Lerner was a U.S. Marine 1955-57

One thing some people liked about Al Lerner was his ability to seem like a down-to-earth billionaire.

During one of his last public appearances, in an interview with writers from Warren, Medina and Canton, Lerner was asked if it was important that quarterback Tim Couch avoid serious injury.

“What was Yogi Berra’s line?’’ Lerner responded. “It’s not like death. It’s more important than that.’’

Then, Lerner smiled that little wry smile of his.

The smile was absent from the Cleveland Browns’ troubled 2002 season. And now it is gone except in pictures and memories.

The furniture salesman-turned-tycoon who rebuilt the Cleveland Browns lost a battle with cancer Wednesday night.

The 69-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native died about 8:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Clinic. Lerner’s death came four years to the day after Lerner and minority partner Carmen Policy officially became owners of the Browns. He was just three years older than Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame Cleveland player he involved with the reborn franchise. He was eight years younger than Art Modell, who bought the old Browns on March 21, 1961.

Lerner became a minority owner of the Browns under Modell. In 1995, Lerner incurred the wrath of many Browns fans after it was learned that Modell’s deal to move the Browns to Baltimore was signed on Lerner’s private jet.

It was Lerner, though, who brought the Browns back. Using his resources as the founder and chairman of MBNA Corp., he bid $530 million to become owner of the expansion Browns. Ownership was transferred to Lerner and Policy on Oct. 23, 1998.

The Browns’ last game under Modell was a loss at Jacksonville on Christmas Eve in 1995.

The first game back was a win over Dallas on Aug. 9, 1999. It was the Hall of Fame Game at Fawcett Stadium in Canton.

“This is everything we dreamed it would be,’’ Lerner said after the game, around midnight.

The dream got bumpy. The Browns went 2-14 in the regular season and 3-13 in their second season. Afterward, Lerner said he favored retaining Head Coach Chris Palmer. Policy thought a change was needed. Lerner deferred to Policy’s judgment. In late January 2001, Lerner and Policy spent the weekend at Butch Davis’ home in South Florida, convincing Davis to join the Browns.

More than once after he agreed to become Palmer’s replacement, Davis said one of the main reasons he was willing to leave the University of Miami was Lerner.

Lerner seemed thoroughly taken by the new head coach, but he had little time to enjoy the transition in good health. In April, Lerner underwent cranial surgery, the details of which the Browns would never discuss.

In a June interview, Lerner said he was “fine.’’ In the subsequent months, when Lerner was seen at practice only occasionally and withdrew from the media, Policy would use the same assessment: “He’s fine.”

Lerner was a U.S. Marine (1955-57) who seemed intent on shunning sympathy.

Lerner’s last public words might have come in a radio interview in January. Lerner set a goal of the Browns reaching the playoffs in 2002.

Whatever is to become of the season will proceed under someone else’s stewardship. Policy will play a strong role, as will a son, who has been fairly visible at the team complex this year. Lerner also is survived by his wife, the former Norma Wolkoff, who was at his side Wednesday. The couple has two children and seven grandchildren.

Lerner graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1951, when Paul Brown’s Browns were in their second year in the National Football League. He earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia College in 1955.

He used his personal savings and loans to rise in the business world after starting off as a furniture salesman. He founded MBNA, which has risen to the largest independent bank lender through credit cards in the country.

As owner of the Browns, he freely promoted MBNA, but he declined multimillion-dollar offers to attach a corporate name to what has been Cleveland Browns Stadium since the Browns came back as an expansion team.

Last week, when he returned to Cleveland as offensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, Palmer said, “The Cleveland situation is a great situation. You’ve got a great owner. It’s a great stadium. It’s a great sports town. A guy can come in there and be pretty successful.’’

Former Browns left tackle Doug Dieken, currently a Browns’ radio analyst, remembered Lerner on Wednesday night.

“If you were going to find an owner whose ultimate goal was to win in a first-class fashion,’’ he said, “it would be Mr. Lerner.’’

The Browns released a statement not attributed to an individual. It said: “The Browns have suffered a great loss. Al Lerner was a remarkable man — exceptionally devoted to his family, a tremendously compassionate person, and a trusted and valued friend. He was the embodiment of courage, humanity, leadership and patriotism, and he will be sorely missed.”