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Pioli interviews with Browns owner Lerner for vacant GM job

CLEVELAND -- The Browns ended the year talking to job candidates they hope will make them have a better 2009.

Browns owner Randy Lerner interviewed Scott Pioli, New England's vice president of player personnel, on Wednesday to possibly be his new general manager. It isn't known whether or not Lerner offered the job to Pioli, who has been Bill Belichick's right-hand man with the Patriots for the past nine years.

On Tuesday, Lerner met with fired Jets coach Eric Mangini in New York about the Browns' head-coaching vacancy.

Picking up the pieces of a 4-12 season that ended with the firings of coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage, Lerner has spent the final hours of 2008 meeting with the men who might take over his team. The Mangini and Pioli interviews were the first scheduled this week by Lerner, a billionaire who's determined to get his football franchise back on its feet after a horrid year and will spare no expense.

Browns spokesman Bill Bonsiewicz had no update Wednesday, except to say there was no news to report.

That could quickly change.

Lerner also has set up interviews with New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo; Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who spent three years in the Browns' personnel department as a pro and college scout in the 1990s; and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, a Canton, Ohio, native.

Lerner also received permission to interview Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who was bumped upstairs last year but is said to be craving a return to a GM-type role. That interview is expected to place Thursday.

Also, the Browns might attempt to set something up with former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, whose stunning dismissal rocked the NFL on Tuesday.

Pioli is Lerner's top GM choice, and one face-to-face sitdown might be enough to strike an agreement.

The 43-year-old Pioli, who began his NFL career as a pro personnel assistant with Cleveland, might finally be ready to step out of Belichick's imposing shadow. In New England, Pioli and Belichick have assembled a football machine that has won six AFC East titles, four conference championships and three Super Bowls since 2001.

Pioli just finished his 16th season working with Belichick, who has enjoyed final say on roster issues with the Patriots.

In Cleveland, Pioli likely would have complete control over the football operations, and if hired, it might be him -- not Lerner -- who hires the next coach.

And that could be Mangini, another branch off the Belichick tree. Like Pioli, the 37-year-old Mangini began his NFL career in Cleveland. He started out as a Browns ball boy and was later a public-relations intern. He has never forgotten his football roots. When the Jets played the Browns in recent seasons, Mangini bought a catered lunch of Italian food for Cleveland reporters.

Mangini was dismissed after the Jets collapsed by losing four of their final five games. But Lerner is believed to be intrigued by Mangini's potential and might want to sign him before another team has a chance.

However, Shanahan's emergence as a candidate could alter Lerner's plans.

At a tear-filled news conference Wednesday, Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls with the Broncos, said he wants to go somewhere and try to win a third.

"My goal is to win a Super Bowl," he said. "The next job I go to will be based on one thing: Who's willing to do the things that gives you the best chance to win."

Shanahan went 146-91 in Denver, a record that could influence Lerner more than Mangini's promise.

Lerner is following simple guidelines to choose his next coach.

"I'm looking for a head coach who is very, very organized, has a very clear system and has a very strong and very understandable approach to discipline and organizational structure," he said earlier this week.

As the Browns drama unfolds, Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro has watched from afar.

Shapiro has a vested personal interest in Lerner's searches. He's good friends with Pioli, and Mangini is Shapiro's brother-in-law.

"Eric and Scott are important people in my life," Shapiro said on the phone from the Bahamas, where he's vacationing. "I'm a strong advocate of those two guys. I care for them personally and professionally. It would be special to have one or both of them in Cleveland."

Another possibility to coach Cleveland is Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. He and Pioli worked together in Cleveland, where Ferentz was the Browns' offensive-line coach.

"For my first interview in Cleveland, Scott's the guy that drove me back to the airport," Ferentz said Wednesday at the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla. "I had my tail between my legs, and he said, 'You know, you didn't do that bad.' He gave me a little pep talk there. I guess maybe he knew something I didn't know because I ended up getting called back. I think I was like the ninth choice to be the line coach at Cleveland.

"We're good friends. I've got tremendous respect for Scott as a football guy. He's just a tremendous person. I caution everybody: Don't try to predict what Scott is going to do, either. He's got a great job right where he's at."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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