Anyone who’s been paying attention to the Plain Dealer’s sports page over the last two and a half years can’t have missed a significant lack of objectivity in the paper’s coverage of Eric Mangini’s tenure as head coach of the Browns, especially in the work of beat writer Tony Grossi. Over the weekend, I had a second source confirm an account of the first personal encounter between Grossi and Mangini after Mangini was hired as head coach in Cleveland that helps explain at least some of what’s behind Grossi’s unrestrained animosity for the former Browns coach.
It happened in Indianapolis at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, held from February 18-24 that year. Mangini had been hired by the Browns little more than a month before, on January 8th, and the Browns hosted a breakfast event at an Indianapolis hotel where Mangini was to formally meet the Browns press for the first time, including a meet-and-greet, an on-record session to discuss general news, and an off-record session to discuss what Mangini’s procedures would be in dealing with the press.
After shaking hands, Mangini set to begin the program by asking the reporters in the room if they’d like to start on the record or off the record. “On the record,” Grossi immediately replied. “You’re not going to pull the same crap here [in Cleveland] that you did in New York.”
Mangini, startled, replied, explaining to Grossi that he thought he had some good relationships with members of the press in New York.
Grossi interrupted, “That’s not what I heard.”
After which Mangini asked that Grossi judge him based on the personal interaction between the two instead of what Grossi had heard from others.
With that start, the conference continued, eventually reaching the subject of player injuries. Mangini explained to the group that his policy would be to report on injuries as vaguely as possible, for reasons that a sharp first grader would understand. Mangini used the example of a defensive back with a sprained ankle to explain that the more an opponent knows about the severity of an injury, the better able the opponent is to tailor its game plan around the injury, such as by targeting a hobbled defensive back in the passing game.
Grossi challenged the coach’s explanation as “disingenuous” and “bullshit,” again startling Mangini as well as Grossi’s own colleagues in the room.
Mangini nevertheless managed to speak at length about unique and complex schemes he planned to institute with the Browns defense, and about his enthusiasm for the potential that Josh Cribbs could be worked in as a safety, but these items went essentially unreported.
Only one Plain Dealer piece currently available at the Cleveland.com archives looks to have resulted from this conference, filed on February 20. The piece makes passing mention of Cribbs playing defense, focusing mainly on the Derek Anderson vs. Brady Quinn quarterback controversy and the Browns’ free agency pursuits. Another piece filed by Grossi and Mary Kay Cabot on the same day has strangely been pulled from Cleveland.com, though its lede is still pictured on Page 14 of the February 2009 web archive: “Browns coach Eric Mangini doesn’t say much, so when he does say something definitive, it bears noting.”
Grossi also spent time in Indianapolis investigating whether Mangini’s comments on the Giants running back could be considered tampering (no less an authority than Giants GM Floyd Reese shortly called it “much ado about nothing”), and filed reports on the hiring of linebackers coach Floyd Eberflus, and the Browns’ vacancy at the wide receivers coach position. Another “Browns Insider” column that looks to have been filed by Grossi (but published on the web by Jamie Turner) leads by noting that “Nobody has accused the Browns’ new management team of being warm and fuzzy,” and that “Coach Eric Mangini and General Manager George Kokinis haven’t even met most of their own players in roughly one month on the job.”
And most tellingly, Grossi published the following exchanges in his February 21, 2009 mailbag column, shortly after having met Mangini at the Combine:
Hey, Tony: Would you please quit your personal vendetta against the new Browns regime? It’s unfounded and contrived, if you ask me. Have you ever thought that the new brass may be too busy evaluating the team, free agency / trades, college players to draft, along with developing a team plan on offense, defense, and special teams with all the new coaches to have the time to satiate all your requests? Let them do their job and worry about these things later when it matters come training camp. — Kyle Chormanski, South Bend, Ind.
Hey, Kyle: I love these questions. So you’re saying you don’t care to know everything there is to know about the team? So I’m the bad guy for asking for 10 minutes of their time? These people are making millions of dollars a year to build a football team. Shouldn’t they be expected to communicate with the customers through the media?
Hey, Tony: In your Feb. 14th Hey, Tony, you responded to a question with a lecture about how the media didn’t run Belichick out of town. What you failed to do, however, was answer his question, which was: “How come when a Browns coach doesn’t want to openly share information, he is vilified in the Cleveland press?” Please oblige. — Steve Carpenter, Charlotte, N.C.
Hey, Steve: I just feel it’s part of their job to share information — not give up the state secrets — with their customers through the media. They are running a football team, not the search for Osama Bin Laden.
Less than two months into Mangini’s tenure as head coach, readers had already identified a ‘personal vendetta’ on the part of Grossi for the coach, and Grossi basically copped to it. As far as I can tell, it’s no more complex than that Grossi figured he’d have to work harder to produce columns with Mangini on the job, for whatever reason, no matter if the columns he’d have to work harder to produce would end up being better columns, and no matter if the procedure would be better for his employer and the Browns franchise.
Folks close to the situation will say that Mangini could have been better in dealing with the press (and his players) at the start, including Mangini himself, whom everyone agrees had been making significant improvement on that front in his second year in Cleveland. And of course, reasonable people can disagree about Grossi’s impact on Mangini’s tenure in Cleveland, about the role of the press, the importance of the reporters representing the people of Cleveland in the Browns facilities every day, about the importance of tone, how the town’s view of the Browns impacts the Browns themselves, and about what we lose when a leading reporter’s grudge infects all of it.
But nobody should have to worry about these questions to the degree we do in Cleveland with Grossi on the beat. No head coach should have to start with any team’s press the way Eric Mangini had to start with the Browns’ and Grossi here.