BEREA — Todd Haley has spent a lot of time in the Browns-Steelers rivalry.
Just never on this side.
Haley’s father, Dick, was Pittsburgh’s director of player personnel from 1971-91, so Haley got an early introduction to the contentiousness of the battle on some road trips with Dad.
“As a young kid, I was at Municipal Stadium. I remember feeling it shake and worried whether it was going to fall down,” he said Thursday. “There have been a lot of great games played between these teams.”
Haley’s recent history with the Steelers has created an interesting subplot to a heavily anticipated season opener loaded with intrigue and story lines. After he was fired as head coach in Kansas City, he spent six seasons as offensive coordinator of the Steelers.
But his contract wasn’t renewed after last season and Browns coach Hue Jackson jumped on the chance to hire him, giving up play-calling duties and turning over the offense.
“I know he’s fired up,” rookie receiver Antonio Callaway said. “That’s his old team. I know he’s ready to go against them.
“You can tell from his energy in practice.”
“I’m sure an emotional game for him,” receiver Josh Gordon said. “It’s going to be competitive. He’s always like that with us, so I can only imagine for this one how much more so.”
Haley said he can’t afford to think that way.
“I would like to say yes, but no,” he said. “If every week is not the biggest game of the year to us as coaches and to the players, then it is probably not going to go the way that we want it to go week in and week out.”
Haley’s experience with the enemy would appear to give the Browns an advantage in preparation and game-planning. He has deep, inside knowledge of their offensive and defensive personnel and coaching staff.
On the other side, the Steelers know his offensive system and how he likes to call a game.
“You can play that he knows, that I know, that he knows, that I know games,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Hopefully he plays it all week. I am just going to get ready to play a football game.”
Haley is on the same page as his former boss.
“I have always been a believer that if you are worrying a lot about picking up the things that they are doing, you could end up not playing,” he said. “I have been careful not to talk too much or say too much when I have been asked or giving any thought.”
With reporters he didn’t want to discuss the Steelers offensive players but gave a glowing scouting report of the defense. He called defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt “very disruptive,” Vince Williams a “high-level” inside linebacker and mentioned several others, including former Browns cornerback Joe Haden.
“Our entire (team), the 11 guys playing each snap — I keep stressing it — need to play close to their best, and we need to have young guys that contribute, do their job and know what to do,” Haley said.
The recently concluded “Hard Knocks” series on HBO spent a lot of time focused on Haley. The series showed his fiery and funny sides and a guy desperate to help turn around the Browns.
He came off more likeable than his reputation for rubbing some people the wrong way.
“I am a very competitive person that wants to succeed. For me, getting along with other people has never been at the top of my priority list,” he said. “When you work for Bill Parcells as long as I did, you better have your players ready to play. They better play their best or close to their best when you are coaching them or you won’t be coaching for Coach Parcells for very long.
“People can perceive whatever they want. I have some great, great relationships with coaches and players from my last 22-23 years in this league. That is what is important to me.”
Haley’s interactions with receiver Jarvis Landry were one of the highlights of “Hard Knocks.” Haley implored him to mentor rookie Antonio Callaway. He also ripped Landry for not finishing a couple of routes vs. the Eagles, then apologized on the sideline and told him he loved him.
“There’s things I learn from Todd each and every day,” Landry said. “And I kind of like it when he’s on me in the heat of the moment.”
The pair came up with a signature handshake featuring a lot of moving parts.
“We practiced it the whole training camp and we finally got it down,” Landry said. “It took us awhile.”
Jackson didn’t take the decision to hire a coordinator lightly and said he “feels great” about landing Haley.
“I trust him to make good decisions to lead us offensively and get us points,” Jackson said. “It would mean the world to him (to beat Pittsburgh). We all want it. We all want it for him.”
The ending wasn’t ideal — and the extra motivation is probably real — but Haley has fond memories of his time with the Steelers.
“The place where I grew up and have a lot of connections,” he said. “I just think it’s one of the top organizations in sports not just football, highly successful. I was happy to be a part of it. Learned a lot. Grew a lot.”