By Tony Grossi
Tennessee billionaire Jimmy Haslam III will be introduced at 1 p.m. on Friday as the new owner of the Browns, caretaker of one of the NFL’s bedrock franchises.
The transaction was completed for a total purchase price reported to be slightly over $1 billion, paid in two phases. The first phase would have Haslam take over controlling interest for a tad over $700 million. A second phase would involve a payment of $300 million at a future date, reported by Associated Press to be the fourth anniversary of the transaction.
The Lerner family would retain 30 percent stake immediately and then would divest completely in four years.
An ESPNCleveland source speculated on Sunday that the total purchase price would reach $1.05 billion. Forbes.com had reported the price to be $920 million.
The final paperwork was completed while the Browns were on the practice field in the morning.
In a statement, Haslam said, "This is a very exciting time for my family and me. To own such a storied franchise as the Cleveland Browns, with its rich tradition and history, is a dream come true. We are committed to keeping the team in Cleveland and seeing it get back to the elite of the NFL -- something all Browns fans want and deserve.
"We plan to bring relentless dedication and hard work to every aspect of this organization, and we look forward to getting to know this team and community as quickly as possible. Our family is committed to becoming an integral part of the Cleveland community. We also want to thank Randy Lerner for his friendship, counsel and support during this process."
Coach Pat Shurmur was aware of the completed transaction when he met with media after practice.
When asked if he feared the historic transaction would affect his team, Shurmur said, “I have no fear of that because I trust my coaches and I trust the players. I’ve watched the work they’ve done based on the conversation of this last week. I think we’re moving full steam ahead. It doesn’t bother me one bit at this point.
“My concern is getting this team ready to play. Our players understand that message and they’re doing a good job.”
Shurmur delivered a speech to his players when the bombshell news of a pending sale broke on the first day of Browns’ training camp. The players have since fallen in line with their coach and insist that the transaction is out of their control and outside of their minds.
“As long as I’m here and wearing a Browns jersey, it’ll be the same to me,” said tight end Evan Moore, who was active for his first practice of camp on Thursday.
“This is one of those things that’s above and beyond our control, so we can’t worry about it,” said linebacker Scott Fujita. “Just focus on our job and get better. That’s our job.
“We can’t let it (interfere). Because we don’t know what kind of changes might be in store in the future, in store now. All we know is we have a game next week in the preseason and that’s what we have to focus on.”
But changes are inevitable now, and the first will be the addition of former Philadelphia Eagles President Joe Banner as Haslam’s probable CEO. Even as late as Thursday afternoon, Holmgren said he did not know if Banner were involved as an ownership partner or team executive.
Any staff changes on the business side would have to wait for the sale to be formally approved by the NFL, which could happen this month.
Haslam must first divest of his minority stake (believed to be 5 to 8 percent) in the Pittsburgh Steelers. After that, league owners would formally vote on the sale. Since Haslam was approved as a Steelers’ partner in 2008, Haslam’s ratification is seen as a rubber stamp. Indeed, the NFL steered Haslam to the Browns when he expressed interest in owning a controlling interest in a team.
After the formal NFL approval, changes could happen more swiftly. Holmgren is not expected to be retained and could be gone before the start of the regular season on Sept. 9.
Holmgren spoke to reporters after the team's walk-through on Thursday. He spoke softly, almost shaken, by the reality that the franchise was taking on new leadership and that he very likely would not be a part of it.
"I hope to (stay through the 2012 season), but, we’ll see," Holmgren said. "I’ve been in this business a long time and we’ll just see how that goes. Holmgren conceded he was surprised by the timing of the sales process, coming right at the outset of a season of great promise.
"Since I’ve been in the league, most often those type of things happen in the offseason. This was different from that respect. But, I gave up being surprised a long time again."
Coincidentally, the Browns open the season against the Eagles, Banner’s organization until he left abruptly in May. At the time, he indicated he was pursuing a partnership to own another team. It is believed that contact already had been made between Haslam and Lerner at that time.
The next question is whether Banner would retain Tom Heckert as general manager. Heckert was hired by the Eagles in 2001 as director of player personnel. He was named general manager in 2006 and filled that role until he left for the Browns in 2010.
Under Banner in Philadelphia, Heckert never was given the total authority in football decisions as he has here. Banner also groomed Howie Roseman to eventually replace Heckert.
NFL teams rarely make changes at the general manager position during a season; the Browns were an exception when they fired George Kokinis in the middle of the 2009 season.
Haslam, 58, is the president and CEO of Pilot Flying J, the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America. The company, founded by his father, Jimmy Haslam Jr., is based in Knoxville, Tenn.
Haslam’s younger brother, Bill, is governor of Tennessee, and the family has been a huge benefactor to the University of Tennessee. Both Haslam and his father played football at Tennessee.
Lerner assumed ownership of the Browns in 2002 after his father, Al Lerner, died of brain cancer. Al Lerner bought the Browns expansion franchise for $530 million in 1998.
In nine years under Randy’s tenure, the Browns compiled a record of 47-97 with eight double-digit loss seasons. In that time, the Browns had three presidents, three general managers and three head coaches.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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