By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
With a shaved head, a goatee and an intense stare, new Browns coach Mike Pettine looks like a tough guy, and owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner describe him as a demanding leader who holds players accountable.
There is plenty of well-documented evidence to support those claims.
Although Pettine downplayed it Thursday during his introductory news conference, he has been in the media spotlight many times. As a result, fans can catch glimpses of Pettine’s personality and the way he interacts with players before he oversees a single practice in Berea.
The 47-year-old Pettine was prominently featured on a national stage before he even worked in the NFL. His roots are embedded in Pennsylvania high school football, and they were captured on film in 1999.
His father, Mike Pettine Sr., became a coaching legend by compiling a record of 327-42-4 and winning four state Class AAAA titles in 33 seasons at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Pa. When two young filmmakers, T. Patrick Murray and Alex Weinress, asked the elder Pettine if they could make a documentary about C.B. West’s 1999 season, which would become the last before his retirement, he didn’t answer them for a few months but eventually agreed to give them access.
Not much time passed before ESPN called Pettine Sr. to ask if it could film a documentary about his team. He declined because he had already committed to Murray and Weinress, and he didn’t want to break his word, even if it meant rejecting a media juggernaut like ESPN. So Pettine Sr. told ESPN about other prep football programs in the Philadelphia area, including the one at North Penn High School, where one of his former players and ex-C.B. West assistants who also happened to be his son was the coach.
“I named a lot of teams, one of which was North Penn,” Pettine Sr. said Saturday in a phone interview with the Beacon Journal. “I didn’t push. So Michael called me up a couple weeks after that conversation and said, ‘Thanks for your leftovers. ESPN called and we’re going to have this documentary.’ ”
The younger Pettine actually appeared in each of the dueling documentaries — Murray and Weinress’ The Last Game and ESPN’s The Season.
In The Last Game, Pettine Jr. barks at a player in practice, telling him to “pay attention” and “get your head out of your ass.” Then he looks into the camera during an interview and declares, “There’s no room for soft touches in our business.”
Another scene shows him chewing out a quarterback during practice.
“Run it again. You didn’t set your feet,” said Pettine, an all-state quarterback and defensive back at C.B. West who went on to play free safety at the University of Virginia. “You threw it off your back foot, and then you give me that stupid look.”
Many more blowups are showcased in The Season.
“There were some hard core moments in that,” Pettine said Thursday shortly after he was hired. “The only thing I was not appreciative of was that they filmed 500 hours and edited it down to five. They really took every flip out I had during the season and pieced them all together. I looked like Coach Kilmer from Varsity Blues. I was the devil.
“But I got a lot of feedback from around the country. People watched it ’cause it was on ESPN and it was high school football. Hard core football fans loved it. [They said], ‘I want to move into your area. I want my kid to play for you.’ The people that were in the local area watching it just because it was the local high school — they didn’t know anything about football, they had never been involved in competitive sports or been in a locker room before — they were shocked.
“I had a teacher in my school come up to me and say, ‘If I ever talked to my kids like you talk to your players, I’d be fired.’ I said, ‘You’re not preparing your kids in math class for hand-to-hand combat, either.’”
Pettine made the leap from high school to the NFL in 2002, getting his foot in the door as a coaching and video assistant with the Baltimore Ravens. After ascending to position coach and spending seven seasons with the Ravens, he became the defensive coordinator of the New York Jets in 2009.
In 2010, he resurfaced on camera when the Jets and their boisterous coach, Rex Ryan, were featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks during training camp.
“The Hard Knocks stuff, I tried to stay out of the way of the cameras as best as I could,” Pettine said. “Rex had no issues with being on camera, so that was a little bit easier for me. They had some moments in our meetings, some of the lighter stuff that we did. That was a good experience. I don’t know if I’d sign up to do it, but it was a good experience for us at the time.
“For any of you that are expecting me to be like [Ryan] personality-wise, you’ll be mistaken. We were pretty much opposites of each other. I’m not going to be predicting Super Bowls or meeting presidents or wins and losses. I won’t be writing on anybody’s Winnebago about ‘Super Bowl or bust.’ ”
Maybe not, but Pettine still had his fair share of memorable moments in Hard Knocks.
In one scene, he reviews practice film with players and makes it clear he doesn’t like what he sees.
“Yesterday afternoon’s practice wasn’t worth a [bleep],” Pettine said. “If we were grading some guys just based on this practice, there’s a bunch of you who’d be [cut]. OK? And I don’t even know if we would spend the money on a plane ticket. We’d probably send you home on a bus. Everybody asks, ‘How do you get guys that play so hard? How do you get guys that know what they’re doing? How do you guys do that?’ It’s easy. We find them, and we cut the rest of them. So don’t make it easy for us.”
In another scene, Pettine and Ryan are shown in a meeting room devising a plan to urge now-Tennessee Titans center Rob Turner to start a fight with former teammate and linebacker Vernon Gholston during practice.
“If [Gholston] gets in a fight, then [bleep], we might have a player,” Ryan said.
“Maybe we can arrange it,” Pettine said. “It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve got just the man for the job. Rob Turner.”
“Yeah, Turner doesn’t give a [bleep],” Ryan said.
Speaking of fights, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie didn’t react well to Pettine’s criticism during a tense moment described in Nicholas Dawidoff’s book, Collision Low Crossers, which traces the Jets’ 2011 season. The book was released in November and includes plenty of material about Pettine.
According to the book, “When Pettine chided him, Cro said, ‘Shut up.’ Then he said, ‘[Bleep] you.’ Pettine told him quietly, ‘Don’t lose your cool. We’re all in this together.’ ”
Another coach encouraged Cromartie to speak with Pettine privately.
“If I talk to him, I’ll punch him in the face,” Cromartie said, according to the book. Dawidoff wrote that Pettine and Cromartie eventually met and talked.
Also in the book, Pettine used a term that’s bound to appear on T-shirts in Northeast Ohio at some point. Pettine’s mission at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2011 was to discover a sack specialist, which he called “a bitch-kitty pass rusher.”
So will Pettine participate in any similar media projects during his tenure with the Browns?
Haslam has said he wouldn’t want the team to be involved with Hard Knocks because he thinks it’s distracting, though NFL owners passed a rule in October stipulating that if no organization volunteers for the show, one will be appointed. Teams with a first-year head coach are among those exempt, so Pettine’s direct, fiery coaching style won’t return to Hard Knocks, at least not this year.