BEREA — The NFL owners meetings are an exclusive event. They’re held in a luxury hotel at a beautiful location, and only 32 people are allowed into the most important sessions.
Most people fantasize about being included in such select company.
Randy Lerner was invited to the party, but had no desire to go. He attended some out of obligation, then hired Mike Holmgren as president and sent him as a proxy.
Lerner announced Friday he’s in negotiations to sell controlling interest of the Cleveland Browns to Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam III.
The decision came as a surprise to many and the timing was a shock — the first full-squad practice of training camp was Friday afternoon — but it makes sense. Lerner was never comfortable in the role of NFL owner.
Yes, he grew up a Browns fan and loved them. Yes, he would spend millions upon millions of his billion to try to make them a winner. Yes, he had the money, experience and intelligence to handle the big-business side of the NFL.
But he never seemed to enjoy it as much as he should.
The losing — just two winning seasons and no playoff wins since the franchise’s return in 1999 — played a significant role. So did the criticism from media and fans that he didn’t care. But there was more to it.
Lerner just didn’t fit with the rest of the 32-member club. Or in the job.
He doesn’t have the bold personality of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who craves the spotlight. His family wasn’t a founding member of the NFL like the McCaskeys with the Bears and the Maras with the Giants. He doesn’t want to shape the league like New England’s Robert Kraft.
Lerner isn’t a recluse as sometimes portrayed, but he’s certainly shy. He repeatedly declined to go in front of the television cameras, and all but stopped doing interviews in the last few years.
He was personable and friendly in an informal setting. He was so thoughtful when asked a question, he could take minutes before answering. That’s one of the reasons for the lack of interviews — he knew he didn’t speak in sound bites.
He has a wide range of interests outside the NFL — including art and soccer — and is more liberal than the typical billionaire owner.
You have to wonder if he ever wanted to join the elite club.
Al Lerner, his father, was the one who held a minority stake in the Browns during Art Modell’s ownership. Al was the one who helped Modell move the franchise to Baltimore in desperation. Al was the one who tried to do right by the city and paid $530 million (a record at the time for a sports franchise) in 1998 for an expansion franchise to restore the Browns.
But Al died in October 2002 after a battle with brain cancer. The family wanted to maintain ownership, and Randy was the one to assume control.
Randy tried to do his father proud, tried to bring the elusive Super Bowl title to desperate Cleveland, tried to run the organization the right way.
But the Super Bowl never came. Nor the playoffs again after the 2002 season.
Lerner kept searching for the right organizational structure without much success. He threw money at the top candidates — Holmgren, general manager Phil Savage, coaches Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini — but nothing worked. After nearly a decade, he decided it’s OK for him to step away.
He was divorced recently and his kids are growing up, and Holmgren mentioned the family changes as a factor in the decision to sell.
I believe Lerner is a good man with the best interest of the Browns and their fans at heart. I believe he just didn’t know how to run an NFL franchise, and couldn’t figure it out.
“He’s a great guy,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “He was always around, but never wanted the cameras in his face. I enjoyed him.”
The lack of a public persona damaged his reputation among fans. They assumed he was disinterested and argued he preferred Aston Villa, the English soccer team he bought.
Despite the uninformed criticism, Lerner was committed to the Browns. He had a home in Berea and watched practice whenever he could. He got constant updates from Holmgren and interacted with coaches and players.
Most fans didn’t care. They were devastated by the losing, and justifiably blamed the man at the top of the organizational chart. They have been calling for Lerner to sell the team for years.
They will get their wish.
That’s a good thing if Haslam reforms an organization that’s been dysfunctional too many times. If he hires — or keeps — the right president, general manager and coach. If he listens to the fans.
But Haslam is an outsider. He’s from Tennessee and has never rooted for the Browns. He even owns a minority share in the Steelers and celebrated their most recent Super Bowl while Browns fans cried again.
Unlike Lerner, he doesn’t understand your pain. He will need time to familiarize himself with your fragile psyche.
Cleveland fans are ready and willing to embrace anyone they think might be an improvement and could bring them a championship. So Haslam will be welcomed with open arms.
Just be easy with Lerner on his way out. He’ll always be a Browns fan. Just like you.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or email@example.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.