The Custodian 

Browns owner Randy Lerner might not be the guy you thought he was

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Randy Lerner made a trip to Afghanistan in late fall. It wasn't his first, won't be his last. His Marine roots run deep. Al Lerner was proud of his time in the service — flying the Marine Corps flag outside the stadium and in Berea — and Randy has spent most of his adult life involved with the Marines in one way or another. He's co-chairman of the U.S. Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, a member of the Business Executives for National Security, and he was co-creator of the Marine Civilian Development Program, a short-lived post-deployment assistance system for returning vets.

Because of some of his previous work with the government, he has security clearances that allow him to travel fairly easily to the war zone.

On his last trip, he spent time with soldiers near Kabul, toting Browns gear along the way, stopping in to visit, to talk soccer with whoever wanted to talk soccer, football with whoever wanted to talk football, and general bullshit with whoever just wanted to bullshit.

"It's an intangible but worthwhile thing you do over there," he says. "Just talking to them. Letting them know you care. Distracting them from whatever hell they're going through."

"I don't have a political bone in my body," he continues. "I've never given a cent to a political party. [Ed. note: That's not actually true; he gave small sums in 2004 and 2006.] I don't think we should be over there, but that doesn't matter."

He pulls up an e-mail to a soldier on his Blackberry. A guy Lerner had met in the British army had told him he met a Clevelander — perhaps the biggest Browns fan on the planet, or at least in Afghanistan. He passed along contact info for the soldier, who then received an unsolicited e-mail from the Browns owner.

"I really like going over there," he says. "You get a better sense of what matters and what doesn't."

What matters, or at least what mattered back in the realm of the Cleveland Browns, once Lerner returned from overseas, was a season that was going very much according to prior scripts. That, and the concussion suffered by Colt McCoy during the Steelers game.

How the injury was handled during, immediately following, and in the days after the injury had blown up into a national story. Shurmur said during his Monday press conference that McCoy had been examined for concussion symptoms on the sideline. Two days later, Holmgren said otherwise. McCoy's dad had chimed in somewhere in the middle, quoted by The Plain Dealer saying that there's no way his son should have returned to the field. League representatives investigated the timeline. Though the Browns were cleared by the NFL, the story didn't seem to stop.

As for how the Browns became the bad guys? Lerner partly answers the question, then diverges off into a tangent. Naturally, that tangent involves Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War and the great debate in Corcyra. Along with art and music, Lerner is fascinated by history. He fell in love with Lincoln's letters when he was 9.

Whether it's a conscious acknowledgment or not, part of the reason Lerner isn't more media-friendly is because his answers don't fit the sound-bite mold. They meander, wrap around, pause while he collects his thoughts, split off from football to ancient Greece, and swing back around, with one more pause while he makes sure he's covered everything. That's not always the case, but it happens with some regularity.

Ask whether an empty stadium bothers him, and the simple answer is "Yes, but there's nothing I can do about it now. I understand people's frustrations. I understand their anger. I understand why they're not there. I think things will change when we win." But the detour to get to that answer includes visits with Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt.

Another query gets Lerner talking about an essay he is working on about "The Hedgehog and the Fox," an essay by British historian Isaiah Berlin on Tolstoy's view of history. Lerner hopes to deliver his piece back at Clare College in England later this year.

Eventually, the conversation circles back to football.

No one, at least in some semblance of a reasonable mind, believes that the mess of the last decade can be turned around in one year. Holmgren and Heckert's plan takes time. The Big Show said as much after the season concluded when he was asked about a timetable and answered by rattling off the time it took — five years here, seven years there — to reach the Super Bowl in his previous stops in Green Bay and Seattle.

"They said when they started it was a three-to-five-year plan," Lerner says. "Mike said, 'Here's how long it's going to take to do this right,' and I said OK."

Lerner say all of their internal metrics say they need at least 30 or so highly-graded players to make the playoffs. "You look at any playoff team, and sure, there are going to be exceptions, but you look at any playoff team and that's what you're going to find. Now, in any given year, between free agency and the draft, the best you can typically hope for is to add seven of that type of player that can help your team. More often, it's more like five. So you take seven players times five years, and that's where you get those numbers."

And the cupboard Holmgren and Heckert inherited was pretty bare of highly-graded players.

If you're looking for comparisons — beacons of hope even — look no further than the Houston Texans and the San Fransisco 49ers, both of which made the playoffs this year after relatively recent streaks of lowliness, and both of which are models of sort for how Cleveland hopes to rebuild.

In the wake of a four-win campaign, the postseason press conference with Holmgren and Heckert grew testy at times.

"They were frustrated," Lerner says. "We were all frustrated. We thought we were going to win more games this season. We improved — we were in a lot of those games — but they wanted to go up there with tangible evidence that there's improvement. We know it's happening, but they wanted to be able to say, 'Here, here's how many more games we won this season.' You can only say 'trust us' so many times. This isn't a religion. This is football.

"We have to win more games next year," he says. "We will win more games next year. I truly believe that. And there's a small part of me that hopes that as we've been going like this [miming one step at a time], that this offseason, if things go right, that we'll make a big jump."


It's a busy day in Berea, plenty of meetings and guests to go around. Bernie Kosar walks into Lerner's office at one point for a short visit, the topic of which centers around failed marriages, nostalgia, and Kosar's insistence that, "not to badmouth the guys that came before, but what they're establishing now is a culture of trust and professionalism."

Holmgren is the next to stop by. He just had an injection in his hips, a once-a-year treatment to get him through another 365 days pain free, and he's off to Arizona for a few days to recharge the batteries and rest the joints.

Then Bernie and Lerner exit, leaving Holmgren.

"I am only here because of him," The Big Show says of Lerner.

During his sabbatical in 2008 and 2009, Holmgren says, he wanted to take some time off to evaluate what to do next. "I was pretty sure that wasn't going to be coaching." He was talking to Jerry Jones in Dallas, among others, about a variety of positions.

Lerner had reached out in 2008, but hadn't heard anything back. In 2009, Holmgren's agent told him Lerner wondered if he'd be available to chat.

"Randy flew down to Arizona, where I have a house, and we had a long talk one night. Me, my wife, and him," Holmgren says. "He was passionate and very personally honest in a lot of ways. My wife does a lot of missionary work, and I had never been able to do that with her before because of the job, so I told him I would think about it. I'd go on this trip with her to Mexico to pour concrete in some small town for a school for a week, and I'd get back to him. He said that was fine. Actually, you know, his father Al had told me, back when Butch Davis was here, he told me at the 50-yard line before one game that 'I really wanted to hire you.'

"When I came back, I called him, and I went to Cleveland. I'm here because of him. That man.

"I don't get why everyone's so worried about the owner," Holmgren continues. "I worked for a guy in Seattle, Paul Allen, one of the richest guys in the world, he co-founded Microsoft, and he said nothing."

Heckert joins the conversation briefly, offering additional emphasis on Lerner as a participating, committed, and passionate owner. "Randy cares," he says. "He wears losses as much as the rest of us, if not more so."

Holmgren talks about the strides made this year and how important the coming year will be. The summary: It's big. Steps were made, steps need to be made.

With that, the decision-makers excuse themselves, and Lerner reenters his office. He'd left, incidentally, to give Holmgren a chance to speak his mind without the boss sitting across from him.

This was the first full year Lerner has lived in Cleveland in a long time. What he understood about the fans from a distance and from regular but short trips back has crystallized with more time.

"Things like going to the gas station and just being around, I think I have a more intimate perspective. I understand the anger," he says. "I understand the bitterness."

There was plenty to be angry about for Browns fans in 2011. Lerner knows that. He also understands the knocks the team took in the press.

"Listen, we screwed up a lot. I know that," he says. "We deserved a lot of what was said."

Lerner made a promise some 31 months ago to do an interview on Mike Trivisonno's show, and it's about time to make good on that promise, he's decided.

"I'm not this guy," he says about the public version of himself that he's created almost entirely on his own over the years. "It's time I started doing something about that."

Immediately following that declarative statement, Lerner admits it's a hard transition to make. He's still not entirely comfortable with the idea — Triv will be his first interview on TV or radio since taking over the team — nor is he confident that he'll ever be comfortable. He's mentioned this personal initiative to be more publicly transparent in his few interviews over the years, though it seems to be a refrain without action.

The topic of tattoos finally comes up. Yes, there's the Aston Villa crest on his ankle, but Lerner also has three other tats: a Celtic knot on his back (four knots, four children), a quote from Odysseus to Calypso in The Odyssey about the idea of home, and one that is a "Browns reference."

"It's not a helmet or anything," Lerner says. "But it's a Browns reference."


Rumors of the Browns' desire to draft Heisman-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III have been swirling through the media, but the media itself has become the focus of Browns news of late.

Two weeks ago, Plain Dealer beat writer Tony Grossi inadvertently tweeted a Lerner-bashing message intended to be sent directly to a colleague. "He is a pathetic figure," Grossi wrote. "The most irrelevant billionaire in the world."

Grossi quickly deleted his words, but not before they were captured for posterity on the internet. Sources soon told Scene that the errant tweet had landed Grossi in hot water with his bosses.

The paper announced a few days later that Grossi had been reassigned from the Browns beat. "That tweet, from a Browns beat reporter, we felt and I felt very strongly, was inappropriate and unprofessional. It's not what a journalist covering a beat can express," Managing Editor Thom Fladung told 92.3 The Fan the morning after Grossi was bumped.

Conspiracy theorists believed Lerner and the Browns had demanded Grossi's removal, and/or that The PD made the decision in deference to the Browns' opinions. That claim was refuted by multiple PD editors.

Lerner says he didn't talk to anyone at the paper before the decision was made. He confirms that he saw Grossi's message, but he has little else to say on the matter. "I think it's best for me to just go about my business and leave The Plain Dealer to theirs."

Incidentally, it's solely the ignorant who believe the only relevant people in the world are those who stand up and say, "Hey, look what I'm doing!" Lerner makes plenty of charitable contributions, both publicly and otherwise. His $5-million-plus donation to the National Portrait Gallery in London was among his more visible acts, and the Lerner family's philanthropy around Cleveland is impossible to overlook. But that money finds many other outlets too: a local non-profit printmaking workshop, an organization that needed to hire a specialty nurse. Last week, he stopped by the Boys and Girls Club in Slavic Village, and he's in the process of donating a painting to a children's hospice in England that's long been the recipient of his time and money. Lerner's also working on an endowment with the Marines, or perhaps a permanent scholarship.

"Pathetic" and "irrelevant" are not words that come to mind. But Lerner knows he will always have his critics.

Asked about those who still blame his father for being an accomplice to Art Modell, he says: "I don't have a great answer for that. My dad spoke for himself in an interview with The Plain Dealer. He said he was helping a friend. Does it change anything that he donated X millions of dollars to the Cleveland Clinic? No. It's in the past, and we're trying to build a winning team. There's no wiggle room there."

He says he's taking the "AL" uniform tribute to his dad off the jerseys after next season. "It will have been ten years."


A small army was on hand in Randy Lerner's office as he conducted his interview with WTAM, ever-nervous and hyper-prepared for the appearance. And it went over well; the public response, he says, has been overwhelmingly positive.

"The e-mails and actual letters I received were heart-warming. Mainly, I think it helped just to say something."

Not to belabor the point, but the Browns and Randy Lerner believe in what they are doing. "We are not beleaguered, we are not going to lay down, this is not business as usual," says Lerner. "We are working hard to turn around this fucking nightmare."

When offered the opportunity to share a message with the team's fans, Lerner says only this: "It's a massive privilege to be in the position I am with the Browns. A massive privilege."

Browns fans just hope that Lerner has it right this time, that he can finally wake his team and his city from the nightmare that never seems to end.

Contact the author at vgrzegorek@clevescene.com

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