Now that Randy Lerner has sold majority ownership of the Cleveland Browns to Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam III, it’s time to take a look back at the Lerner Family, patriarch Al Lerner and the role he played in the Browns moving to Baltimore following the 1995 season.
Al Lerner should never have been chosen as the person to own the Browns when the team came back to the NFL for the 1999 season.
He was there on the days Art Modell announced, during that fateful Baltimore press conference, that his team was leaving Cleveland and moving to Baltimore…that he “had no choice” but to move the team.
Lerner was at the mid-September meeting between Modell and officials from the State of Maryland in New York City where the officials presented Modell with their offer and, according to Michael Poplar in his book “Fumble! The Browns, Modell and the Move,” a deal was reached for the team to leave Cleveland.
Modell left Cleveland on Al Lerner’s private jet.
Broadly, what happened was this: Art Modell came to his friend Al Lerner and explained he was having financial troubles and was worried about the future of the Cleveland Browns. Lerner went to work, bringing Modell together with officials from Maryland and the City of Baltimore…and the rest is history.
Terry Pluto, who has written a number of books about professional sports in Cleveland, excoriated Lerner in his book, “False Start; How the New Browns Were Set Up to Fail.”
Pluto wrote: “Lerner’s sense of friendship may have been admirable to some, but helping Modell put together the Baltimore deal was not in the best interest of the Browns fans.”
Lerner basically said what he did in bringing Modell and Baltimore together was done out of loyalty and friendship.
Never mind his loyalty to Modell stuck a knife in the backs of all Browns fans in a town he had spent 35 years of his life in.
His rich Waite Hill neighbor needed a hand…screw the unwashed masses that had spent decades buying tickets and merchandise to support a team that had never been to a Super Bowl.
And after all the smoke cleared, after Modell was in his comfy new digs in Baltimore and a season away from a Super Bowl championship, after heartbroken Browns fans suffered through three football-less seasons in Cleveland, the NFL decided to award the new Browns franchise to one of the people responsible for those empty autumn Sunday afternoons in the first place, Alfred Lerner.
In the 2000 Cleveland Browns Media Guide there is a quote from Lerner in his biography. It states, “We consider the ownership of the Cleveland Browns to represent a very serious responsibility. We will work very hard to make the people of Cleveland and Northern Ohio proud of their football team.”
Imagine that, Lerner wanted to make sure Browns fans knew how seriously he took his duties of Browns ownership and that he hoped to make them proud. This after, a few years prior, he helped to make them cry.
On Oct. 23, 2002, Al Lerner passed away and the team was inherited by his son, Randy. Though he was not part of the dark dealings with Baltimore, Randy Lerner’s ownership tenure is riddled with failure and disinterest. He also owns Aston Villa of the English Premier League…one of the top soccer leagues in the world, and always seemed to be more concerned with what was happening on the British soccer pitch than what was happening on the American football field.
Along comes Jimmy Haslam III, a football fan that was looking for a team.
He owns a minority interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers (an interest he will have to sell before taking over the Browns) and made it clear to NFL commissioner Roger Godell that he was looking for a franchise to buy.
Haslam is currently the CEO of the Pilot Flying J truck stop franchise while his brother, Bill Haslam, is the current governor of Tennessee. The family has loads of money and, it seems, Jimmy Haslam is excited to get his hands on his new team. This is a stark contrast from Randy Lerner, a recluse who didn’t do many interviews and preferred to remain in the shadows.
The NFL put Haslam and Lerner together and the pair was able to hash out a deal. And Browns fans everywhere should be celebrating.
First of all, the fact that the NFL played a big part in who would end up owning the Cleveland Browns from here on out means the team is not going anywhere. Yes, the league bungled things when it awarded the franchise to Al Lerner, but the last thing it wants is to go through another public relations fiasco like it faced in 1995 when the initial news of Modell’s intention to leave for Baltimore leaked out.
Another thing to consider, Haslam has seen how the Steelers operate. Like them or hate them, the Steelers are a model franchise. They usually do things the right way (kid-glove handling of their current quarterback duly noted) and have rewarded the passionate football fans in Pittsburgh with a consistent winner. If any of that Steelers’ mojo has rubbed off on Haslam it can do nothing but help the Cleveland Browns.
It is a new day in Cleveland.
The Browns are out from under the dark shadow cast by Al Lerner…a man that never really took much heat for his role in the outright betrayal of the City of Cleveland. Let’s turn the page and see how this next chapter in Cleveland Browns football shapes up.