The Reluctant Heir

Browns get an owner, in every sense of the word

Randy Lerner wasn't in Berea last Friday when Jimmy Haslam held his first press conference as the (soon-to-be-official) new owner of the Cleveland Browns. Lerner was on vacation with his kids, a long-planned trip that happened to coincide with the public unveiling of the gas-station magnate to the orange and brown faithful.

Even if he had been in town, it's hard to imagine Lerner sitting front and center at the microphones next to Haslam to pass the torch. The media-shy billionaire spoke publicly on the most infrequent of occasions during his tenure as owner over the last decade, giving a total of one radio interview (to WTAM's Mike Trivisonno last year) and a handful of sit-downs with reporters.

Several of those were with Scene during and just after the 2011 season for a lengthy profile. During one chat, Lerner addressed the possibility of selling the team someday, acknowledging its dismal record and the turmoil of an ever-changing front office.

"At some point, if things never change, you have to look at yourself and decide if you're the man for the job," Lerner said. "But I'm definitely not there yet. I believe what we have now is going to work."

Less than a year later, he is apparently there.

More than anything else, Lerner seemed conflicted. While he distanced himself from the idea of handing over the keys to one of the NFL's most storied franchises at different times over the course of those conversations, at other times he intimated that owning two teams on two continents — he also owns the Aston Villa soccer club in the English Premiere League — was not a feasible reality in the long term.

After his youngest son decided to attend St. Ignatius last year, Lerner moved back to Cleveland, his original home, and became more present and bought-in (at least in physical presence and public appearance) than he had been in a long time. He casually mentioned that someone — he did not say who — had approached him about buying the team. But the conversation never grew serious, he said, because the anonymous suitor wanted to negotiate on at least two key conditions: first, that the team never be moved from Cleveland; and second, the price.

The record on the field under Lerner's reign may have been historically pathetic and a 180-degree turn from the franchise's prouder days, but at the very least, Lerner had a keen sense of tradition and the team's importance to the city. He kept ticket prices low, at least compared to other NFL teams, brushed off suggestions from the league to reconfigure the Dog Pound or add more luxury seats, and maintained that when he looked in the stands, he wanted to see a cross-section of Cleveland. And he was a fan, the kid who wore Browns pajamas growing up.

But he never seemed entirely comfortable at the helm of the team that he inherited from his father.

Lerner told Scene he didn't like the word "owner."

"Owner means you bought something. What I am ... I like to think of it more as a custodial relationship, a stewardship."

It's easy to see how it all got to him over the years: the novel-length list of failed quarterbacks, coaches, and GMs; the heated criticism from the fans and media; the perpetual losing. The vitriol was coming from the other side of the pond too. Once welcomed as a deep-pocketed savior, Lerner was taking fresh mountains of anger from Aston Villa fans after another dismal season, a near-relegation from the EPL, and a perceived unwillingness to compete financially with richer clubs.

In his final conversation with Scene early this year, Lerner was coming off yet another depressingly familiar 4-12 season. But he expressed hope and conviction that Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert, now in year three of their rebuilding plan, had finally set the course straight toward the mythical land of the NFL playoffs, and at least one of his teams would no longer be in a near-constant state of ineptitude.

Still, it wasn't shocking that when the opportunity presented itself, Lerner decided to sell the team. What was shocking was that he would do it this soon. But he's a businessman, with another franchise to run and a fiduciary responsibility to the Lerner family trust. For the right price, and a promise that the team would stay in Cleveland, it was finally time to get out.

At some point you have to look at yourself and decide if you're the man for the job. After a decade of stewardship, it was time for the Browns to have an owner, in every sense of the word.

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