Dee Haslam is the real boss of the Cleveland Browns

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Co-owner of the Cleveland Browns Dee Haslam speaks onstage during the 29th Annual Leigh Steinberg Super Bowl Party on February 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Leigh Steinberg)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Co-owner of the Cleveland Browns Dee Haslam speaks onstage during the 29th Annual Leigh Steinberg Super Bowl Party on February 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Leigh Steinberg) /

The media has not caught on that Dee Haslam is quietly calling the shots now for the Cleveland Browns football organization

Like most husbands, Jimmy Haslam III has discovered that the smartest thing could ever do is to listen to his wife, and that includes the ownership functions of the Cleveland Browns. That’s good advice for any husband, but in this case, having Dee Bagwell Haslam assume a leadership role is crucial to the team’s success.

JH3 still acts as the mouthpiece of the organization and is the person the media seeks for comments on signings and hirings and firings, but behind the scenes, Dee, in her calm and unassuming way, has the organization clicking on all cylinders now.

You may not have noticed, but now when official correspondence comes from the team, it is usually signed “Dee and Jimmy Haslam” not “Jimmy and Dee Haslam.” This is not a coincidence.

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Dee — not her husband — is now chair of the Haslam Sports Group. It isn’t as though the two are constantly at odds and she is bossing her husband around, more like the couple both realize that Dee has a superior business sense for certain matters in the sports enterprises.

Dee isn’t nearly as vocal as her husband. Yet her bios on websites of the Browns as well as the University of Tennessee-Knoxville list several amazing accomplishments, such as being the executive producer and chief executive officer of the RIVR Media companies, which was nominated six times for an Emmy for their work on Whale Wars,  and twice for their work with the Trading Spaces reality TV program. Holy Cow, that’s eight nominations for an Emmy. What other NFL owner can say that?

Dee stepped down as CEO from RIVR Media in 2018 in order to assume a larger role with the Cleveland Browns.

Dee is also a member of The Academy of Television Art and Sciences, the International Women’s Forum, and the Society of International Business Fellows. She also serves on the University of Tennessee Haslam College of Business Advisory Council.

She serves on the Board of Trustees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, University Hospitals System and the United Way of Greater Cleveland.  In addition to all those honors, Mrs. Haslam also serves on the board of directors for ExcelinEd, a group focused on educating children and empowering families with choices.

There is no way around it, Dee Haslam is an organizational genius, and should be the one — and is the one — now influencing if not directly carrying out the ownership functions of the team.

Now that we have established who is the brains of the family, let us not omit the accomplishments of husband Jimmy, who is widely known as the CEO of Pilot Flying J truck stop chain. According to, Pilot Flying J has revenues of $29 billion and is ranked as the 10th-largest private company in America. Like his wife, he has an impressive list of community and civic accomplishments.

Haslam’s civic involvement, as described on the UTK website, includes service on the boards of directors for the United Way of Greater Knoxville and Lakeshore Park in Knoxville. He has also been campaign chair for United Way of Greater Knoxville, and Knox Area Rescue Ministries and Honorary Chair of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland campaign committee.

Along with his parents and Dee, he’s a co-founder of the Haslam Scholars Program for premier honor students at the University of Tennessee. But as spectacular as JH3’s resume is, his wife is even more accomplished. In the interest of full disclosure, we have never met him, but it’s certain that he would agree on that point.

JH3 has always supported the team with his checkbook. He paid top dollar for John Dorsey, Hue Jackson, Mike Pettine and other high-priced executives. Those fellows did not come cheap, especially when they got fired before their contract was up. The desire to win and the willingness to spend money to succeed should never be questioned.

You can, however, question JH3’s football sense, because his desire to win resulted in him getting involved in the wrong way in the Johnny Manziel fiasco, and he also wound up hiring both Hue Jackson and then Freddie Kitchens as his coach. Moreover, he routinely had the head coach and general manager feuding and trying to get each other fired.

Jimmy liked to trust his gut instinct, but ultimately learned that that was not enough to compete in the NFL. He has to bear the responsibility for overseeing a historically awful team that went 0-16 and 1-31

In the past, Jimmy tended to trust in strong personalities, even if it resulted in bipolar progress. The Browns have a pattern of building through the draft one year and stopping the rebuild too early. The next year they collected veterans and trading away draft picks.

A prime example is drafting Baker Mayfield one year, and trading away an offensive lineman the next year while also skimping on the tackle position (by the way, the Browns did not trade Kevin Zeitler for OBJ as many fans seem to believe; Zeitler was traded for Olivier Vernon). At the same time, they did not sign a premier offensive tackle. You can’t skimp on the offensive line if you are the Cleveland Browns and you want Baker Mayfield to be the franchise.

Dee was rumored to favor Josh McDaniels, but she put aside her own feelings and went with the judgment of the smartest man in the building, namely Paul DePodesta, the Moneyball expert. DePodesta and the Haslams put together a systematic process in which they set clear goals and most importantly agreed not to blow up the plan.

McDaniels wanted to blow up the plan immediately, proposing Belichickian control over everything including mascot Swagger, Jr. Dee, however, despite her admiration for McDaniels’ football skills, supported DePodesta who wanted Kevin Stepanski for coach and, ultimately, Andrew Berry as the general manager.

Incidentally, DePodesta was against the hire of Hue Jackson (recommended Sean McDermott), John Dorsey (recommended Scott Pioli) and against Freddie Kitchens (recommended Kevin Stefanski). Dee’s decision to defer to DePodesta was the correct one, and it says here that signing McDaniels would have been yet another disaster.

This offseason, the resolve of the new front office was immediately tested because the analytics guys were saying that linebackers are overvalued in the NFL, and the Browns had two good ones in Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey. The team absolutely loved both guys as players and human beings, but they are committed to an investment strategy that first of all focuses on offense.

On defense, they seem to prioritize defensive ends and cornerbacks rather than the linebackers, safeties, and tackles. Hence, right or wrong, the team did not allow their personal admiration for the two linebackers to overcome their belief that linebackers are generally over-valued. Their two largest investments were right tackle (Jack Conklin) and tight end (Austin Hooper), with smaller investments to fill other positions.

We are now seeing a team that is building an offensive line, for a run-oriented, tight-end-heavy, cold weather, natural turf, ball-control offense. They want to build around Baker Mayfield as a top priority, rather than see him get banged up like Tim Couch 20 years ago.

You know what? Most of these moves actually make sense.

So far this off-season, they are still missing a left tackle and some depth pieces but this unit is very close to fruition. To be sure, there are a few smaller deals that this fan did not agree with, and that will be the subject of an upcoming Dawg Pound Daily essay. Not everything is great. But in general, this team is on a winning trajectory for the first time in years.

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If the Browns ever win the Super Bowl (and, needless to say, that is a huge “if”) it will be largely due to the leadership of Dee Haslam. Jimmy will deserve a share also and may get the majority of attention in the press, but denizens of the Dawg Pound will know the role that Dee plays in the organization.