BEREA: During an exhaustive two-week search for their next coach, the Browns interviewed nine or 10 candidates, four or five of them twice.
All wanted an NFL job. None wanted this NFL job more than Rob Chudzinski.
When he was 5 years old, Chudzinski was caught on film in a Browns helmet, jersey and “some really ugly, 1970s pants” that were hand-me-downs from an older cousin.
Born in Toledo and growing up in Northwest Ohio, Chudzinski rooted for the Kardiac Kids. He and his cousins desperately wanted to watch a game in the Dawg Pound but never got the chance. So they put a television in the window and sat outside in the December snow, pretending they were part of the home crowd.
One of those cousins later bought an old school bus and converted it into a Brownsmobile.
“I have to admit, I’ve eaten a dog biscuit or two in my day,” Chudzinski said.
It was more than Chudzinski’s time cheering the Browns as he moved from Toledo to Bowling Green to Fremont and back to Toledo that captivated him about the opportunity. He was fired by the Browns twice. He has seen the reborn franchise’s dysfunction in all its glory.
The former University of Miami tight end and assistant coach arrived in Cleveland in 2004, brought in by coach Butch Davis to baby-sit star tight end Kellen Winslow, the sixth overall pick from Miami. Davis resigned with five games left and Chudzinski, though allowed to call the plays by interim coach Terry Robiskie, was let go at season’s end.
In 2007, Chudzinski returned as offensive coordinator under coach Romeo Crennel. The third-most points scored in Browns history that year earned Crennel, General Manager Phil Savage and quarterback Derek Anderson contract extensions. An injury- and controversy-filled year later, all were gone.
“I remember the last game walking in the stadium and looking across the field, somehow knowing I’d be back somehow, some way,” Chudzinski said of 2008.
But the childhood Browns outfit and watching games in the snow is fluff and nostalgia, reminiscent of when they drafted Dublin, Ohio-born quarterback Brady Quinn or Willard, Ohio-native and University of Akron product Charlie Frye. Owner Jimmy Haslam called Chudzinski’s Browns background “a nice to, not a have to.”
“It’s a great story, but if Rob had been from Plano, Texas, we’d have hired him,” Haslam said.
None of those great stories means Chudzinski was the right hire for the Browns.
I believe Chudzinski was the best coach they could get considering the organizational structure and the football power given to CEO Joe Banner. Those yawning over Chudzinski’s selection or insisting that he’s a Pat Shurmur clone must remember the constraints Haslam put on his coach when he said, “Football will report to Joe.”
“We believe he fits exactly what we’re looking for,” Banner said of Chudzinski, which means someone who believes he can succeed within the Browns’ new framework.
Chudzinski is an offensive innovator who believes in a vertical passing game. He wants to be aggressive on offense and defense. That might mean switching back to a 3-4 defensive front, depending on who fills that coordinator spot, Chudzinski said. As strongly as I believe that the Browns’ strengths lie with the 4-3 scheme, that couldn’t dictate which coach the Browns chose.
Plenty of positives
Chudzinski is intelligent — owning an MBA from the University of Miami — and a tireless worker. He doesn’t seem threatened at the prospect of hiring coordinators who are former head coaches, like the interest he reportedly has in bringing in recently fired San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner to run the offense.
Few first-time Browns coaches save for Bill Belichick got that key fact — that you’re only as good as your assistants and you must delegate to succeed. That has been an Achilles’ heel going back to the days of Chris Palmer in 1999.
Like Shurmur, Chudzinski has never been a head coach at any level, which carries much risk. But even with that risk, there are many reasons that Chudzinski seems like the right hire.
I like the fact that the Browns didn’t repeat the mistakes of their past and fall in love with the first name that popped up, like Randy Lerner did with Eric Mangini. Banner said for years he has kept track of the best young people in the league and had been following Chudzinski for a long time.
I like that under Chudzinski former Browns players — Anderson, Winslow and Braylon Edwards — had their career-best seasons.
I like that at age 44, Chudzinski is young enough to give the Browns the potential for long-term stability.
When he was hired, Shurmur had more of a calm, professional aura of a born leader, but his obsession with what was being said and written about him ripped away that armor.
Chudzinski still must prove he can command a team meeting room.
Chudzinski probably won’t sleep at the office more often or take a tougher stance with a problem player because of his Browns roots. Some of the candidates interviewed by the Browns had other agendas, but Chudzinski went after the job because it was his lifelong dream to coach his favorite team. Sitting outside his window in the December snow, he might have pictured himself arguing a call like Marty Schottenheimer.
“It is a dream come true, almost unbelievable in a lot of ways, that this kid from Toledo, Ohio, growing up as a Browns fan and loving the Browns and understanding how important this team is to this region and this city,” Chudzinski said. “I’ve been on cloud nine. I think I slept for about an hour last night.”
At the wheel of the Brownsmobile, Chudzinski hopes his ride in the clouds lasts a long time. So do I.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.