Michael Lombardi made quite an impression on Browns fans during his first stint with the franchise — and it wasn’t a good one.
Cleveland’s new vice president of player personnel displayed unabashed arrogance and a confrontational demeanor while alienating almost everyone he crossed paths with from 1987-95.
With that stench hanging in the air Friday, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III and CEO Joe Banner introduced Lombardi as the final member of their revamped front office.
“I understand that I’m going out on a limb myself by hiring Mike,” Banner said. “Time will tell whether it’s right or wrong, but I made the choice confidently and with my eyes open about the perceptions, the realities and about my own time I spent with him.
“I feel comfortable with this. Please give us a fair opportunity to be proven right or wrong.”
Banner spoke so confidently about Lombardi, it was easy to forget about his less than stellar track record as a top personnel executive with Cleveland, Oakland and Philadelphia.
It also made one momentarily disassociate Lombardi from the anger surrounding the original Browns’ move to Baltimore. Ditto the distain that he and the rest of Bill Belichick’s cronies showed on their way out of town.
After a short time, though, all of those unpleasant memories bubbled back to the surface inside the Lucarelli Media Center, which Lombardi readily acknowledged.
“If I was the same guy that I was here 20 years ago, Jimmy and Joe shouldn’t have hired me,” the married, father of two said flatly. “I just ask to start clear, and if I make mistakes or you think I’m making mistakes, I have no problem with it. I’m just asking for a fair and honest chance to move forward.”
The word “fair” kept popping up throughout the late-morning news conference in Berea, but some of the statements made on the podium didn’t appear to be very “honest.”
Lombardi had one of the biggest whoppers, saying, “I always wanted to work with Joe and Jimmy.”
Since Haslam was only a blip on the NFL radar screen until buying the Browns, apparently he dreamed of being a cashier at Pilot Travel Centers.
Haslam, however, topped him by claiming the more football experts he talked to, “The more Mike’s name kept floating to the top. (They told me) ‘If you can get him, you ought to get him, and get him right now.’”
If that’s true, why didn’t any other NFL team offer Lombardi a meaningful job since he was fired by the Raiders in May 2008?
Ironically, given his slick reputation in Philadelphia, Banner came across as the most genuine of the three when assessing the situation.
Though the longtime Eagles executive praised Lombardi as “near or at the top of the quality talent evaluators in this league,” he was quick to say Lombardi lacked maturity early in his career.
“No question, he’s changed,” Banner said. “He’s very introspective now. His sense of self and his awareness of self has greatly improved — and I would not have said that about him 15 years ago when we were together in Philadelphia.
“I think he took for granted his time and experience in the NFL, and he didn’t realize it until he was on the outside looking in.”
Fortunately for Lombardi, sports fans love a good comeback story. They love a winner even more.
If the now-former NFL Network analyst can make the Browns relevant again, there will be plenty of people lining up to shake his hand. And if he does it with class, they might even slap him on the back and bark wildly in his face.
“I’m going to be 54, and as you get older, you get more comfortable in your own skin,” Lombardi said. “I think you end up deciding that perhaps your principles are more important than your ambition. I think that you find your way.
“Really, I have great passion for Cleveland. There are very few places that you want to do this. And when you find those, you do it, and I did.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.