of it.”

He traded in the occasional complaining parent in paradise for legions of hysterical Eagles fans questioning his moves and motives. He objected to the personal attacks and his portrayal as “greedy and not as appreciative of the fans as they deserved to be,” but understood the scrutiny.

“If you can’t feel totally comfortable with any criticism of any play that’s called, trade that’s made, person you drafted, you shouldn’t do this,” he said. “If you don’t have enough toughness to take it, then you’re in the wrong job.”

“After 19 years in Philly, you can’t hurt him,” Bechta said. “You can’t stab him, you can’t slice him.”

Banner brings thick skin and a playoff pedigree to an eternally frustrated fan base. Haslam determined he was the man to reverse the franchise’s fortunes.

“He’s very bright, he works very hard, he’s very focused, very intense and he has extreme passion for bringing a winning team to Cleveland,” Haslam said.

Reports out of Philadelphia were Banner left because he lost a power struggle with Reid. Banner refutes that and insists he was seeking a new challenge. He wants to build another organization rather than maintaining one.

He’s been running on the same fuel his entire life.

“People are like, ‘It’s a whole new thing, it’s starting from scratch, there aren’t many people that have turned around two organizations, you’ll never be able to,’” Banner said. “OK, so go ahead, doubt me. Let’s see what happens.

“I’m not going to give you a big, long speech about why you’re going to be wrong, I’m just going to go try to prove it.”

Like he did 40 years ago at the Denison radio station.

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.