BEREA, Ohio — Hours after Tennessee billionaire Jimmy Haslam III reached an agreement with Randy Lerner to buy the Browns on Thursday, he returned to his Knoxville home for the pivotal Changing of the Watch.
"I've worn a Steelers watch for the last four years," said Haslam, a minority owner of the Steelers since 2008, in an exclusive interview with the Plain Dealer. "I didn't want to be premature and jinx anything, but now I'm putting on my Cleveland Browns watch. I've taken off all of my black and gold, and I'm putting on my orange and brown."
It's a new day in Cleveland Browns football. Haslam, whose family made its $3 billion fortune on Pilot Flying J travel centers, will officially become the new owner as soon as three-quarters of the NFL owners approve the sale, which could come before the start of the regular season in September. The next owners' meeting is Oct. 16-17 in Chicago, but Commissioner Roger Goodell could call a special session to expedite the sale — and that's likely to happen, according to league sources.
The transfer of ownership would take about two weeks after approval.
Haslam, 58, will buy the Browns for about $1 billion — $700 million now and $300 million when he buys out Lerner's remaining 30 percent, which will take place on the fourth anniversary of the closing date.
In the meantime, Haslam, who will watch practice today and be introduced at a 1 p.m. news conference in Berea, wants to reassure fans that the franchise isn't going anywhere.
"We're not moving the Cleveland Browns," said Haslam, who arrived in town Thursday night. "To own a team with a such a rich tradition and history is a dream come true. Randy had four things he wanted, and I won't share all of them, but No. 1 was we keep them in Cleveland. Why would we move? I've been to three games there on the other side of the field, and I've seen the intensity and the enthusiasm. That thought never, ever entered our minds."
Haslam also stressed that not only are the Browns here to stay, so is he. No more upheaval or overhauls.
"We're in this for the long run," he said. "We've owned our family business for 53 years. There are some people that come into a franchise for three years and sell it. That's not us. Our family is in this for the long, long run."
Haslam's No. 1 promise is he's here to restore the Browns to their old championship luster.
"Our entire effort, our entire focus is going to be on creating a winning team," he said. "We're immensely excited about this opportunity, and Ohio's a great football state.
"The Browns are one of the iconic franchises in the NFL. Their fans are renowned as being amongst the best fans in the country, and we feel it's our responsibility to give the Cleveland fans and the Cleveland community a winning team."
So what's a self-described "1,000 percent Steelers fan" doing owning the Browns?
"That's a fair question," Haslam said with a hearty laugh. "The four years that we were a small part of the Pittsburgh organization were a great experience for us. The Rooneys are everything you hear they are. They're class people. In the four years we were part of the franchise, they went to two Super Bowls, won one, and they just do things the right way.
"Having said that, I had a conversation with Art Rooney today, and we've become good friends, and the last thing he said was, ‘I'm going to have to learn to hate you on Sundays.'
"Our challenge is candidly the Cleveland-Pittsburgh rivalry is not what it was when you were growing up. Our challenge is to turn the Browns into a team that will once again regenerate that rivalry."
Haslam, who made his long-held desire to own an NFL team known to the Rooneys, received a call about six weeks ago to contact Lerner.
"I met Randy for the first time on Monday, July 2, that's how fast this has gone," Haslam said. "We thought it was an unbelievable opportunity, and we checked with four or five people that have been involved in the NFL for a long, long time, and everybody told us — it was our instinct anyway — that if you have a chance to get the Cleveland Browns, jump all over it."
Haslam, who will divest his interest in the Steelers, will bring in former Eagles president Joe Banner to run the team once the sale is approved, league sources said. He said he's talked to Banner, but wouldn't confirm his involvement.
"I don't own the team yet, so comments about current or future personnel would be unfair," he said.
He had dinner with Browns president Mike Holmgren Thursday night to discuss the team and his future. "I'm looking forward to meeting one of the great legends of the NFL," he said beforehand. "We just don't want to be a distraction to Pat Shurmur or the team as they prepare for the season."
Holmgren, who has three years left on his five-year contract at $8 million a year, said he hopes to stay on this season and be part of what he feels will be a winning team.