BEREA: It seemed totally out of character Friday morning when owner Randy Lerner responded to radio rumors and released a statement confirming he was in negotiations to sell what later was deemed controlling interest in the Browns.
Although Lerner, 50, went out of his way to avoid the spotlight in the 10 years he has run the team since his father Al’s death in 2002, he has always been sensitive to Browns history and respected the team’s fans. So it seemed appropriate that Lerner revealed his talks with James A. “Jimmy” Haslam III, 58, president and CEO of Pilot Flying J, rather than blindside them with the news as his dad’s old friend, Art Modell, did when he announced the franchise’s move to Baltimore in 1995.
It also seemed fitting that one of the cornerstones of the deal with Haslam, according to team president Mike Holmgren, is that the Browns will remain in Cleveland.
“It’s my understanding from the get-go that’s been one of the stipulations and both principals understand that,” Holmgren said before practice Friday. “The Cleveland Browns aren’t going anywhere. The Cleveland Browns are the Cleveland Browns and they’re going to stay.”
In a statement, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson also addressed concerns that the Browns could be moved. Los Angeles has been without an NFL team since 1995, when the Rams departed for St. Louis and the Raiders returned to Oakland.
“The city took precautionary measures to ensure that fans would be able to cheer on the Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium for years to come,” Jackson said in a statement. “The 30-year lease to the Cleveland Browns commenced in 1999 and continues to 2029. This lease, like the prior Municipal Stadium lease for which the City of Cleveland successfully obtained an injunction in 1995, requires the Browns to play all their regular-season and playoff home games in the Cleveland Browns Stadium. If this requirement is not honored, the city has legal options that could be pursued if necessary.”
Once the two sides come to terms, the sale must be approved by a vote of league owners. Haslam would also be subject to a background check by the NFL, but because he bought a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009, that process could be expedited. The league prohibits ownership of teams in different markets, so Haslam must divest himself of his Steelers shares.
Howard Eskin of NBC 10 in Philadelphia reported on June 7 that he’d heard the Browns were for sale. Holmgren denied that during a press conference a week later.
“I talk to Randy all the time, and I assume he’d tell me,” Holmgren said on June 14. “No, there’s no truth to that.”
On Friday, Eskin tweeted that former Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner is one of the people getting involved with Haslam’s group. Banner left the Eagles on June 7 after 18 years in that post.
In his statement, Lerner did not indicate whether he was selling all shares in the Browns. Holmgren said: “What I can say is he is giving up a controlling interest in the team. As details come out we can elaborate a little bit more.”
Lerner’s family matures
Asked why Lerner decided to get out, Holmgren said: “He and I had a lot of discussions about this. He has a deep love for this team. He’s been with this franchise since his father passed away and running it and trying his best to do the right things. I think as his kids have gotten older, his life has changed a little bit, he thought if the right person … he was very, very concerned and interested in the right person stepping forward if he was going to sell the football team. And apparently all the stars aligned in the last few months.”
Browns coach Pat Shurmur informed the players and coaches of the news Friday morning. After practice, Shurmur was fiery and short with his answers, perhaps concerned about the security of his job and his staff’s jobs. Holmgren’s future is also uncertain.
“I’ve got nothing to add, absolutely nothing to add,” Shurmur said. “When the news broke, my first concern was the coaches.
“I informed [the players] that the goals have not changed one bit. I expect that we’re a much-improved football team. Based on what we’re doing, it will not become a distraction.”
In his statement, Lerner said, “Care has been taken so that this process will not be disruptive to the organization, in particular the football team, as it prepares for the upcoming season.”
Holmgren said he was in California when Lerner first contacted him with the news.
“Since that point we’ve been in constant contact,” Holmgren said. “He’s kept me abreast of every single thing that’s been going on. The only thing that’s a little different is the timing.
“I think you’re always a little bit surprised when something of this magnitude comes up. But it happens.”
Players respect Lerner
Many young Browns players have never met Lerner and probably were unfazed by the news. But the longest-tenured Browns — kicker Phil Dawson, who arrived in 1999, and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, drafted in 2006 — were genuine in their feelings for Lerner and his family.
“It all started with Mr. Lerner, Al — a tremendous man who had the respect of the locker room,” Dawson said. “I still remember the whole team attending his funeral. That shows the kind of respect we had for Al. Then, Randy came along and Randy was a very personable, likeable guy, especially those early years when he was around a lot and I got to know him. Those are good memories.
“I’m not going to comment on the reasons why — I don’t know. There’s no hard feelings or ill will or anything like that. This is just how it goes.”
Jackson said he had a good relationship with Lerner, was friends with his children and communicated with him in the offseason.
“I didn’t know this was coming at all,” Jackson said. “It’s a move that he felt like he had to do, and you can’t second-guess a guy like that. I’ll reach out to him at some point.”
As an owner, Lerner never hesitated to spend money, whether it was to remodel team headquarters, provide valet parking for players or spend millions to hire Holmgren to be a “serious, credible leader” in his absence.
“I definitely liked him, he was a great guy,” Jackson said. “Always around, never wanted the cameras in his face. He was always friendly, always well-spoken, always going to say hello. I enjoyed him.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.