Publish date:

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

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

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.

Even with an ownership decision not due until September, NFL
commissioner Paul Tagliabue says the Browns should have plenty
of time to put a competitive team on the field. He adds that all
potential owners should already be planning ahead. "I don't
think you buy a football team and then start thinking how you'd
run it," he says. "At least I hope not."

So do the fans in Cleveland.

--David Fleming

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE ONE-MAN BAND While putting together a staff, Mack just wants someone around who can talk football. [Joe Mack at desk]