Al Lerner Rectifies A Mistake on the Lake
By Jeremy Kahn

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Al Lerner, the billionaire chairman of credit card issuer MBNA, is a philanthropic guy. He's donated $100 million to the Cleveland Clinic for a research institute, $25 million to his alma mater, Columbia University, for a student center, and millions more to other causes. To hear Lerner talk, his purchase of the new Cleveland Browns, the National Football League's latest expansion team, was just another act of charity--his $535 million gift to the city he's called home for 39 years.

But it is more complicated than that. For he who now giveth once helped taketh away. Lerner held a 5% stake in the old Cleveland Browns franchise and was a close friend of the team's majority owner, Art Modell. When a cash-strapped Modell decided to abandon Cleveland for Baltimore in 1995--enticed by a new stadium--Lerner played midwife to the deal. He introduced Modell to his Baltimore banker friends. The signing of the agreement between Maryland officials and Modell took place aboard Lerner's jet as it sat on the tarmac of Baltimore's airport. And at the press conference in which Modell announced that the Browns were leaving, Lerner sat behind him on the podium to lend support.

The Browns' departure devastated football-crazed Cleveland. "My town got kicked in the teeth," says Cleveland mayor Michael White. As the city fought successfully to retain the Browns' name and team colors (Modell's franchise became the Baltimore Ravens), Modell was hanged in effigy and received death threats.

Lerner escaped the worst of Cleveland's wrath and still insists he was only trying to help his then-friend Modell avoid financial ruin. The two stopped speaking after Lerner tried to distance himself from the Browns' departure, and in 1997, Modell bought Lerner's stake in the Ravens (which had grown to 9%) for $32 million. Cynics maintain that Lerner's purchase of the Browns is a bid for redemption; but he says, "If I were looking for redemption, it would have been a lot smarter to stay away from football. No, my conscience is fine."

Of course, fans love an owner who's pouring money into their team, and Lerner and minority owner Carmen Policy, the brilliant former president of the San Francisco 49ers, have in less than a year assembled a front office that may be the best in the NFL. Policy's protege, Dwight Clark, was recruited from San Francisco as general manager; Chris Palmer, former offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, is the new coach. They also grabbed the season's top rookie quarterback, Tim Couch, the University of Kentucky all-star.

And the new Browns are carefully catering to the fans. At Lerner's insistence, the Browns refused to adopt a new team logo--sticking with their traditional orange helmet. His team plays in a new, $290 million, taxpayer-subsidized stadium. It's thoroughly modern (lots of skyboxes and clean sight lines), but in deference to tradition Lerner declined to sell naming rights, so the place is known simply as Cleveland Browns Stadium (the team did sell the rights to put names over its four entry gates). There's even a new Dawg Pound, the end zone bleachers where the most maniacal fans sit, woofing like dogs. This year, for the first time, training camp was open free to the public. But the final touch to this old-fashioned, fan-centric approach is Lerner's relative unconcern with profits and losses. "We will try very hard to have revenues exceed expenses," Lerner says, but adds with emphasis, "Success would be winning a Super Bowl."

The Browns have a lot of work to do before that happens. After all, they're just an expansion team, and as of press time had yet to win a game. But Clevelanders don't seem to care. They're just happy to have their Browns back. On that point at least, the blue-collar Joes in the Dawg Pound and the billionaire in the owner's box are united.

--Jeremy Kahn