The Cleveland Browns made one of their biggest personnel hires to date on Thursday by naming Secret Service director Lewis Merletti as the expansion team's vice president and director of security and stadium affairs.
Merletti will oversee security for the entire Browns' organization and will be responsible for game day security operations at the team's new stadium being built on the same Lake Erie shore site as the old Cleveland Stadium.
Merletti and his staff will keep a short leash on fans in the new stadium's Dawg Pound, those end-zone crazies who were known to have a beer or two in between pelting opposing teams with dog biscuits when the Browns last played in the NFL.
"We'll have a traditional blend of security with state-of-the-art technology and just typical man power that's required," Merletti said. "But it's not going to be anything different than you see in any other stadium."
Merletti, who served under five presidents in the Secret Service, knows all about the Dawg Pound.
"I do have one confession that I have to make: I grew up in Pittsburgh," Merletti said referring to the Browns' hated rival. "I'm certainly aware of their tradition and I think it's great and it's the best there is in football."
Merletti has an impeccable professional resume which includes 24 years with the Secret Service, the last 17 months as its director.
"I could not pass this up," Merletti, 50, said. "This morning as I was leaving our headquarters my shoulder was nearly worn out by people giving me high-fives."
Merletti was introduced at a news conference at the Browns' training complex in suburban Berea by team owner Al Lerner and president Carmen Policy, who both couldn't say enough positive things about the club's newest hire.
Neither could Big Dawg a.k.a. John Thompson, a Browns season-ticket holder since 1978, who on Sunday transforms into the Pound's leader.
"It's pretty mind-blowing to me," Thompson, 37, said. "I think it's pretty amazing that the organization can go out and bring in someone of that caliber to run its security. That's really something."
Thompson admitted there were times that some of his canine cohorts may have gone a little too far.
"I would have to say there were plenty of times that people did things that were out of hand," he said. "I think it's a good thing the Browns are already thinking ahead about what needs to be done."
Merletti also protected Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton with the Secret Service and as its 19th director oversaw a 5,000-agent staff with a budget 1 1/2 times larger than the $530 million Lerner paid for the Browns.
"Lew is going to bring about a unification of our organization, which is divided by virtue of the stadium being 25 miles away in downtown Cleveland, with the football operation and the business operation being out here in Berea," said Policy.
Game day operations will be one of Merletti's biggest challenges.
Cleveland's fans earned a reputation around the NFL as being among its rowdiest, and by hiring someone with Merletti's credentials, Policy and Lerner _ himself a 39-year Browns ticket-holder _ are hoping to assure all Browns fans that a trip to the stadium will be safe and fun.
"Having people come to that stadium and enjoy a fan-friendly, a family-friendly experience without having any of the enthusiasm or any of the passion or any of the fun being diminished requires sophistication and professionalism," Policy said. "And that's where Lew Merletti steps in. ... We love the character of the Dawg Pound without having any of the unwanted excesses that could otherwise develop."
Policy, who'll give NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue a tour of the new stadium today, also announced the remainder of the Browns' preseason schedule for next year.
After playing the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 9 in Canton, the Browns will play in Tampa on Aug. 14. Cleveland's new stadium will play host to its first game on Aug. 21 against Minnesota and the Chicago Bears will visit on Aug. 28.
The Browns will close the preseason with a trip to Philadelphia on Sept. 2.
"That's one trip the Big Dawg won't make," Thompson said. "That's a tough neighborhood. Big Dawg gets sprayed with things there."