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Published: Monday, 9/2/2013

NFL dream arrives

Chudzinski turns college opportunity into Browns job

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski directs the Browns during a preseason game against Chicago. On Sunday, his regular season begins. Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski directs the Browns during a preseason game against Chicago. On Sunday, his regular season begins.
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If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers can give a motivational speech that strips paint off locker room walls. Can’t you just see veins popping, spittle flying through the air?

Maybe it would be Pete Carroll of the Seahawks, jumping around and whacking guys on the rump, sort of like Peter Pan meeting Vince Lombardi.

Most NFL head coaches project other images. They come across at buttoned up, reserved, distant, in some cases almost professorial, as in Bill Walsh meeting Bill Gates.

Rob Chudzinski of the Browns would seem to fit that mold. He is 45 years old with a baby face, but has the presence of someone 10 years older. An old soul, as they say.

But there was that night at the Glass Bowl during the 1991 football season. His high school alma mater, St. John’s Jesuit, was playing archrival St. Francis, and Chudzinski was the surprise pre-game guest in the locker room. He made quite an entrance.

“One of our other assistants, Joe Nye, told the kids we had a special guest, and Chud kicked the door open,” said Tom Cole, also an assistant to the late Fred Beier at the time. “He’s pounding desks and tables, punching blackboards, yelling, just going berserk. This goes on for a minute and a half. The kids all get these big eyes and we storm onto the field. I knew the game was already over. We won it in the locker room.”

Chudzinski laughed recently when reminded of the story.

“It was fun, but that’s probably been embellished some through the years,” the Toledo native said.

“Not so,” said Nye. “It was the greatest pregame I was a part of in 30 years. Right then I knew he was a coach.”

On Sunday, more than 20 years later, Chudzinski will officially don the headset for the first time at the game’s highest level as one of 32 NFL head coaches.

“I know when he got the job there were fans who said, ‘Rob Chudzinski, who?’ Let me tell you, the people in that locker room will respect him and they’ll play for him,” Cole said. “I’ll bet you my house and my car that the Cleveland Browns will win for Chud. He’ll take ’em a long way.”

He already has come a long way. Chudzinski was the guy who wasn’t fast enough or tall enough or strong enough, who was barely recruited out of high school but ended up starting for two national championship teams at the University of Miami. The guy who wasn’t going to coach, but who gave up a promising business career to spend two years as a graduate assistant at Miami before becoming coordinator for another title team with the Hurricanes, then for two NFL teams, and now is a head coach.

The stories all trace back to St. John’s, and absent Beier the three coaches who knew him best, perhaps, were Nye, Cole, and Carl Demarkowski.

“All those things he wasn’t, well, let me tell you what he was,” Demarkowski said. “Chud was as smart a player with as intense a desire as I’ve seen. He’s a good man. He’s honest, fair and straightforward, and that’s why I think he’ll be successful with the Browns. If anybody can do it there, he will. He’s just a good person, and anybody who knows him will say the same thing.”

Ask those people and you hear about respect, loyalty, preparation, intelligence, focus, and an incomparable work ethic.

Hands down, the best

At St. John’s, said Cole, what separated Chudzinski from the rest was “the best pair of hands I’ve ever seen.”

Those hands caught a lot of passes and fueled a lot of victories, but one game more than any other changed Chud’s life.

The Titans were playing Bowsher. Cole admits these numbers may not be exactly right, but he recalls the 6-foot-3 Chudzinski, who would occasionally split out from his tight end slot to create mismatches against smaller defensive backs, caught a dozen passes for about 230 yards and three touchdowns.

“The last touchdown, Bowsher’s defense was so frustrated he was interfered with in the end zone twice on the same play,” Cole said. “One defensive back pinned one of his arms behind his back, the other took his feet out. He’s in mid-flip, pulled the ball in one-handed, pinned it against his chest with his free arm, and came down with it.”

Bowsher had a couple receivers who were being recruited, and it was for that reason, as the story goes, that Miami coach Jimmy Johnson sat down a few days later to watch the game tape.

“He watched a while, stopped the tape, pointed at Chud on the screen and asked his assistants, ‘Who the hell is that guy?’ None of them knew, so he told him they’d better get up to Toledo the next day and find out,” Cole said.

And with that, Chudzinski became a Hurricane.

But one day in early summer, before leaving for freshman camp at Miami, Chud was playing a pickup basketball game in the St. John’s gym. He was flying for a layup, got pushed, lost his balance, and went hand-first through a plate glass door.

“I can still see it, the blood gushing out,” Nye said. “It was horrific.”

Nye ripped off his shirt, wrapped it around Chudzinski’s hand, compressed the blood flow and somebody drove as fast as he could to a hospital.

“It was all part of his battle,” Nye said. “Too slow, too small, couldn’t match up with all the athletes down there, and then this happens. He just had to overcome all of it. And he did. And he has overcome the odds at every step, every level because he just worked harder than everybody else.”

Miami was a wild place when Chud arrived and, truth be told, he was recruited for his academic prowess and high character more so, perhaps, than what he might contribute on the field.

“I remember him telling me when he got there he was the 10th string tight end on the depth chart,” Cole said. “And he ended up starting for two national champions.”

Always a reason

Chudzinski remembers the Bowsher game. He remembers how it started at Miami and how it ended. He remembers sitting at a desk for three years before Dennis Erickson, then Miami’s coach, called out of the blue and said, “What are you doing? You should be coaching.” He remembers leaving a promising career for a two-year general assistant’s job, little pay, and no guarantees.

He said he isn’t sure he believes in fate or luck, but maybe he believes at least a little in both.

“I think along the way things happen for a reason, and then you go whatever direction you think is right and never look back,” Chud said. “I know I’ve been very fortunate to get the opportunities and chances I’ve had.”

We used the term “absent Beier” earlier, but no story on Chudzinski can ever be absent Fred Beier. One of that last times they spoke, the legendary St. John’s coach called from his hospital bed to critique Chud’s playcalling as the interim offensive coordinator of the Browns late in the 2004 season.

So the old St. John’s coach must have influenced him as a coach, right?

“Maybe not so much,” Chud said. “The way coaching came about for me was not exactly by plan. I’d say Fred influenced me more as a person by the examples he set, the lessons he taught, about how to live, and how to conduct yourself. He’s a big part of the person I am.”

That person grew up in several northwest Ohio locales as a devout Browns fan. Nye remembers going with Chudzinski to a Browns playoff game against the Bills in 1989. “We climbed up to our seats and damned if Chud didn’t pull out a bag of dog biscuits, and he made all of us eat one,” Nye said. “Yeah, he knows just how important this team is to Browns fans.”

Chudzinski said having his job “is a dream come true. Every day I recognize how fortunate I am. It’s a privilege to be the head coach of the Browns, and Sunday is going to be a lot of fun. A lot of people I’ve known for a long time will be there. I’ve worked hard for this, and I’m looking forward to it.

“I’ll be excited. I’ll be nervous. You’ll always have that, no matter how long you’ve been at it or how many times you run on the field. That’s because it’s that important to you. I think I’ll have about every emotion you can imagine.”

The goal is simple, the timetable is fluid. Cleveland has been a dysfunctional franchise, it’s a rebuilding job, and a 3-1 preseason record came at a cost. Chud enters Sunday’s opener at home against Miami with numerous injury concerns. It won’t temper his enthusiasm about the job at hand.

“We want to bring back the kind of success this franchise has experienced in the past,” he said. “We’re laying the foundation but there’s an awful lot of work still to be done.”

And, as Nye said, the Browns “found the right guy to roll up his sleeves and do it.”

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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