BEREA, Ohio -- Cleveland's offseason has already begun with a disheartening loss. Bill Cowher is not interested in coaching the rebuilding Browns.
Cowher not interested
Lerner has begun interviewing for both openings and met with Cowher on Saturday night in New York. The former Pittsburgh Steelers coach and current CBS analyst told him he has no intention of returning to coaching in 2009. He asked Lerner to remove him from his list of coaching candidates.
"The explanation that he gave," Lerner said, "was that he was very focused on his kids and his life in North Carolina, and the way he's living in a noncoaching or, if you will, a civilian existence and that he wasn't finished with that."
Crennel went 24-40 in four seasons with the Browns, who entered 2008 with huge expectations but collapsed amid injuries and uneven play on offense and defense. They didn't score an offensive touchdown while losing their last six games and posted their fifth season of at least 10 losses in six years.
"I would like to thank Randy Lerner for giving me the opportunity to coach the Cleveland Browns," Crennel said in a statement. "Some progress was made in my four years here, but not enough to go forward in this position.
"The support from the community and the fans has been greatly appreciated. Though this past year has been tough, my experience in Cleveland has been a good one. I did not win enough games so I must move on. Thank you for the opportunity."
Although Crennel's dismissal had been expected for some time, Lerner waited until after the season out of respect for the 61-year-old coach and former defensive coordinator. Crennel had never been a head coach at any level before taking over the Browns in 2005.
"Romeo was a gentleman through and through," said Lerner, who met with the coach Monday morning. "He was gracious to a fault."
Crennel told Lerner he may be willing to stay with the team in another coaching capacity.
Crennel was regarded as the top coordinator available when the Browns hired him shortly after they brought in Savage. Crennel accepted Lerner's offer in the hours after winning his third Super Bowl as New England's defensive coordinator. Crennel won two previous Super Bowl rings as an assistant coach with the New York Giants.
Cowher wouldn't be the first coach to change his mind. But Lerner said he left the meeting feeling as if the door was closed.
"He wasn't coy. He spoke very clearly," Lerner said. "He was very prepared to describe his position. It wasn't a dance."
Lerner said he never talked finances with Cowher.
"It wasn't that kind of meeting," Lerner said. "This was an informal visit to get out on the table that he was not prepared to be considered a candidate. Had I heard otherwise, I would have skipped that meeting."
Lerner will abide by the league's Rooney Rule and interview at least one minority candidate. He said two interviews are being planned.
The 43-year-old Pioli began his NFL career in Cleveland as a pro personnel assistant under Belichick in 1992. He has worked his way up and is now regarded as one of the league's premier front-office executives. Savage was seen similarly when the Browns hired him in 2005, but Lerner feels Pioli has a more expanded role than Savage did while he was Baltimore's director of player personnel.
Lerner did not know when he'll interview Pioli, who may be ready to step out of Belichick's shadow.
"He's very well trained," Lerner said. "I think he's got a very attractive football demeanor. It's the right time of life for him. He's a fundamentally good guy."
Lerner also expressed an interest in speaking with Bill Parcells if he leaves the Miami Dolphins. Floyd Reese, Charley Casserly and Tom Donahoe are other possibilities to become Cleveland's next GM. Lerner has also inquired about Mike Holmgren, who stepped down after 10 years coaching Seattle, and is planning to take a year off.
"I do not plan to stop there, but I don't expect that he won't take a year off," Lerner said. "I will make a further inquiry."
Lerner is determined to get his next round of hirings right. He feels responsible for the failures of Savage and Crennel, who were both new to their positions when they were hired in 2005. He doesn't consider the past four years a waste and feels the Browns can attract talent despite their troubles.
"I would like to think we are a more compelling organization to come be a part of than we were four years ago," he said.
Crennel's vast experience, defensive knowledge and even-keeled demeanor were vital at the time for the Browns, who were coming off a 4-12 season under Butch Davis. Cleveland went 6-10 in Crennel's first year and just 4-12 in 2006, when they lost six of their last seven games.
They were also ravaged by injuries. Quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn were lost for the season, forcing Crennel to start recently signed Bruce Gradkowski in the season finale at Pittsburgh. The Browns were beaten 31-0, dropping Crennel to 0-8 in his career against the Steelers -- the only full-time Browns coach not to beat Cleveland's rival.
Crennel was genuinely respected by the Browns. The players referred to him as RAC, his initials, and were disappointed they didn't play better for him. Quinn admired the way Crennel handled talk of his departure.
"It says a lot about someone going through adversity who continues to coach and do their job," he said. "To me and the rest of the guys that said a lot about coach Crennel and who he is."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press