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Behind the inspiration of the Cleveland Browns' new uniforms

BEAVERTON, Oregon -- Before the Dawg Pound or anyone outside a small group of Browns and Nike executives knew the team was ready to update its classic uniforms, Todd Van Horne, Craig Conahan and Tom Andrich booked a trip for a warm August week in Cleveland.

So exclusive was knowledge of this plan at this stage of the process that Van Horne, Nike's VP and Creative Director for Football, only shared with his family that he was headed "somewhere in the Midwest" for a few days. His right-hand men were similarly discrete.

Immediately, the team of designers was smacked in the face with inspiration. The ongoing, widespread renovations of downtown that have brought fresh life to hundred-year-old buildings clued the group into how Cleveland's progression toward the future always remains true to its roots. Conahan, a Nike designer, remembered the trip not by the names of what he saw, but instead by the images he can still picture two years later.

There was the St. Theodosius Orthodox Cathedral and "Christmas Story" house in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood. There was the nightlife scene of Ohio City -- even apparent on a weekday. There was the bigger-than-your-head sandwiches from Melt Bar and Grilled in Lakewood. There was the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Frank Gehry-designed Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve.

"That juxtaposition of the new and the old was perfect for us to take something like this that traditionally hasn't changed in a long time and ask, 'how do we kind of keep that sensibility and add a modern take to it?'" Conahan said. "We want to get a sense of what's going on in the culture of the city."

Months earlier, the designers were shown pictures of the Browns practice facility, which was one of the first areas of the Browns infrastructure to receive a facelift after Jimmy Haslam took over as the team's owner. A subtle gesture to let Nike know what the Browns were building served as a "light bulb" moment years before the final product hit the stage Tuesday at the Cleveland Convention Center.

"They're like, 'Got it,'" Browns president Alec Scheiner remembered. "'We understand what you're trying to accomplish here.'"

A look at Browns uniforms, from the franchise's inception to current-day.

The plan hit the drawing board shortly after Scheiner was hired in December 2012. The initial goal was to unveil a new look in time for the 2014 season.

Quickly, it became apparent that the process would stretch into 2015. The necessary research and planning between the Browns, Nike and NFL for such an important change couldn't be rushed.

"It's an exhaustive process you go through with the NFL," Haslam said. "I thought it was something you did and you could have it ready for the next season. I remember when they told me you can have it for the 2015 season, that seemed like forever.

"The process I initially thought was ridiculous in terms of how long it takes ended up being very good."

The plans were formally announced by Haslam in March 2013 at the NFL's owners meetings. For the next two months, the NFL conducted a comprehensive research project that not only took a deep dive with fans in Northeast Ohio, but also focused on fans' perception of the Browns' image and brand nationwide.

Two months after the Browns viewed the NFL's presentations, hundreds and hundreds of surveys went out from coast to coast. Fans on the ground in Northeast Ohio were interviewed in person. Questions were direct -- How would you feel if the Browns changed their uniforms? -- and others accomplished the same mission without being as obvious -- Do you view the Browns as an organization that's on the cutting edge, or would you rather have them respect their tradition?

The Browns received the feedback two months later. Haslam, his wife Dee, Scheiner, Vice President of Fan Experience and Marketing Kevin Griffin and Executive Vice President Chief Revenue Officer Brent Stehlik pored over the results and drew two distinct conclusions.

Browns fans were reluctant to see a facelift to the logo but were ready for the uniforms to move into the 21st century -- so long as it respected the team's treasured past.

The last part was the most important and was at the core of why multiple years were required to truly get it right.

"Every single decision we make can either link back to our tradition and history or deviate from it, so we're careful with how we made those decisions," Scheiner said. "Even if you end up with elements that kind of looked similar to what we had, that's a decision that had to be made. It's not like you say, 'I'm going to change X, Y and Z to the uniform' and you're done."

Van Horne knows the look, that mixture of anxiety and uncertainty, when he steps into a room full of important people who don't know what they want.

When Van Horne stepped inside the Browns' facility in Berea for the first time, he saw the exact opposite. It ultimately made his team's job so much easier and enjoyable as it embarked on a project that would produce "some of the most outstanding work" Van Horne and his team have done.

"I think at times, when Nike comes in, some people are like 'Uh oh, they're going to take us some place where we're not,'" Van Horne said. "For the most part, they come with a plan, but some of them don't really know what they want until they see it. Some people have a plan with what they want to represent and the attitude they wanted to have."

Those blank stares, Van Horne said, are often followed by a blank slate as a starting point. Even for an artist as creative and innovative as Van Horne, it's not preferred.

The Browns made sure he and his team had a clear-cut starting point.

Haslam made it clear early in the process that the Browns' iconic orange helmet wouldn't be scrapped. It would simply be refreshed, a decision that was reflected in the team's updated logo, which was released in February.

"That was not hard," Scheiner said. "We knew that if we didn't change the helmet and we subtly evolved the logo, we knew the uniforms had to look different. I don't think they're an extreme difference but they're different enough. You won't mistake them for our old uniforms."

Before the Browns' brass started talking colors and analyzing cloth swaths, they first delved into a little introspection. This was essential, Scheiner said, and ultimately why the Browns were able to clearly specify what they wanted in their first few meetings with Nike and the NFL.

"There was no, 'let's see this or let's see that,'" Van Horne said. "It was 'here's who we are, here's what we want to represent' and that clarity really helps us in the design process. We're not fishing in a large pond and trying to figure out what you're trying to say. It was really, really clear and that really helped.

Van Horne, a former college soccer player who grew up in California, has been leading the redesign of NFL uniforms since he helped overhaul the Denver Broncos' in the mid-90s. From the seemingly neverending, electrified Oregon uniforms to the oh-so subtle touch-ups he's applied to jerseys at tradition-rich Penn State and Alabama, Van Horne has embraced challenges of all flavors.

Nearly 20 years since he worked with the Broncos' facelift, Van Horne viewed the Browns' uniform as an exciting new challenge.

"With the Browns, you see an iconic part of American history and the brickwork and architecture and the foundations of our country and when the team actually was started," Van Horne said. "We've combined all this history together with Cleveland's future. You just see this newness and this energy and it's all of these familiar values about America, but it's also bringing it into the next century. That's what made it super exciting for us."

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