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Lone Ranger
David Fleming
June 01, 1998
Joe Mack is laying the groundwork in Cleveland, but for how long?
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June 01, 1998

Lone Ranger

Joe Mack is laying the groundwork in Cleveland, but for how long?

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The color scheme of Joe Mack's office on the second floor of the Browns' training facility in Berea, Ohio, is easy to describe. It's gray. The walls are gray. So are the desk, the carpet, the shelves, the computer and, sometimes, the mood. It gets so quiet that you can hear the air rushing out of the vents in the ceiling.

Mack is the Browns' interim director of player personnel. His assignment is to lay a foundation for the expansion franchise that begins play in 1999 and ultimately to evaluate football talent. Appointed by the NFL in March, he arrives at work before eight each morning and has his pick of several hundred parking spaces. But a parking space is about all that Mack is guaranteed. The NFL is expected to select the team's owner in September, and that person could very well tell Mack, and whomever he has hired by then, that their services are no longer needed.

That is why, save for one handmade card from his six-year-old daughter, Colleen, who is back in Harrisburg, N.C., with her mother and two siblings, the 44-year-old Mack hasn't decorated his office or his executive apartment. "I don't want to get too attached," says Mack, an assistant general manager with the Panthers from 1994 through '96 and, before that, the director of pro scouting for five seasons with the Redskins.

For two months Mack was a football staff of one. "For a long time there really wasn't anyone to talk football with around here," he says. "The only discussions going on in this building were between me and my stomach about what to order on my pizza."

Mack usually spends 12 hours a day at the office, most of it on the phone with prospective employees. There is no shortage of people who want to work for the Browns. On this day secretary Stella Harhay has placed five stacks of pink phone messages on his desk. At least this adds some color to the place. The only other uplifting sign in the complex are two models of Cleveland's new stadium, which on their scoreboards show the Browns leading the Broncos 21-10 in the fourth quarter.

On May 15, Mack doubled his work force by hiring Phil Neri, formerly of the Saints, as his director of college scouting. By mid-June he hopes to have a scouting staff, a video director, an equipment manager and a head trainer on board. Mack, who attended a scouting combine last week in Fort Lauderdale, will then concentrate on evaluating players.

"We can't get too far ahead of ourselves," he says. "Whoever the owner is, I'm sure he's going to want to have a say in personnel decisions. Worst-case scenario, I walk away knowing I had a hand in bringing the tradition of the Cleveland Browns back to life."

The Browns are on schedule when it comes to personnel and scouting, but they're nowhere near where their expansion predecessors, the Jaguars and the Panthers, were less than a year and a half from their debut. Not only did those teams have ownership in place, but also Carolina had already hired general manager Bill Polian and Jacksonville had named Michael Huyghue its vice president of football operations. Huyghue says that "having a plan and a philosophy in place from the owner on down is the most critical thing you do" when starting a team. About 19 months before they played their first game, the Jaguars had a thick binder detailing their three-year plan to get to the Super Bowl. In their second seasons Carolina and Jacksonville each came within one win of meeting in the NFL title game.

"The Browns have lost a lot of valuable time because ownership isn't in place," says Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "Every day they're losing ground."

Mack believes the guidelines for the Browns' expansion and college drafts will be similar to those given Carolina and Jacksonville. But in light of those teams' early successes, Cleveland might have to work with a reduced salary cap, thus restricting how aggressively the club can pursue free agents.

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