Gary and Ruth Chudzinski simultaneously used cordless phones Thursday night at their Fremont home, so they could listen to an important call together.
Their son, Rob, was on the other end of the line.
“He said to both of us, ‘Do you know who this is?’ ” Gary Chudzinski said Saturday in a phone interview with the Beacon Journal. “We said, ‘Of course.’ He said, ‘Do you know you’re talking to the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns?’ That was a shocker to us, and we were really surprised and happy for him.”
They weren’t the only ones.
Rob Chudzinski, a 44-year-old Toledo native, comes from a clan of rabid Browns fans. Once Chudzinski’s parents found out owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner had hired their oldest of three children and only son as the team’s 14th full-time head coach and sixth since 1999 during a dinner Thursday in Charlotte, N.C., word spread quickly throughout the family.
“My dad called me,” Dave Dixon, Chudzinski’s cousin, said Saturday in a phone interview. “It wasn’t on the Internet yet. It was surreal. I had to work the next day, and I couldn’t sleep. The excitement Rob showed is exactly what we’re all feeling. I’ve been a Browns fan a long time. We were celebrating, high-fiving, calling all the cousins.”
It’s difficult for Dixon, a 44-year-old Fremont resident, to believe Chudzinski will be one of the faces of the franchise they were so passionate about growing up. He could have never imagined his cousin with whom he used to chomp on dog biscuits would coach in the NFL, let alone ascend the ranks and take control of their favorite team.
“Those dog biscuits weren’t very good,” said Dixon, who converted a 1974 Winnebago into a Brownsmobile a few years ago. “It’s just kind of peer pressure. They’re milk bones, straight out of the box. They’re terrible. Who would of known what we were doing would of came around like this?”
In two previous stints with the Browns, Chudzinski served as a tight ends coach (2004) and an offensive coordinator (the final five games of 2004 and 2007-08). Both of those tours ended with him being fired in the aftermath of coaching changes.
But now Chudzinski is back in Cleveland, and this time, he’s a head coach for the first time in his life. He interviewed with the St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars for their coaching vacancies last year, but he didn’t get any of those jobs. He spent the past two seasons as the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.
“He’s wanted to be a head coach for a long time,” Gary Chudzinski said. “The fact that Cleveland became interested in him and ultimately selected them for their head-coaching job was a real thrill.”
When he was a kid, Chudzinski idolized Ozzie Newsome and pretended to be the hall of famer during backyard football games. He and his cousins would often gather at their uncle Jim Vogel’s house in Bellevue and position the TV so they could sit outside in the snow and watch Browns games through a window. They wanted to experience the same frosty feeling the die-hard fans in the Dawg Pound were enduring.
“They had a big picture window on the back, and we sat outside,” Dixon said. “It progressed from watching outside to eventually eating dog bones to watching outside with our shirts off.
“Sometimes we’d just take the TV outside. We were 10 or 12 years old [when we started the tradition]. We did that all the way up through 1986 or 1988 as seniors in high school.”
Chudzinski played high school football for Toledo St. John’s Jesuit and always wanted to be a tight end for the Browns like his hero Newsome. Although Chudzinski had an impressive career playing the position, it never extended beyond the University of Miami, where he won national championships in 1987 and ’89.
After his playing days ended, coaching the Browns eventually became his next dream. However, Chudzinski took a detour.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1990 and decided to work at a consulting firm in Miami. He spent three years in the business world before former Hurricanes coach Dennis Erickson lured him back to Miami as a graduate assistant coach in 1994.
“I had almost finished my master’s degree by the time I finished playing at Miami, and I’d been wanting to go back and finish,” Chudzinski, who earned his M.B.A. in 1996, told the Toledo Blade in 2005. “I mentioned that to coach Erickson and he offered me a graduate assistant coaching job, suggesting that it would be a good way to finish my master’s. I’d never really thought too much of coaching as a career, but it turned out I loved it.”
Chudzinski coached at his alma mater until 2004, when coach Butch Davis brought him to the Browns. Chudzinski’s wife, Sheila, told him the time was right to make the leap to the NFL because they were married in March 2003 and had yet to have children. Now they have three: sons Kaelan and Rian, and daughter Margaret.
After leaving Northeast Ohio twice, spending four seasons with the San Diego Chargers (2005-06 tight ends coach and 2009-10 assistant head coach/tight ends coach) and two more with the Carolina Panthers, Chudzinski has come full circle on his NFL journey. He replaces Pat Shurmur, whom Haslam and Banner fired Dec. 31 after the Browns went 5-11 and suffered their 12th losing season of the expansion era.
So what type of coach will he be?
“The term players’ coach would relate to him,” Pete Garcia, the Browns’ former vice president of player personnel and football development who worked with Chudzinski in Cleveland and at Miami, said Saturday in a phone interview. “He’s very firm, and he wants things done a certain way. He’s very demanding, but he does it in a way where the players will run through a wall for him. I think one of the things the Browns just picked up is a guy that is going to be able to attract free agents.
“He will respect his players, but he will demand everything from his players. So he is the perfect combination ’cause some guys demand, demand, demand and never respect. So if you’re a player who wants to get better and wants to reach your potential and wants to be put in positions to succeed, then Chudzinski is the coach for you.”
Although Chudzinski has never stood in front of an entire team and issued orders, Haslam and Banner are confident he possesses the strong, dynamic leadership skills they sought during their coaching search.
“In the background checks we did with some really well-known, well-respected head coaches and coordinators, the response was, ‘There is no doubt Rob can control the room, as the saying goes, and can focus the team and lead the team,’ ” Haslam said Friday during Chudzinski’s introductory news conference. “We had zero doubt about that. That came through loud and clear.”
Haslam is also confident that Chudzinski’s downfield, vertical passing attack will lead the Browns to success. The Panthers ranked seventh in offense (389.8 yards per game) and tied for fifth in scoring (25.4 points per game) in 2011 and ranked 12th in offense (360.7 yards per game) and tied for 18th in scoring (22.3 points per game) in 2012.
“[Banner] did an outstanding job doing all kinds of reference checks,” Haslam said. “Whether it was an offensive person or a defensive person, several of the coordinators said, ‘I hate to go against the guy. He’s a great schemer. I’m never sure what he’s going to run. It’s always a challenge.’ ”
Chudzinski is familiar with the losing, dysfunction and “here we go again” attitude that has lingered in Browns Town since the team’s rebirth. Now he has a chance to spearhead a turnaround for the team he was born to love.
“He is one of the brightest and smartest individuals I’ve ever met,” Garcia said. “His intelligence is off the charts, and then his work ethic and his attention to detail and organization is at the highest level.
“I know he’s got a vision and a plan for what he’s going to do with the Cleveland Browns. A lot of people have plans, but they don’t execute them. He always executes his plans.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Sports writer Ryan Lewis contributed to this report. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.