CLEVELAND -- Randy Lerner has been a part of the Browns family and a diehard fan since the 1970s, when he was a teen growing up in Shaker Heights and his father, Al, purchased a 9 percent share in the team.
But his dreams of fulfilling his late father's plans to bring a Super Bowl to Cleveland will apparently never materialize.
Lerner is very close to selling the team to Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam, currently a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a source close to the situation told the Plain Dealer. Haslam, president and CEO of Pilot Flying-J Travel Centers, the nation's largest retail operator of travel centers and truck stops, is believed to be seeking full ownership of the team.
In a press conference in Berea, Ohio, on Friday before the full squad took the field for the first time this preseason, Browns president Mike Holmgren confirmed that Lerner "will give up controlling interest in the team." He said he didn't know if Lerner would retain a stake in the franchise, which is worth $977 million, according to Forbes.
But Browns fans needn't worry about reliving the anguish of 1995, when Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore. Lerner, who inherited the team when Al died of brain cancer in 2002, refused to even enter into negotiations with Haslam until he had a personal guarantee he'd never uproot the team.
"[Lerner] has an unequivocal commitment from Haslam to never move the Browns," said Fred Nance, a senior adviser to Lerner. "He made that a prerequisite before entering into negotiations." Nance added that Haslam "provided the commitment without hesitation."
When asked what would stop Haslam, 58, from moving the team, Nance replied, "read the lease."
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson also stated in a release that the Browns are tied to a 30-year lease through 2029 with Cleveland Browns Stadium and that the city would pursue legal options if there were any attempt to break it and move the team.
Holmgren also said fans have nothing to worry about.
"It's my understanding that from the get-go that's been one of the stipulations, and both principals understand that," Holmgren said. "The Cleveland Browns aren't going anywhere. The Cleveland Browns are the Cleveland Browns, and they're going to stay."
Lerner, who had denied a report in June from Howard Eskin of NBC 10 in Philadelphia that the Browns were for sale, released a statement Friday morning confirming that talks were under way. The statement, in response to "current rumors and press inquiries" was a surprising move for the exceedingly private owner -- one that further signals a deal is imminent.
"We are currently in negotiations, and both sides have agreed to keep that dialogue and its details private," Lerner wrote.
Eskin also reported Friday that former Eagles president Joe Banner, who's been seeking part-ownership in an NFL team, is part of the Haslam group. Banner declined comment. He's currently a senior adviser to Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, his longtime friend. He also worked closely in Philadelphia with current Browns General Manager Tom Heckert, coach Pat Shurmur, and offensive coordinator Brad Childress.
If Banner joins Haslam in Cleveland, what does that mean for Holmgren, who's in the third year of his five-year contract that pays him a reported $10 million a year?
"My future is bright," Holmgren said. "That will be answered down the road. You control the things you can control and do the best you can. I think we've done a lot of great things here in getting to this point. But we'll see."
Holmgren, who defended himself last month against critics that felt he wasn't committed to the Browns, added, "To me, a contract's a contract. I've tried to be honest with you about that. But we'll deal with those things as we go down the road. For right now, I'm the president of the team, and that's how I'm operating."
Holmgren said Lerner's No. 1 priority was to prevent the possible sale from becoming a distraction to the coaches and players.
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