Modell, Lerner football deals smack of deja vu Browns moving here, new team for Cleveland secretly discussed in '80s


WHO WOULD have guessed a decade ago that Art Modell would own a football team in Baltimore, and his partner, Al Lerner, a new franchise in Cleveland?

Several former Maryland political leaders, that's who.

Lerner, a credit card mogul and former Baltimore banker, last month won the bidding to own the expansion franchise that will replace the Cleveland team that Modell moved to Baltimore.

That was precisely one of the outcomes discussed in a series of clandestine meetings the two men held with the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland beginning in 1985, just a year after the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984.

Among the scenarios discussed: Modell moving the Browns to Baltimore and Lerner buying a replacement team for Cleveland.

Although nothing came of the conversations, they make the events of the past three years seem a little less, well, sudden.

A memo in the archives of William Donald Schaefer, the Baltimore mayor who served as the state's chief executive from 1987 to 1994, details an encounter between Modell and a Baltimore sports booster on Aug. 19, 1985.

"Modell peppered him with questions: reasons for low attendance at Colts games, chances of changing that, attitude of fans to baseball, financial probability of success, etc.," read the memo, addressed to Schaefer and written by his press secretary.

An attached, handwritten note reads, "Sell Browns. He may get franchise I must create a facility. Modell says no to our stadium."

No stranger to Baltimore

Modell was no stranger to Baltimore. Several years earlier, while the Colts still played in the city, he had met with Edward Bennett Williams, then the owner of the Orioles, about Modell's operation of Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. The Orioles were considering a similar arrangement and sought his advice.

At the time of his contact with Maryland officials, Modell had just lost protracted court battles with a Browns part-owner and the Indians, the baseball team that was Modell's sub-tenant at Municipal Stadium. His popularity in Cleveland had plummetted.

A few months later, in December 1985, Modell and Lerner held a secret meeting at Martin State Airport. Schaefer was there, along with then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes, the state's economic development chief, and Williams, according to several participants.

Hughes said the topic was an expansion team for Baltimore. "My recollection was Modell would come up with the expansion team. He was having problems with his minority investor," Hughes recalled in a 1996 interview.

Under this plan, Modell would have sold the Cleveland team to Lerner and moved to Baltimore to head its expansion effort. "People at the time said they'd have a pretty good shot," Hughes said.

Idea dropped

The idea was dropped a few months later, after a second meeting in Annapolis, when Modell, Williams and Lerner couldn't agree on how to share a new stadium. Hughes said Modell made it clear that Baltimore would need a new playing facility - and added something that Hughes found ironic in hindsight.

"He said the NFL owners say they would never play another game at Memorial Stadium," Hughes said.

Memorial Stadium was, of course, the home of the Ravens until the new stadium recently opened downtown.

Later, in 1986, Lerner wrote a letter to then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle expressing an interest in owning an expansion team in Baltimore. He brought a copy of the letter to Hughes and asked him to keep it secret, which he did. Hughes said he never heard back from Lerner on the matter.

Chris Hartman, an aide to Schaefer in the 1980s, said conversations continued off and on with the Clevelanders for at least another year. In 1986, he got a call from a Browns official saying the Browns might be interested in moving to Baltimore, possibly with Lerner buying another team and moving it to Cleveland.

"Lerner would buy a team and move it to Cleveland, and Modell would move the Browns here," Hartman said. Modell, Hartman said he was told, "was interested in Baltimore. His children loved Baltimore."

The talks went nowhere. The league was embroiled in unrelated issues, and expansion was relegated to the sidelines. The fortunes of the Browns in Cleveland also improved.

Schaefer said he has no recollection of the talks, but he has been reminded by aides that they took place. "Everybody tells me that I did it, so I presume I did," Schaefer said of the conversations. He said he's not sure the Browns would have met his rules against poaching another city's team.

Asked after he moved to Baltimore about the 1980s contacts, Modell said the former governors are mistaken. He might have offered Baltimore friendly advice on rejoining the league, but not with his team, he said. Never.

Lerner declined to comment.

Lerner resurfaces

Lerner surfaced again in 1993 when Schaefer, panicking as the city's bid for an expansion franchise was going down in flames, recruited Lerner to be the potential owner. Maryland strategists were betting that Lerner, with his close contacts with Modell, could deliver votes from the NFL owners.

The move failed miserably. Not only did Modell decline to vote for Baltimore, but Lerner refused to campaign on the city's behalf - telling Maryland strategists he was acting on Modell's advice. Lerner arrived at and left from the owners meeting in Chicago, where the new franchise was awarded, through back doors to avoid waiting reporters. He stayed on his airplane at a nearby airport while the vote was conducted and a team given to Jacksonville, Fla.

Lerner didn't even let Schaefer know how the vote turned out. When Modell left the owners meeting by cab, he drove to the airport and boarded Lerner's plane. The two flew off together to New York before the full ownership had ratified the recommendation of the committee that picked Jacksonville.

Alerted by a sportswriter who had seen Modell leave, the Maryland delegation frantically dialed the number Lerner had provided for his airplane phone. There was no answer, said Herbert Belgrad, then the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

League officials soon came knocking at the delegation's hotel-room door with the bad news.

"It was as if the rug had been pulled out from under us," Belgrad recalled three years later.

Lerner and Modell were not heard from again. Until 1995, that is. Lerner, at Modell's request, contacted Maryland officials and set up the initial meetings that led to the relocation agreement. One key negotiation session was held in Lerner's New York offices with Modell and Belgrad's successor, John Moag.

Moag, who worked in the same law firm as Harry Hughes, said he knew of the 1980s contacts with the Browns and Modell. But he dismissed them as no more significant than the inquiries the city received from countless other franchises that looked at Baltimore but decided not to move here.

Lerner said he was merely helping his friend, Modell, out of a jam in 1995 and has declined to talk about what transpired during the previous decade. The two millionaires have since had a falling out, and Modell campaigned for other candidates to own the Cleveland franchise, relenting at the 11th hour to throw his support to Lerner.

Cleveland fans are unsure whether Lerner is a rehabilitated Benedict Arnold or an opportunist. Many of them can't get past the scene, three years ago, when the final documents to move Modell's team to Baltimore were signed by Moag, Modell and Gov. Parris N. Glendening, aboard Lerner's jet during a secret meeting at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

It wasn't the same airport where the 1985 meeting took place. But the subject was almost identical.

Jon Morgan, who covers the business of sports for The Sun, is the author of "Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL," a detailed account of the Browns move to Baltimore and the city's NFL history. This article is adapted from the book. He is also author of the recently published "Gaining a Yard: The Building of Baltimore's Football Stadium," a book illustrated by Sun photographer Doug Kapustin.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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