CLEVELAND (AP) — Browns owner Randy Lerner has begun talks with truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam on giving up controlling interest while committing to keep the team in Cleveland, the club president said Friday.
And get this: Haslam is a self-described "1,000 percent" Pittsburgh Steelers fan.
"(Lerner) is giving up controlling interest in the team," president Mike Holmgren said at the team's suburban Berea training camp. Holmgren said he and Lerner have discussed the matter throughout the summer.
Holmgren said the talks on the future of the team included the agreed stipulation that the Browns would remain in town.
"The Cleveland Browns are not going anywhere," Holmgren said.
Holmgren said that Lerner's interests have changed during the years and that the owner had told him a while back that, while he loved the team, he would consider selling if and when a reliable buyer came along. "All the stars aligned in the last few months," Holmgren said.
Lerner disclosed the talks in a statement earlier Friday.
"In connection with current rumors and press inquiries, I can report that I've been approached by Mr. Jimmy Haslam, who is interested in making an investment in the Cleveland Browns. We are currently in negotiations and both sides have agreed to keep that dialogue and its details private," Lerner said in a statement.
"Given that any transaction would require League approval, care has been taken so that this process will not be disruptive to the organization, in particular the football team, as it prepares for the upcoming season. We will share further details or make an announcement if it becomes necessary."
The Browns have been owned by the Lerner family since 1999, when the franchise was reborn after the original club moved to Baltimore.
Randy Lerner, 50, who also owns the Aston Villa soccer club in England, inherited the Browns in 2002 following the death of his father, Al.
Some fans have been unhappy with Randy Lerner, long criticizing him as a disengaged owner of a club that has made the playoffs just once since it was recreated.
Jimmy Haslam is president and CEO of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Flying J, the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America with more than 550 retail locations. He is the older brother of Tennessee's Gov. Bill Haslam, who also worked for the family business before he was elected mayor of Knoxville in 2003 and again in 2007, then governor in 2010.
Lauren Christ, spokeswoman for the company, confirmed that Jimmy Haslam was the prospective Browns investor. She said Haslam would have no further comment on the Browns statement and referred all questions to the team.
Phil Dawson, the only player remaining from the 1999 expansion Browns, said the announcement surprised him but it doesn't affect his job.
"I certainly didn't come here this morning thinking this would happen," the 37-year-old kicker said. "It is not going to affect the team. We come out to play."
Coach Pat Shurmur said his primary concern was for the coaching staff he hired and then the players and trainers. Shurmur said he will not address sale negotiations and will continue to talk about football.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league is aware of the discussions.
Haslam has been a minority investor in the Pittsburgh Steelers and in a 2010 profile told the team's Steelers.com Web site that he had been a Dallas Cowboys and then an Indianapolis Colts fan. But with the Pittsburgh investment, Haslam said he had become "1,000 percent a Steelers fan." The Steelers, of course, are the Browns' chief rival.
The Haslam brothers are supporters of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where their father Jim Haslam played tackle on the 1951 national championship football team under Gen. Robert R. Neyland, who is credited with building the school into a football powerhouse.
The elder Haslam founded the Pilot Corp. in 1958 with a single gas station in Gate City, Va.
He credits sons Bill and Jimmy with expanding the chain from mostly gas stations and convenience stores to a "travel center" concept of truck stops featuring branded fast food service.
Jim Haslam told The Associated Press in 2010 that his approach for his sons was: "Jimmy, you take care of today, and Bill you take care of tomorrow."
"When we started our big expansion in the mid-1980s, Jimmy kind of ran the operations and Bill did the development fund and the new locations — all the long-range stuff," he said.
Jim Haslam was a longtime member of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees and in 2006 donated $32.5 million to the school, the largest gift ever at the time.
He also established the Haslam Family Foundation for charitable giving. Bill Haslam and Jimmy Haslam each gave $30.5 million to the foundation between 2001 and 2010. The brothers' biggest annual donation was $10 million each in 2008 and 2009, according to IRS reports.
Over the same 10-year period, the family foundation gave $19 million, with the University of Tennessee, the UT Foundation and United Way receiving the most.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson sought to deflect any talk of the city losing the Browns again. Then-owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore in 1996.
"The 30-year lease to the Cleveland Browns commenced in 1999 and continues to 2029," Jackson's office said in a statement.
"This lease, like the prior Municipal Stadium lease for which the City of Cleveland successfully obtained an injunction in 1995, requires the Browns to play all their regular season and playoff home games in the Cleveland Browns Stadium. If this requirement is not honored the city has legal options that could be pursued if necessary."
Associated Press reporters Tom Withers in London and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn., and freelance writer Chuck Murr in Berea, Ohio, contributed to this report.