BEREA, Ohio — Rob Chudzinski says there is a photo of him wearing an orange helmet, a Cleveland Browns jersey, and a ratty pair of football pants. He was 5 years old and living in Toledo when it was taken. He is 44 now. That’s a long time to have a love affair with one football team.
Flash forward a few years to those late-season games and heart-wrenching playoff games of the 1980s when an older, but still young Chudzinski would turn his family’s TV set around so it was pointing out the window, and he and his cousins and friends would sit outside in the snow and sleet to watch.
“We wanted to be in that stadium, in the Dawg Pound so bad,” Chud said. “I have to admit, I've eaten a dog biscuit or two in my day.
“I was the kid that was in the backyard playing and pretending I was Ozzie Newsome or Brian Sipe or the greats that played for Cleveland.”
He didn’t say if he ever dreamed of being Sam Rutigliano or Marty Schottenheimer. But guess what?
Chudzinski was introduced as the 14th full-time head coach of the Browns on Friday at the team facility in Berea.
“It’s funny, [despite] all the research, until Rob got in and [I asked], ‘Where are you from?’ and he said, ‘I’m from Toledo, Ohio,’ I was not even aware of it,” said Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. “I’ll be honest, to me that’s a great story, but if Rob had been from Plano, Texas, we’d have hired him.”
Toledo or Plano, nobody really expected this. Not since Haslam fired Pat Shurmur at season’s end and gave every impression he was looking to make a splash with his first coaching hire. That’s the message you send when you hire a coach before a general manager, and that’s the message you send when your first target is Chip Kelly of Oregon and when you are presumed to have reached out to people like Nick Saban and Bill Cowher.
When you do it seems like you are settling for a Rob Chudzinski, twice a Browns’ assistant and most recently the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.
Think what you want is the message Haslam sent.
“I'm not going to get into any specifics, but we talked to nine or 10 of I believe the best coaches in the country,” he said. “We talked to current pro coaches. We talked to former pro head coaches. We talked to current college coaches, and we talked to several pro coordinators, and I believe we came back with the best person to lead the Cleveland Browns to the kind of winning format that we want to have here, that we all expect to have.
“Rob has played and won at the highest level. His expertise is obviously on the offensive side. He has played tight end, coached tight ends, and over the last few years been an offensive coordinator and an assistant head coach. If you talk to people in the business, he's regarded as one of the brightest, if not the brightest, young minds in the business. He is tremendously innovative."
Chudzinski was born and lived for his first five years in Toledo. His family then resided in Bowling Green for seven years and in Fremont for two years before they returned to the Toledo area, specifically Perrysburg, in time for the only son to attend St. John’s Jesuit High School and play football for renowned coach Fred Beier.
He won city championships at St. John’s, then won two national championships as a tight end at Miami (Fla.), then set out on a coaching career. He never lost touch with his prep coach, later his friend and mentor before Beier’s death in December, 2004.
“Fred was a huge factor in my life,” Chud said. “You talk about discipline, you talk about toughness, you talk about work ethic that we need as part of a football team and the foundation of a football team, and Fred was instrumental in teaching those things and stressing those things.
“He actually passed away right after the weekend I was interim coordinator when Terry Robiskie took over [as head coach after Butch Davis’ resignation], and he was in the hospital at the time, but he had a chance to watch the game, and he critiqued me afterwards.”
Chudzinski knows thousands, tens of thousands, will be critiquing his every move now, but he’s spent a professional lifetime preparing for this opportunity. As Cleveland’s offensive coordinator in 2007, a 10-win season, the Browns produced the most total yards (5,621), passing yards (3,726), and points (402) in any season since their return to the NFL in 1999. In 2011, his first year with the Panthers, the team set club records for total yards and first downs and improved from 17 touchdowns the previous season to 48.
His philosophies as a head coach — always attack, he said — and his thoughts on the roster, the upcoming draft, quarterback Brandon Weeden, a 4-3 vs. a 3-4 defense, his staff and whether he can entice a former boss in San Diego, Norv Turner, to come on board as offensive coordinator, etc., all that can wait for another day. This day was for celebrating a milestone.
He interviewed for several vacant NFL head coaching jobs a year ago, but had not been involved in this season’s sweepstakes until Haslam called on Tuesday and invited him to his Cleveland home on Wednesday.
“Rob was always on our radar screen,” Haslam said when asked if Chudzinski was a late-entry candidate. “Rob has been identified as a top, bright, young guy for a long time.”
On Thursday, Chud got another call, asking if he’d be available for dinner in Charlotte with Haslam and team CEO Joe Banner that evening. He was offered the job before dessert arrived.
“I don’t know if stunned was the word,” Chudzinski said, responding to a question. “I think the word was excited. It is a dream come true, almost unbelievable in a lot of ways, that this kid from Toledo, growing up as a Browns fan and loving the Browns and understanding how important this team is to this area and this region and this city, it’s a dream come true. I’ve been on Cloud Nine. I think I slept for about an hour last night.”
Chudzinski becomes the Toledo area’s third NFL head coach, joining Bob Snyder (Los Angeles Rams, 1947) and Jerry Glanville (Houston Oilers, 1986-89; Atlanta Falcons, 1990-93).
Glanville once said the NFL means “Not For Long.”
Chudzinski hopes to prove Glanville wrong, and there is nowhere he would rather get his first head coaching job than Cleveland, despite the lack of success and short tenures of recent Browns’ coaches.
“For me, personally, it’s the best job … this is the one that’s special to me,” Chudzinski said. “I have a plan in place, we have great people around, we’re going to get a great staff, the players that are here, it’s a young group. This is going to be about the process and whereas a lot of times everybody’s focused on the end result, the process is the important thing, and I view the people that are around here, Joe and Jimmy, and the direction that we’re going, that process is going to be the right process to get us to where we want to be.”
Chud, for sure, is right where he’s wanted to be for years.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.