BEREA, Ohio -- As Eric Mangini packed picture frames and two years of football into boxes, Browns president Mike Holmgren already was looking for the coach's replacement.
One day after another lost season, the search was underway in Cleveland for a new coach, one who, as Holmgren put it, "can eventually someday lead us to the championship. That is my only goal."
|Eric Mangini posted back-to-back 5-11 seasons as the Cleveland Browns' coach, leading to his firing Monday. (Amy Sancetta/Associated Press)|
For now, Holmgren doesn't have his own name on it. That could change.
Granted a second season by Holmgren, Mangini was fired Monday, dismissed less than two years after being hired by owner Randy Lerner, who was convinced he had found the next Bill Belichick. The Browns went 5-11 for the second consecutive season, and although they showed some significant progress under Mangini, it wasn't enough.
During a morning meeting, just hours after an embarrassing 41-9 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Holmgren thanked Mangini for his efforts. Then he told the coach his time was up.
"It's difficult," Holmgren said. "I've never had to do this before. I like the man a lot. But I want to win here. We want to win here. We did not win enough."
At 10:04 a.m. ET, the Browns released a statement announcing the coaching change. By 11 a.m., Holmgren was sending request forms to NFL teams asking permission to speak with their coaches. Holmgren didn't reveal names of any potential candidates.
Holmgren's search will not be limited to those coaches with pro experience or ones favoring a West Coast offense. And he doesn't have a timetable to name the Browns' fifth coach since 1999. Money, he said, is no object.
Just weeks ago, Holmgren, 62, hinted about a return to coaching. He hasn't ruled it out, but the former Packers and Seahawks head coach, with three Super Bowl visits on a sparkling 17-year Hall-of-Fame-worthy resume, insists he's enjoying his executive role. Yet the bug hasn't completely left, and Holmgren might coach again.
"I'll always be a coach," he said. "Heck, people in the building call me Coach. To tell you right now that I would never coach again, whether it's here or any place, that probably wouldn't be honest. As of right now, I am the president of the Cleveland Browns, and my job is to find the best coach available, the right coach for this job. That's what I am trying to do, and that does not include me right now.
"I probably won't coach again, but I don't want to lie to you -- ever."
Holmgren hasn't yet spoken with Fox, whose contract wasn't renewed by the Carolina Panthers, or Gruden, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach and current ESPN analyst who worked under Holmgren with the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers. Mornhinweg, the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator, also came from the Holmgren coaching tree and is a close friend. All are probable targets.
Interestingly, Holmgren, Fox, Gruden and Mornhinweg are represented by the same agent, Bob LaMonte.
Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert will serve as the Browns' point men in the search that the team president described as "pretty wide. We're not limiting ourselves in any way."
If Holmgren can't land one of his preferred candidates, it's possible he will relocate his office and slide in as Cleveland's coach. It would be a seamless transition, but that's the backup plan. For now, Holmgren is entering his first coaching search hoping it will be his last.
"I don't want to do this again," he said. "Historically, if you look at teams that don't have to do this very much, they've been successful. It's very, very important that we get this right."
The Browns haven't gotten it right with a coach since returning to the league; Mangini followed Chris Palmer, Butch Davis and Romeo Crennel on Cleveland's coaching carousel. The instability up top and lack of continuity perhaps best explains the Browns' 64-129 record and one playoff appearance since their rebirth in 1999.
Mangini's two seasons in Cleveland were marked by losing streaks, flickers of hope, key injuries and far too much drama for a franchise still looking for a foothold 12 years into its expansion era. The Browns didn't have any luck, either.
All three quarterbacks suffered high-ankle sprains this season, with injuries to Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace pushing rookie Colt McCoy into the starting lineup at least one year early. McCoy was supposed sit and learn, but he handled the assignment like a seasoned veteran, and when the Browns stunned the New England Patriots on Nov. 7, it appeared Cleveland had arrived.
Instead, the upset only triggered a slide. The Browns went 2-6 down the stretch, losing their final four games. Cleveland struggled in close games, going 3-9 in tilts decided by 10 points or less. Sunday's loss dropped Mangini to 2-10 in the AFC North.
Holmgren was left with little choice but to cut ties with Mangini, who has two years left on a contract worth a reported $8 million. Mangini's assistants remain under contract. Holmgren gave them the rest of this week off and will meet with the staff again next week. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan might interview for the Panthers' open position.
After being fired for the second time in just over two years, Mangini addressed his team one last time for nearly 20 minutes.
"In football, you go with through a lot of emotions with people, from laughing to crying to being angry to jubilation," tight end Benjamin Watson said. "It's definitely not a time to just say bye. I know it was tough for him. It was tough for us to hear it. But when you sign up for football, that's kind of how it goes."
Mangini was followed into the room by Holmgren, who didn't provide any clues about who will take over the job. He challenged the Browns to improve during the offseason, a message that McCoy, who spent time in Holmgren's office this season analyzing film and his throwing mechanics, took to heart.
The trials of an eventful first pro season weren't lost on McCoy. The former University of Texas star rose from third-stringer to perhaps the Browns' future quarterback. He'll begin his second year with a second coach.
"I've never been through a coaching change -- junior high, high school, college," McCoy said. "It's new territory for me, new ground. But it's something that being in this business, being in the NFL, I've learned so many lessons just in my first year. This is just one more thing that has happened."
In Cleveland, it happens quite a bit.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press