BEREA: To understand why Browns special teams coordinator Chris Tabor often sprints alongside players as they go through drills during practice, yelling instructions and words of encouragement, the inspiration for his intense, passionate approach must be considered.
“He gets that from my father,” Tabor’s younger brother Matt said in a recent phone interview. “When you grow up in a household and all you do is football from the time you’re 4 or 5 years old to the time you’re out of high school, you’re going to learn some important traits about how to lead, and I think he got that from my father.”
The late Don Tabor coached high school football in Missouri for 40 years and had four boys and a girl with his wife, Mary Jane. The children were born and raised in St. Joseph, Mo., about a one-hour drive north of Kansas City. All of the boys, Donnie, 45; Chris, 42; and twins Matt and Michael, 36, played football at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., and graduated from the NAIA school.
“All we ever knew was coaching football,” Matt Tabor said. “You grow up in a household where you can’t even grab a paper plate without counter trey being written on it.”
Chris and Matt Tabor followed in their father’s footsteps. Matt Tabor has been a history teacher and the football coach at Benton High School in St. Joseph for six years. The family’s patriarch, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at age 77, also taught history and coached at a few schools, the last of which was Benton. He retired in 1997 because of health issues.
“He’s my idol on the whole deal,” Chris Tabor said of his father during a recent interview at the Browns’ headquarters before the coaches took this weekend off with the team carrying a record of 4-5 into its bye. “He coached forever, made the high school hall of fame, he was my high school coach, and then he watched me all throughout my career and right when I got [my first NFL job with] Chicago, I just got hired and probably within a month or two, he passed away. He always said, ‘I knew you made it.’
“I don’t go a day without thinking about him, and I hope my daughters say the same thing about me when I pass. He was a hell of a coach, but he was a hell of a dad. If I can be half of him, then I made it.”
Turnaround in Cleveland
Chris Tabor is doing a pretty good job of making a name for himself. He has found success despite encountering obstacles, including the shaky start he had with the Browns in 2011 and the departure of several key players this year.
After Tabor served as a special teams assistant with the Chicago Bears from 2008-10, former Browns coach Pat Shurmur hired him as the special teams coordinator. During Tabor’s first season with the Browns, they were haunted by several special-teams miscues, including former long snapper Ryan Pontbriand’s misfired snaps, two blocked field goals, plus another that was deflected, and touchdowns allowed on a fake field goal, a kickoff return and a punt return.
Brad Seely, Tabor’s predecessor, helped the Browns excel on special teams for two seasons before he took the special teams coordinator job with the San Francisco 49ers after coach Eric Mangini was fired and Shurmur succeeded him. Fans and media lamented the drop-off in 2011 under Tabor’s guidance, though Shurmur stuck with him.
Tabor and his men bounced back the following season. In 2012, the Browns finished 14th in the special-teams rankings compiled annually by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. In 2011, they were 26th.
“I think we probably coached better, understood the players better, and I think that’s the key,” said Tabor, a former college quarterback. “It was a lockout year [in 2011]. You’re trying to install something new. You’re not exactly sure who the players are. That’s not an excuse. I just think that’s reality.
“You learn through all your trials and tribulations. I think that’s what we went through. But at the same time, I always believed deep down we’re closer, way closer than what people think it is. I think just staying true to that whole deal helped.”
Staying in Cleveland
After Shurmur was fired and replaced by coach Rob Chudzinski in January, ESPN reported that the Browns denied six teams permission to interview Tabor. Chudzinski retained only three coaches from Shurmur’s staff: Tabor, special teams assistant Shawn Mennenga and offensive line coach George Warhop.
“Sometimes people clear house as a head coach coming in new,” Chudzinski said. “I looked for good coaches and guys that would fit. I think that as Chris was here, he performed very well, has a great reputation around the league. Just sitting down and getting a chance to talk with him some and getting to know him and from a philosophical standpoint being very in line with what I wanted, it just was a good fit.”
Tabor was thankful he and his wife, Nikki, and their two daughters, Paityn and Lainey, didn’t need to move again. But he also knew he had his work cut out for him as a new front office and coaching staff reshaped the Browns’ roster.
This past offseason, the Browns let Pro Bowl kicker Phil Dawson and three-time Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs walk in free agency. Punter Reggie Hodges, who’s out of the league, wasn’t re-signed, either. Aside from Travis Benjamin, a part-time returner as a rookie in 2012, and long snapper Christian Yount, the special-teams units were mostly overhauled.
Entering their bye, the Browns were ranked seventh in the NFL in average drive start after kickoffs (22.7) and tied for ninth in average drive start allowed after kickoffs (20.5). Kicker Billy Cundiff was 13-of-15 on field goals and tied for 15th on touchbacks (24). Punter Spencer Lanning ranked 14th on gross average (45.7) and 20th on net average (39.5). Benjamin, who suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Oct. 27 against the Kansas City Chiefs, ranked seventh in yards per punt return (11.7).
Benjamin’s franchise-record 179 punt-return yards, including a 74-yard touchdown, propelled the Browns to a 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 3. Lanning’s 11-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal and rookie safety Josh Aubrey’s 34-yard run on a fake punt led to 10 points in a 31-27 victory against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 22.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Tabor said. “The guys are doing a great job, and they’re doing what we’ve asked them to do. We’re not where we want to be, but I think that’s what we’re doing in this bye week right now. We’re analyzing things, where can we get better.”
If Tabor ever needs advice about which areas to focus on, his younger brother, Matt, is more than willing to identify them. Matt Tabor watches every Browns game, either at the house of his sister Elizabeth, 40, or at a sports bar.
“He knows I’m honest with him,” Matt Tabor said. “He usually calls me about a half-hour after every game. I’ll flat-out tell him.”
Three of Chris’ siblings, Matt, Elizabeth and Michael, and his mother, Mary Jane, live in St. Joseph. They were able to reunite with Chris Tabor and have dinner together last month on the eve of the Browns’ meeting with the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
Chris and Matt coached together during the 2001 season. Chris served as the coach at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo., after a stint as an assistant at the University of Missouri. Matt was the running backs coach.
“I think what sets him apart from most guys is his attention to detail and the fact that he’s going to put 16-18 [hours] in a day,” Matt Tabor said. “And Chris always taught me that wherever you’re at, you make that the big time. So when we were at Culver-Stockton together, that was his NFL. He worked the same way at a little NAIA podunk school that he works for the Cleveland Browns.”
Chris Tabor went on to become an assistant at Utah State University and Western Michigan University before making the leap to the NFL. His coaching roots, though, go back to his father, Don. For one season in the early 1990s, he actually served as his dad’s quarterbacks coach when Benton, led by former Carolina Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker, went to the state semifinals.
“What I learned from [my dad] was just be yourself, and it’s always about the player,” Tabor said. “I think if you follow that rule, you’re going to be in pretty good shape.”
Tabor has a fun but fiery personality. Matt Tabor said his brother coaches with the same competitive spirit that he displayed as a standout youth tennis player and an undersized quarterback who drew some comparisons to Doug Flutie.
“He’s a pretty outgoing coach,” Browns backup linebacker and special teamer Eric Martin said. “He coaches different than any other special teams coach I’ve had. He’s always fired up. He loves the game just as much as we do.
“He doesn’t let you fall asleep in meetings. He won’t. He’ll call you out, crack a joke. He’s always up in meetings, never comes in a bad mood, always ready to go. He enjoys his job a lot.”
That’s evident whenever Tabor darts around the field during practice, teaching his players and pumping them up the way his father had for so many years.
“I got into coaching because I like coaching out on the field and helping guys,” Tabor said. “I don’t know, maybe I’m getting older, but I’m just relishing those moments more.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.