Former Jets coordinator Mike Pettine living dream as Browns head coach
Bob GlauberBob Glauber
Glauber has been Newsday's national football columnist since 1992. He
A late-morning practice has just ended under a bright sun and steady summer heat, and Mike Pettine, his shaved head still glistening with beads of sweat, smiles as he greets a familiar face from his days as the Jets' defensive coordinator.
"All good,'' the Browns' first-year head coach said. "I'm living the dream.''
These indeed are good times for Pettine, who just might be the unlikeliest head coach in today's NFL. Rex Ryan's former lieutenant, who was a big part of the Jets' two AFC Championship Game appearances in Ryan's first two years, got the opportunity of a lifetime through a series of bizarre circumstances. Pettine came out the winner after a lengthy and sometimes confusing coaching search following the abrupt firing of Rob Chudzinski after one season in Cleveland.
Not long after he got the job, team owner Jimmy Haslam fired the two men who hired Pettine -- team president Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi. And barely a month into the job, reports surfaced that the Browns had reached out to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and were willing to trade draft picks to lure him to Cleveland.
Some dream, huh?
"People ask me, 'Do you mind how it happened?' '' said Pettine, 47. "No, not at all. It just doesn't matter. You get yourself in the [coach's] chair and all of a sudden, you're full speed ahead and you don't look back. Even the Harbaugh thing, it didn't bother me. It really didn't. I had so much on my plate -- and still continue to -- that I don't have the time to stick my head up and look outside. I'm working with coaches and building this rapport, this relationship with the team. To me, that's all I have.''
However unlikely Pettine's ascent was, he actually is uniquely qualified to be a head coach, even if his apprenticeship was not as conventional as most.
The son of revered high school coach Mike Pettine Sr., who went 326-42-4 in 33 seasons at Central Bucks High School West (Doylestown, Pennsylvania), Pettine himself was a high school coach at North Penn (Lansdale), going 0-5 against his father but learning some valuable lessons along the way.
Pettine, who played quarterback and defensive back for his dad, eventually joined the Ravens' staff as a defensive assistant, where he befriended another coach's son in Ryan. The two were kindred spirits, forming a close alliance that would continue during Ryan's first four seasons with the Jets. Pettine ventured out on his own in 2013, taking over the Bills' defense and starting to emerge from Ryan's formidable shadow.
"I owe a ton to Rex, because he bounced a lot of stuff off me,'' Pettine said. "We put schedules together for training camp and practice. He would have his speech and bounce it off me, asking me what I thought of it. Even the head coach prep part about the interview process he helped me with. I can't be grateful enough, because walking in that [Browns'] door, I felt I was very well prepared.''
And in case you're wondering, there are no lingering effects of Pettine's telling SI.com that the Jets' playbooks may have wound up in the Patriots' hands after Ryan gave one to Alabama coach Nick Saban, also a close friend of Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"He and I talked and cleared the air and we're fine,'' Pettine said. "It's a non-issue to me.''
After a much-improved defensive performance by Buffalo last season, the Browns hired him over other candidates, including Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
Being a coach's son really does have its rewards. Pettine is simply the latest example.
"It was good preparation, and that's why I have a soft spot for coaches' sons,'' Pettine said. "Look how many I have on the staff.''
Yes, look: Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's father, Mike, is a two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach. Offensive line coach Andy Moeller's father, Gary, replaced Bo Schembechler as head coach at Michigan. Assistant linebackers coach Brian Fleury's dad was a longtime high school coach in Maryland.
Pettine takes over a perennially woeful franchise, one that has been to the playoffs only once since the franchise re-started in Cleveland in 1999. There have been a whopping 20 starting quarterbacks since then, perhaps the ultimate statistic of failure for a team associated with losing for so long.
But Browns fans remain among the most loyal in sports, forever believing that the next year -- and the next quarterback -- will bring renewed hope.
That hope now is invested in rookie Johnny Manziel, the former Texas A&M star and Heisman Trophy winner known simply as Johnny Football. It'll be either Manziel or Brian Hoyer who gets the nod from Pettine. The coach plans to name his starter Tuesday.
The coach is optimistic that he has enough on his roster to be competitive in a very difficult AFC North. But he knows it starts at quarterback.
"The development of whoever plays quarterback will be vital,'' Pettine said. "We may not have [wide receiver] Josh Gordon [who is waiting to hear about a looming suspension], and that could be a factor, as well as the ability of our defense to step up early on. But if we can establish a solid running attack, similar to the Jets in 2009, play great defense, then we're going to be in games. And the question is, 'Are we mature enough, do we have enough playmakers on both sides of the ball where we can finish?' ''
It is a huge task, but one Pettine will attack with the same dogged sense of purpose that he has shown through a lifetime of playing -- and coaching -- football. For a coach's son, there's no other way to do it.