By TOM WITHERS AP Sports Writer
BEREA, Ohio — Serious. Credible. A leader. In Mike Holmgren, Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner hit the trifecta he desperately wanted.
Holmgren, who returned Green Bay to prominence and raised Seattle’s profile during his NFL career, today accepted an offer to become president of the Cleveland Browns, a tradition-rich franchise needing a major makeover after a decade of losing and front-office incompetence.
Lerner said he reached a preliminary agreement with Holmgren, a Super Bowl-winning coach who brings immediate credibility to the down-and-out Browns.
“We are pleased to announce that Mike Holmgren has agreed to join the Cleveland Browns,” Lerner said in a statement. “We will spend the rest of the week finalizing the details of the agreement and will make a formal announcement next week.”
As part of a front-office shakeup, Lerner said current president Mike Keenan will become the club’s chief financial officer.
The 61-year-old Holmgren is coming to Cleveland strictly in an executive role. Last week, he indicated his job offer with the Browns could include a return to the sideline. But Holmgren will remain upstairs and serve as the camera-shy Lerner’s top executive.
With his trademark mustache and distinct, rounded features, Holmgren is the new face of the Browns.
While embraced by Cleveland fans, Holmgren’s arrival could be trouble for coach Eric Mangini, who is just 3-11 in his first season. Holmgren, who will likely bring in a general manager to oversee personnel decisions, may also replace Mangini.
But with Cleveland’s 41-34 win over Kansas City on Sunday, Mangini may have strengthened his chances of staying and will have two more games to impress his new boss. Mangini is convinced he has the Browns, who have lost at least 10 games in six of the past seven seasons and made the AFC playoffs just once since 1999, headed in the right direction.
Mangini can only hope Holmgren agrees or it will be one-and-done for him in Cleveland.
Holmgren refused to speculate on Mangini’s status last week during a radio appearance. He praised Mangini’s coaching ability and work ethic, and said he would give any coach a chance, especially one in his first season. Holmgren cited Bill Parcells’ firing of Cam Cameron in Miami when the former coach took over as the Dolphins’ “football czar.”
“Those types of decisions, the tough decisions, sometimes they aren’t fair,” Holmgren said. “But I would do everything in my power to make sure it’s the right one and that everyone gets a chance to prove themselves.”
Interestingly, Holmgren’s agreement with the Browns came exactly one year to the day after he coached Seattle to a 13-3 win over Mangini’s New York Jets, essentially ending the Jets’ playoff chances and finishing off Mangini, who was fired following last season.
Holmgren said he was intrigued by the opportunity to join Cleveland because of the absence of “layers” between him and Lerner, who in November announced he was looking to add a “serious, credible leader” to his organization. Holmgren spent two days meeting with Lerner last week and came away impressed by the owner’s passion to win and what he learned about the Browns.
On Saturday, Holmgren turned down a front-office position with the Seahawks, whom he coached for 10 seasons, serving four as GM and coach.
Holmgren stepped down as Seattle’s coach after last season to spend more time with his family. However, the chance to rebuild another franchise was too much for him to resist, and he’s coming out of semiretirement to take on the Browns, who haven’t had anyone of his renown on board since their expansion return.
“The challenge of rebuilding is kind of in my blood,” Holmgren said last week.
During his Monday news conference, Mangini was again put in the uncomfortable position of having to address speculation about Holmgren, who led the Packers to two Super Bowls and taking the Seahawks to their only appearance.
“I’m really focused on the group and getting them ready to play,” Mangini said before the team announced its deal with Holmgren. “As far as a timeline or any of the other things, it’s not what I’m doing or concentrating on. It’s not what the coaches are concentrating on and not what the players are concentrating on.
“What I’m looking to do is coach the team. That’s it.”
The Browns beat the Chiefs with record-breaking performances by running back Jerome Harrison and kick returner extraordinaire Josh Cribbs.
Harrison rushed for 286 yards, breaking Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown’s team record and posting the third-highest total in league history. Cribbs returned kickoffs 100 and 103 yards in the first half, matching the single-game mark and setting the career record with eight touchdown returns.
Following the game, Mangini got an endorsement to remain as coach from Brown, who serves as an executive adviser to Lerner.
“Of course I think he deserves it from Jim Brown’s point of view,” said Brown. “What I’m looking at is an improved team. A lot of young people that we don’t even know are playing good football. I don’t know the politics behind the scenes. I’m not going to contradict (Lerner). Right now we’ve won two in a row and I think it’s proven there is direction.”
Not long before announcing Holmgren’s hiring, the Browns were informed that former GM George Kokinis had filed arbitration with the NFL claiming he was unjustly fired. Kokinis was dismissed on Nov. 2 after nine months on the job. He is seeking more than $4 million in compensation and damages.
Browns general counsel Fred Nance said the team was aware of Kokinis’ filing.
“We’ve received it and are reviewing it,” Nance said through a team spokesman.