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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

Will he stay or will he go? Toledoan Chudzinski must wait-and-see with Browns

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The Cleveland Browns have a new general manager. Next up will be a new head coach. In the meantime, Rob Chudzinski is in limbo.

The Toledoan started this past NFL season as the Browns' tight end coach and finished it as offensive coordinator. He believes that Cleveland's 22-14 season-ending win at Houston "was a glimpse of what could be," and he'd like to be a part of that future.

When Butch Davis was replaced with five weeks left in the season, Chudzinski was the only assistant coach mentioned by name when owner Randy Lerner was asked whether he would recommend any of the current staff members to the new coach.

"I'm not into meddling, but I do think there are talented guys and Chudzinski is great," Lerner said.

Chudzinski said he was "obviously flattered, but the bottom line is that the new head coach is going to pick his own staff. I would love to stay and help bring a winner back to Cleveland, but I know the realities of the situation.

"All I can do is sit back, wait and see what decisions are made, and see if I fit in somewhere."

Chudzinski made a decision of his own about a year ago and, while it may not have worked out exactly as he had hoped, he has no regrets about taking a job that returned him to his roots.

Chud, as he is known by nearly one and all, rejoined Davis after spending 10 years on the collegiate level at the University of Miami. The St. John's Jesuit grad played at Miami under Jimmy Johnson, was hired as a graduate assistant coach by Dennis Erickson, was made a full-time position coach by Davis, and then was promoted to offensive coordinator by Larry Coker.

"I had a really good job and I would not have left it for any other place than Cleveland and the Browns," Chudzinski said. "It brought me back close to my family and so many friends. And, of course, it was an opportunity to come to the NFL and be part of an organization that, growing up, I dreamed of playing for and being a part of.

"We certainly didn't get all the wins we wanted or have the season we wanted, but I learned a tremendous amount and I know I'm a better coach than I was a year ago. The way things progressed, I was given a tremendous opportunity to be an offensive coordinator in the NFL. So I don't ever look back with any regrets. I'm glad I did what I did and I'm confident things will work out."

The Browns opened the season 3-3, then lost five straight games, leading to what was termed a resignation by Davis. Terry Robiskie, the offensive coordinator, became the interim head coach and Chudzinski, 36, took over the coordinator's job.

The offense, decimated by injuries to top quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Kelly Holcomb, among many other position players, continued to struggle as the team added four more games to its losing streak.

"I kind of had to hit it on the run when named coordinator before the game against New England and the biggest challenge every week was [knowing] who was healthy and able to play," Chudzinski said.

The Browns finished the season with 15 players on the injured-reserve list. Six of them, including three linemen, were offensive starters.

But Holcomb returned and running back Lee Suggs ran up a third straight 100-yard game while the Browns produced 364 yards of offense in the win at Houston.

"That was a big boost having those two in the lineup together for the first time," Chudzinski said. "And the offensive line, with a lot of guys who came to us late in the season, got better. So it gave us a spark and maybe a glimpse of what could be. It was a positive way to finish the season for everybody.

"The biggest thing was how guys kept fighting and battling through the losing. I wish people could have seen the locker room after the game. It was like we'd won the Super Bowl. You think of the NFL and you think contracts and big money. But I was able to watch that and appreciate what it really means to them. It's having fun and loving to play the game."

Chudzinski had that same love as a player under the late Fred Beier at St. John's, then at Miami, where the tight end earned three letters and played on two national championship teams.

He wasn't sure if that love would transfer to coaching. In fact, shortly after graduating with a business degree he took a job with a consulting firm in Miami.

Three years later he ran into Erickson, who had succeeded Johnson as Miami's head coach.

"I had almost finished my masters degree by the time I finished playing at Miami and I'd been wanting to go back and finish," Chudzinski said. "I mentioned that to coach Erickson and he offered me a graduate assistant coaching job, suggesting that it would be a good way to finish my masters.

"I'd never really thought too much of coaching as a career, but it turned out I loved it. Once I got started, I never really made goals. I never felt I had to get to this point or to that point. I was fortunate to get promoted along the way, but I really just went along doing what I enjoyed."

Some of that, Chudzinski said, was the influence of Beier, who died one week after his former player was promoted to the Browns' offensive coordinator's job by Robiskie.

"Coach Beier was one of the biggest influences in my life and a little bit of St. John's will never again be the same," Chudzinski said. "I've been fortunate to be around some great football people, but he was the best coach I ever had.

"Fred motivated us, taught us about life, instilled a toughness and a work ethic. But the main thing, to me, was that he preached you didn't have to be the fastest, the strongest or the biggest to be the best and to be a winner. I've drawn a lot from Fred in my own coaching career. Heck, sometimes I use the same words and speeches. He was a tremendous influence."

The same could be said of his aunt and godmother, Barbara Vogel. She has been ailing and Chudzinski braved a snow and ice storm last week to visit her in Bellevue, Ohio.

"As usual, she gave me some advice," he said. "She said to always pick the highest apple on the tree."

Reaching for the top is always good advice, but with his future up in the air Chudzinski can only hope he'll be around to see his efforts with the Browns bear fruit.

"It wasn't always pretty," he said this season. "But it was a great experience for me. Frustrating? Sure. I know what would or could have been. But that's not what was.

"So all I can do now is hope for the best and see what happens."

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



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