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The Custodian

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

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Randy Lerner is wearing a Browns Backers Sri Lanka T-shirt and khakis when he greets me at the team's headquarters in Berea late in August.

"Hey, I'm Randy, good to meet you," he says, offering his hand.

The Browns owner, who has rarely spoken to the media since taking over the team after his father died in 2002, has been described as aloof, media-shy, private, and absent. And those are among the nicer things said about him.

Lerner, for better or worse, has never helped his PR cause, offering fans little insight into his thoughts or his life, and leaving reporters a short list of adjectives by which to describe him.

"You like it?" he asks, nodding toward the wall in a room that includes a pair of 10-foot, Browns-themed Fender guitars and a glass display case housing Jim Brown's cleats and other mementos.

But the eye-catcher is a two-story mural of a Muni Lot tailgate party that dominates the other wall. It's the piece Lerner is referring to.

"It was actually done by one of my friends, an English guy," he says. "He wanted to get it right, so he went around the tailgates, met people — there's Taj, and the Bone Lady, and there's others. He actually rented a helicopter on his own dime to get a bird's-eye view."

It's great, I say.

"But he got one thing wrong," Lerner laughs. "He's from England, so when he painted the highway — see there — he has the cars going the wrong way." Sure enough, traffic is barreling along on the Shoreway as if the patch of Cleveland asphalt rested in London.

Lerner, whose gray hair belies a face more youthful than his 49 years (he'll be 50 in a few weeks), detours through the Browns' film room as he leads us back to his office, greeting employees by name along the way and asking questions. Always asking questions.

"You grow up here?"

Yes, Clevelander since birth.

"Browns fan?"

Oh yeah. For life. No need to ramble off the list. Just tears. Always tears.

"Me too. I was there for all of it. Me too."

***

The list of interviews given by Randy Lerner during his tenure as Browns owner is relatively short. He has unabashedly talked about his desire to stay in the background, letting his football people and the players on the field make up the public face of the team. That public face, however, was never a single face, but a collage of the various misguided, ineffectual, and thankfully departed figures who have been unfortunately, unforgettably, and unmistakably ugly for more than a decade. The one constant has been Lerner.

Which is part of the reason why I e-mailed the Browns back in July to ask about a sit-down with him. Even with so little information, it was easy to tell Lerner was not some Mr. Burns, holed up in a mansion-bunker, with little regard for the common man whose cash he hoovered into a vault.

The other reason: Lerner announced over the summer that he would be making a permanent home in the land of his birth. His son Max had enrolled at St. Ignatius High School, so Lerner set up shop on the West Side for full-time Dad duty. Instead of spending a couple days a week in Cleveland and the rest in New York, where his other three children live with his ex-wife Lara, the script would be flipped. He would still fly to England on business for his other sporting property — Aston Villa, the soccer team he bought in 2006 — but the majority of his time would be spent on the shores of Lake Erie.

My pitch: Browns fans could benefit from getting to know the man. If he wanted to talk over practice, at a game, over ice cream, that'd be great. On the off chance he was down for it, we could get a Browns tattoo together. (Lerner, as has been widely reported, has the Aston Villa crest tattooed on his ankle.)

A month and a half later, the Browns media relations guy called to ask if I could meet Lerner in Berea.

That meeting in August would be an off-the-record, get-to-know-you chat. Two more of them followed in the same manner, all leading up to, I assumed, an interview. It turns out those informal talks were the interviews — at least part of them, as Lerner eventually said to use whatever we had chatted about for whatever came of this. Two more talks followed, making five in all — August, October, December, and two in January — spanning a 2011 season in which the Browns finished a painfully familiar 4-12.

The portrait of Lerner that emerged from those meetings was a compelling one, at times diametrically opposed to public perception; at others, refreshingly informative, like seeing a puzzle when it's just started and then again when it's half-finished. He's a thoughtful and deeply intelligent man, contemplative, starkly candid and honest, readily aware of his mistakes, hopeful about the future, cognizant of the past, keenly aware of tradition, passionate about his family, his teams, and his hobbies.

And, as it turns out, not at all like Mr. Burns.

***

Randy Lerner stops me the first time I use the word "owner."

"I don't like that word," he says. "Owner means you bought something. What I am ... I like to think of it more of a custodial relationship, a stewardship."

Lerner doesn't just mean that he inherited the team — that he's taking care of his father's legacy, though that's certainly part of the equation. He means the team is owned by the Lerner family trust, and he has a responsibility and obligation to its members, both current and future. He means he's the shepherd of a tradition, something he cares deeply about. He means the team is a larger civic concept and possession. He means that in a large way, it's the fans' team, not his.

Of all the other owners in the league — the Jerry Joneses, the Daniel Snyders, the newly rich, the old money — he's closest to those in similar ownership situations, the legacies. The Rooneys in Pittsburgh, the Maras in New York. And not based simply on familial lineage, but out of respect for the long, storied, successful histories of those teams.

Green Bay, too, which is an organization Lerner greatly admires. He recently passed among his front-office staff an article from Business Week called "The Green Bay Packers Have the Best Owners in Football." The piece chronicles the wild and sustained success of the only team in the NFL owned by the city in which it plays. It's an arrangement now forbidden by league rules.

But that idea of public ownership — the team as city property, a civic institution never to be taken away — sticks with Lerner. "I think it should belong to the city," he says in a hypothetical reverie.

In 1899, England's Football Association created a rule, later to be known as Rule 34, that restricted the profits of member clubs. Shareholders could take only a 5 percent dividend, and directors were not allowed to be paid. The idea was to legislate the protection of clubs as nonprofits, to ensure they were not run out of greed. Directors, history notes, should be "custodians" — that word sound familiar? — and running the team was a public service, all in pursuit of keeping the heart and soul of the sport pure and ticket prices affordable.

Lerner likes to talk about Rule 34, which obviously isn't in effect any longer. He gave a speech on the arcane, now almost-unthinkable idea at Clare College in Cambridge, where he studied for a year before graduating from Columbia.

"It really just gets to the heart of the idea of ownership," Lerner says while miming like he's twisting a screw. He often talks with his hands — pointing, gesticulating, demonstrating. "What does it mean to own one of these teams? Are they just playthings? Toys for the super rich? Are they public service? Civic institutions?"

Lerner's role now that Mike Holmgren is in the building has settled mainly on league and business matters. That means sticking up for the average Cleveland fan more than you would think, especially if you assume it's all sponsorships and corporate partnerships and big cardboard checks.

For starters, he's proud that the Browns have the third- or fourth-cheapest average ticket prices in the league. "That is important. When I look out in the seats, I want to see a real cross section of what Cleveland really looks like," Lerner says. "But it's not easy. That's shared revenue, and I have to defend those ticket prices to other owners who ask, 'Why don't you charge more?'"

The Browns, incidentally, also have the cheapest beer prices of any stadium in the league.

But consultants and experts are always looking to squeeze every penny from the finite commodity that is stadium real estate, which is to say: You, Joe Clevelander, should be happy that a guy at the top speaks for you when New York comes calling with an idea on how to pry an extra dollar from you.

Tradition — including sacrosanct institutions like, say, the Dawg Pound — is worth defending in the face of cold, harsh spreadsheets. Lerner is not afraid to raise his voice or let his temper go when the NFL brain trust proposes changes that run contrary to the very ethos of Browns football and the city of Cleveland itself. He is against his team playing a "home" game in London, as other teams do each year, and he's opposed to selling the naming rights to Cleveland Browns Stadium.

While on this topic, Lerner reaches down and picks up one of the dozen helmets that fill the coffee table in his office. Some are signed, some are not. All are orange, except for this one: It's white, with numbers on the side and orange and brown stripes running down the middle.

Back during the Carmen Policy era, he says, the NFL came to the Browns with a new design for the team's uniforms. It was that godawful helmet, paired with a jersey that, from Lerner's description, sounds like a garish mash of angles and blocks of color.

"I just laughed," he says. "I took the helmet as a souvenir though."

At this point, in late August, the Browns have played only two preseason games. Asked in a very general sense how he's feeling, Lerner pauses for a considerable while, then answers.

"The quarterback position is what keeps me up at night," he says.

It's easy to take that as a referendum on Colt McCoy, who was just entering his first full year as a starter at the time. But it wasn't. Neither was Lerner's answer when asked during a recent interview with Mike Trivisonno on WTAM radio whether McCoy could be the starting quarterback next season.

"I suddenly lose the ability to speak when I'm asked that question," he joked. By that, he simply meant he wasn't going to decide McCoy's future. Translation: Go ask the GM.

Lerner, in those few interviews he's done over the years, mentions the position often, emphasizing his belief that the quarterback is the keystone of a football team — a role that, unless settled, derails any chances of winning.

Randy Lerner is not a professional football talent evaluator, not an X's and O's guy. He has opinions, sure, and he bounces them off his staff, sometimes to deaf ears in past years. (Browns fans: Would you have preferred Drew Brees over Derek Anderson?) But he hires football people to make those decisions, defers to their choices, and lives with those decisions as the rest of us do.

The decisions haven't been very good: Two winning seasons, one playoff appearance, a record of 68-140. That's the sum total of the Browns' accomplishments since returning in 1999. And that 10-6 mark in 2007?

"A fluke," Lerner says. "It wasn't sustainable."

"You can't depend on things like Derek Anderson running down the sideline to win games," he says.

Two years into the Mike Holmgren era, Lerner is relieved, emboldened — ecstatic over the atmosphere they've built.

Lerner's demeanor, which had been cheerful and optimistic, changes when talk turns to the days before Holmgren's arrival. As if he were recalling a nightmare, his stare grows a little distant, his mouth goes slightly agape when he describes what might charitably be called a toxic workplace.

"Not good," he says simply. "Just unbelievable." Indeed, the list of failed and disgraced executives and coaches in Berea is almost as long as the list of failed quarterbacks.

Former GM Phil Savage and his "fuck you, go root for Buffalo" e-mail to a fan is just the tip of the iceberg. In the background, there's John Collins and Butch Davis and Carmen Policy and, for a hot second, coach Eric Mangini's hand-picked GM, George Kokinis, who was unceremoniously fired after just nine months on the job. The rumors involving the latter's dismissal are still the juicy nuggets of media gossip, but they are eternally protected by confidentiality agreements signed by both parties after Kokinis' grievance against the Browns was settled.

Lerner, despite his impressive memory of people and dates and times, has trouble recalling so much as the man's name, which might be a testament to just how badly he wants to forget that mess of a year. He calls the week in which he fired Kokinis the single lowest moment of his ownership.

It was November 2009, and the team had just embarrassed itself in a 30-6 loss to the Bears that dropped the team to 1-7 halfway through Mangini's first season. That day, Lerner spoke to reporters, offering up a rare, impromptu font of emotion.

He said he wanted to find a "strong, credible, serious leader within the building to guide decisions in a far more conspicuous, open, transparent way." He was "sick" over the state of the team. Asked about the current iteration of the seemingly constant fiasco at quarterback and why Brady Quinn wasn't playing, he said, "I haven't been told about anything."

That strong, credible, serious leader would be Mike Holmgren — The Big Show, a man Lerner had coveted for years, but whom he pursued with heightened urgency as the season crumbled. Lerner finally landed his man in December 2009. Tom Heckert, who was on the Browns' short list of GM candidates after the 2008 season, would join one year later. Pat Shurmur, a rookie head coach, would be named Mangini's successor.

Lerner is confident he has the right team in place this time. No, seriously. He readily admits that he's made mistakes, and he's paid dearly — he's still paying dearly, in the form of millions of dollars in contracts for guys doing analysis on television, working for other teams, or sitting on their couches. He also knows he's paid dearly for those choices on the field and with the fans, and he owns those failures. In a way, they've informed and provided contrast to the present.

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

"Mike is a pro. He runs every inch of this building. Tom and Pat are both young, smart, passionate guys. Tom is a bona-fide GM. You talk to the guy and you know this is what he's meant to do. They'll be here for a long time building this thing together.

"I know now why the other guys didn't work," he adds. "I can see that now. And I can see elemental reasons why this is different."

***

The week before the Browns are scheduled to visit the Raiders in week five, Lerner invites me over to watch a few minutes of closed indoor practice before heading to his office to chat.

Peyton Hillis has been in the news for what seems like weeks. First, sitting out a game because of symptoms from strep throat. Then unnamed sources leaked word that teammates felt he sat out because of his contract stalemate. Then came the running back's comments about the comments — all of it feeding the relentless 24-hour NFL news cycle.

"Who do you like out there?" Lerner asks, his eyes on the practice field.

Given the dearth of exciting playmakers on offense, and out of genuine appreciation for the guy's athleticism and hands, I answer tight end Evan Moore.

"I'm a fan too," Lerner says. "He just needs to block."

As the offense and defense take a break, kicker Phil Dawson takes to the turf. A couple of field goals sail wide right. Lerner declares his love for the fan favorite and half-jokes, "I think he's more comfortable outside when it's really windy."

Holmgren walks over from his perch on the sidelines and grabs Lerner for a minute. Hillis smiles and chats with teammates.

***

The knobs on Lerner's office door are orange Browns billiard balls drilled out and given as a gift. One entire wall is covered by a painting, 20 feet long or so, created by John Alexander, an artist who lived close to Lerner in New York. It's called "Inside a Nuclear Explosion," or something like that, and it's a vividly colorful abstraction depicting exactly what the title suggests. When you look closely, however, faces and animals jump out at you, then water. Step back again, and it's an entrancing, logical mess.

"I don't know, I just liked it. There's a bunch of orange in it," Lerner says. "I guess it reminded me of the Browns."

The wall behind Lerner's desk is decorated with an assortment of pictures — his children, his father Al, collages by another artist friend, a painting of Brooklyn that Al Lerner had above his desk, and a framed photo of a set of empty bleachers with the words "1996 Cleveland Browns Team Photo" printed underneath.

Despite all the drama swirling around Berea, the conversation settles into anything but football for a short while, starting with Lerner's favorite versions of "Hoochie Coochie Man." Muddy Waters is at the top, naturally.

There's also Son House's "Death Letter" — Lerner's a blues man, if you couldn't tell. Ron Wood's solo effort I've Got My Own Album to Do also makes the list. And Hunky Dory, because who doesn't love Bowie.

There are no guitars in the office, but Lerner's home is littered with them. He's been playing since he was young, when his mom would take him to play open-mic nights in a club on Murray Hill. He still plays with his friends and his son.

Before long, Lerner has to move on to another meeting.

Uh, I should ask one Browns question. What the hell is happening with Hillis?

"That's actually what me and Mike talked about earlier during practice, whether this is becoming a distraction or not. He doesn't think it is."

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