Holmgren says goodbye, but stays … for now

BEREA, Ohio — Jimmy Haslam spoke very highly of Mike Holmgren when he bought the Cleveland Browns, but he never spoke to him about a job.

Holmgren said Tuesday that there were no discussions about a credible role that would keep him with the team.

“It hasn’t been talked about,” Holmgren said at a news conference that felt like a presidential goodbye that came sooner than Holmgren wanted. “And I understand that.”

Haslam, the new team owner, last week named former Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner as the Browns’ new CEO — and said that Holmgren will leave at the end of the season.

Holmgren said he came to Cleveland in 2009 because of previous owner Randy Lerner, and that Lerner hired him to do a job a certain way. That way would not continue with Haslam, who will be more active and involved than Lerner.

“My feelings toward Mike are strong and for the most part private,” Lerner said via e-mail. “One always wishes that more could have happened, more could have gotten accomplished. In the end, the Browns are better because of Mike Holmgren if for no other reason than because he delivered Jimmy Haslam a team with more talent and depth than the one he found when he got here.”

Holmgren, too, believes positive steps have been taken — specifically because the team has found a quarterback in Brandon Weeden. He also held his fingers perhaps an inch or so apart when he said the Browns are close to winning close games.  He admitted the record in his time was not good — and at 10-29 it’s not. But said he hopes “the table is set for the future.”

The news conference had an odd vibe. It had a guy hired to be the team president trying to explain why things hadn’t gone better, a guy who was caught up in the surprising sale of the team, a guy who understood why a new owner would want his guy.

Holmgren looked back and did not second-guess the decision to keep Eric Mangini a second year, saying it was not fair to give a coach one season. He admitted he thought for a night about succeeding Mangini as coach, but said he did the right thing by not returning because his heart was not in it.

He said the struggle to find a quarterback (through guys like Jake Delhomme and Colt McCoy) is an annual thing until the team finds one. He talked about three years of fixing things, and said his heart was always in trying to improve the Browns.

He didn’t say what’s next except that when the season ends he’ll go someplace warm with his wife Kathy and think about the future. In response to a question about his work ethic, he said he never slept in his office as a coach and he changed his morning routine when his wife had breast cancer in Seattle. He wanted to spend time with her, and he did in the morning.

He said he missed coaching, and did not rule out a return to the sidelines.

He didn’t say it, but he walked into a mess — the roster was ancient, George Kokinis had been ushered out, Mangini was running everything and there was no quarterback. The level of fan frustration with the losing made Holmgren a  lightning rod — in part because of his success elsewhere.

How long he’ll be with the Browns has yet to be determined. Holmgren referred to staying until the end of the season, but admitted he does not know how long the transition period will be. At times it didn’t sound like it would be long, at others he said the end of the season.

“I still have my office,” he said. “I’ve got my lunch ticket. Parking space.”

And his role now will be to support football. He said he no longer will be involved in the business operations. He stood up for his guys, saying he could not think of a better General Manager than Tom Heckert. He said coach Pat Shurmur is learning, and added: “I believe in him as well.”

But he admitted their futures are in the hands of Haslam and Joe Banner.

“This is a business,” he said, “for adults and grownups.”

When asked in a half-kidding way whether he’d changed his policy on playoff tickets — a reference to him telling the media late last season during the Colt McCoy concussion drama not to call him — he laughed, apologized and said: “It wasn’t my proudest moment.”

Holmgren’s farewell had a muted feel to it, and it was far different from the fanfare that greeted his arrival. He got three of the five years, and even with a 1-6 start there are signs that whoever takes over next season will have a team that might be on the verge of actually … well … winning games.

The reality that he is departing at the time when the team seems to be coming together was not lost on him.

“If and when the team does well I’m going to be its biggest fan … ” he said. “I will feel good and be happy for whoever’s here. … I’ll feel good about that. And think maybe (I) had a little something to do with that.”