Schaefer hands off to new owner Governor backs Lerner in NFL bid

November 16, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer Staff writer Ken Murray contributed to this article.

In a dramatic, fourth-quarter substitution, Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday endorsed a Cleveland-based multimillionaire with strong football connections to be the owner of a potential Baltimore NFL expansion franchise.

Mr. Schaefer said he hoped the new face -- Alfred Lerner -- and new strategy would make the difference for Baltimore Nov. 30, when NFL owners will meet near Chicago and vote on which of the four finalists will be awarded the league's 30th team.

"It's a whole new ballgame. I think it gives us a whole new dimension," Mr. Schaefer said yesterday.

In backing Mr. Lerner, Mr. Schaefer was effectively snubbing two prospective owners who had been working alongside community leaders for about two years to get a team: Florida-based corporate investor Malcolm Glazer and a group led by Baltimore-born retail executive Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass. Both men said they would stay in the race, but their failure to garner the official support of the state is bound to weigh heavily with NFL owners. Mr. Schaefer called NFL president Neil Austrian yesterday to say he supported Mr. Lerner.

Mr. Schaefer, who recruited Mr. Lerner, said neither Mr. Weinglass nor Mr. Glazer generated sufficient enthusiasm among NFL owners to take the city over the top last month, when the NFL awarded a single franchise to Charlotte, N.C., and deferred naming the second.

"Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer, they fought hard . . . but we didn't get the franchise. We did not win. We cannot stand pat," Mr. Schaefer said.

Mr. Schaefer said it was a difficult decision, especially because Mr. Weinglass' investment group included a number of blue-chip community leaders who became involved at the urging of the governor. Among its members are H&S Bakery owner John Paterakis and Crown Central Petroleum chairman Henry Rosenberg, both Schaefer supporters, as well as moviemaker Barry Levinson.

"If I were them, I would not be happy. But I've been working since Mr. Irsay moved the Colts from the city. We've been working for 10 years," said Mr. Schaefer, who was mayor of Baltimore in 1984, when the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis.

The governor met separately with Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer's two sons Sunday and explained his decision. Also present were the other members of the committee overseeing Baltimore's NFL bid: Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, local businessman and Greater Baltimore Committee representative Mathias J. DeVito and Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad.

Mr. Schaefer said Mr. Lerner, a real estate and financial services executive who got his start in Baltimore and once headed its biggest bank, has the financial strength to mount a solo bid for a team and is well-known within the league.

Mr. Lerner, who did not return phone calls yesterday, owns 5 percent of the Cleveland Browns and is a close friend of Browns owner Art Modell, a member of the committee of team owners that will recommend where to award the next franchise.

Mr. Schaefer said he called Mr. Lerner about a week ago to ask him to file an application with the NFL, which he did yesterday. The league set a deadline of noon yesterday for new ownership applications, although it reserves the right to name any owner it wants to the winning city.

St. Louis, generally considered the front-runner for the second franchise, filed a franchise agreement on behalf of a group led by a Missouri developer, E. Stanley Kroenke. A rival group headed by former New England Patriots owner Fran Murray did not file an application, effectively taking it out of the running, an NFL spokesman said. Mr. Murray says he has control over the lease to St. Louis' domed football stadium, an issue he has hinted may have to be settled in court.

The other finalists for a team, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville,

Fla., made no changes in their ownership applications, although Memphis' leaders said they enhanced their financial package.

Mr. Schaefer said the state decided to abandon its long-standing policy of neutrality on team ownership after consulting a number of NFL owners and league officials who suggested the stance was causing confusion. He said he didn't regret the old policy, but was thankful the NFL's delay in naming a second city gave him the opportunity to change it.

"We couldn't get a Baltimore group. I tried for a long time to get a key member of the Baltimore community to do this, but I was not successful," Mr. Schaefer said.

Mr. Lerner is a publicity-shy ex-Marine described by friends as a no-nonsense businessman unlikely to get involved unless he thought the city could get a team.

Though he is based in Cleveland, Mr. Lerner got his start here as a furniture salesman and has had a number of significant holdings in the area, including the Baltimore-based Town & Country Management Corp., which owns thousands of apartments in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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