Mike Pettine has coaching in his blood, and the Browns hope that pedigree can help him carry the franchise out of the abyss.
On Thursday, the Browns hired Pettine as their 15th full-time head coach and the seventh since 1999, the team announced. The move ended a marathon coaching search that began the night of Dec. 29, when owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner fired coach Rob Chudzinski after he went 4-12 during his first season on the job.
Pettine’s introductory news conference is set for 4:45 p.m. Thursday.
“We are thrilled to announce Mike Pettine as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns,” Haslam said in a statement. “Mike is the epitome of what we want the Browns to be — tough, aggressive and innovative — with a blue-collar, team-first mentality. He knows what’s necessary to beat teams in the AFC North. Most importantly, Mike has repeatedly shown the ability to lead his players to consistent improvement and success, clearly what we are striving for as he leads the Cleveland Browns moving forward.”
“We wanted to be thorough from the start,” Banner said in a statement, “and we interviewed as many people as we could. From that group, we hired the best individual for this job. Our players and fans are going to really enjoy Mike Pettine and his leadership style. We’re excited to have him out in front of our team, and we look forward to working closely with him.”
The organization has received rampant criticism from fans and media, locally and nationally, not only for the quick dismissal of Chudzinski, but also for its subsequent drawn-out quest to replace him. Of the seven NFL teams that made coaching changes since last month, the Browns were the last to fill their vacancy. At least 10 candidates were known to interview with them, though three withdrew from consideration and another three took jobs elsewhere.
In the end, Haslam and Banner bet on Pettine, who seemingly came out of nowhere and surfaced in the third week of the search. He flew to Cleveland on Thursday afternoon and became the only candidate known to interview three times.
The son of a legendary high school football coach, Pettine will be charged with reversing the fortunes of the Browns, who have suffered double-digit losses in each of the past six seasons. He spent last season as the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills and the previous four years in the same role with the New York Jets.
The Browns initially interviewed Pettine on Jan. 16. Haslam, Banner, General Manager Mike Lombardi and President Alec Scheiner flew Tuesday to Mobile, Ala., where most of the NFL is congregated this week for the Senior Bowl, to conduct a follow-up interview with Pettine in the evening.
The Browns’ bigwigs left Mobile on Tuesday night without extending a contract offer to Pettine and continued to talk to other candidates. By Wednesday night, they had their list down whittled down to two finalists — Pettine and another coach whose name has yet to surface.
Regardless, Pettine prevailed, securing his first NFL head-coaching job Thursday afternoon.
The defensive-minded Pettine, 47, grew up less than an hour drive north of Philadelphia in Doylestown, Pa., where his father, Mike Pettine Sr., compiled a record of 327-42-4 and four state Class AAAA titles in 33 years as the football coach at Central Bucks High School West. The elder Pettine retired after the 1999 season as the winningest coach in Pennsylvania high school history.
The younger Pettine played quarterback and defensive back for his father at C.B. West and then free safety at the University of Virginia, where he earned a degree in economics. He began his coaching career as one of his dad’s assistants. After working as a graduate assistant for the University of Pittsburgh’s football team from 1993-94, Pettine became the head coach at William Tennett High School in 1995 and then at North Penn High School in 1997. He coached against his dad and went 0-5 in the series.
“The whole foundation of my coaching, has really all come from him,” Pettine, who has 12 seasons of NFL coaching experience on his resume, told the Buffalo News last year. “As a high school coach, our systems were deeply rooted in what he did at C.B. West. But even when I got into the NFL, not so much the Xs and Os, but more the logical, common sense, no-stone-unturned approach comes directly from my dad. To me, I always fall back on that.”
Pettine made his leap to the NFL in 2002 as a video coordinator for the Ravens. The job paid $30,000, about half of what he made as the audio-visual coordinator at North Penn High School, but he cashed out his 401(k) retirement fund and took the risk, according to the Star-Ledger.
A year later, he caught on as an assistant of then-defensive line coach Rex Ryan. When Ryan became the Ravens’ defensive coordinator in 2005, he promoted Pettine to outside linebackers coach. When Ryan left the Ravens in 2009 to become the head coach of the Jets, he brought Pettine along as his defensive coordinator.
“Mike is a rising star in this league,” Ryan said when Pettine joined the Jets. “We’re fortunate that we were able to get him on our staff.”
Pettine helped the Jets’ defense rank first in the NFL in 2009, third in 2010, fifth in 2011 and eighth in 2012. The Jets went to back-to-back AFC Championship games during their first two seasons with Pettine and Ryan aboard.
This past season, Pettine proved he could guide a successful defense without Ryan by his side. Using a 3-4, hybrid scheme, the Bills ranked 10th (333.4 yards allowed per game) in the NFL and finished second in sacks (57) and interceptions (23). The defense finished fourth against the pass (204.4 yards allowed per game) but 28th against the run (128.9 yards allowed per game). The team finished 6-10.
After the Bills hired coach Doug Marrone last year, one of his first priorities was to pursue Pettine, even though the two had never previously worked together.
“But I’ve always been an admirer,” Marrone told the Buffalo News. “You’re always looking for attack defenses. What I had in my mind was a system, schematically, that we wanted to run. When I was looking for the people that were taking that system and growing with that system, it just led to one person.”
Last season, the Browns switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, multi-front scheme under the guidance of defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who now holds the same job with the Tennessee Titans. Considering Pettine’s history of employing versatile, multi-front schemes, he should mesh well with the personnel the Browns have on defense. He will undoubtedly play a huge role in shaping the Browns on that side of the ball. Bills linebackers coach Jim O’Neil is a top candidate to become Pettine’s defensive coordinator, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported.
On the other hand, the Browns will need a strong offensive coordinator to replace Norv Turner, who has joined the Minnesota Vikings since Chudzinski’s dismissal. Green Bay Packers running backs coach and former Bills offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt was a candidate, but he has agreed to become the Packers’ quarterbacks coach, La Canfora reported. Louisiana State offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who held the same position with the San Diego Chargers and Ravens, is another coach who has been linked to Pettine.
The Browns conducted interviews with 10 known candidates before sealing the deal with Pettine in the fourth week of their search.
On Tuesday morning, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who’ll coach against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, became the third candidate to remove his name from the running. The Browns expected to interview him after the Super Bowl until he told them he wasn’t interested.
Pettine also beat out Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia and former Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, all of whom reportedly interviewed for the job. The Pittsburgh Steelers named Munchak their offensive line coach Thursday.
New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles withdrew from consideration after interviewing with Haslam and Banner earlier this month. McDaniels, who grew up in Canton, reversed course after the Patriots’ loss to the Broncos Sunday in the AFC Championship Game and had more discussions with the Browns this week to no avail.
Two other candidates took jobs with different teams after interviewing with the Browns: Former San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt became the Titans’ new head coach, and former Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo became the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator.
Pettine has three children who live outside Baltimore with his ex-wife. His teenage daughter Megan broke perhaps the most important news of the coaching search Jan. 16 when she posted a message on Twitter that revealed her father’s first interview with the Browns went well and he would have a second meeting with the team’s brass.
She also took a jab at the Browns.
“It’s the Browns,” Megan Pettine wrote in the same tweet, which has since been deleted. “But hey, still pretty cool!”
Now her father faces the arduous mission of guiding the Browns to respectability.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.