July 24, 2014

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Brian Dulik: Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s gut tells him Rob Chudzinski’s the right choice

The Browns reached out to Alabama’s Nick Saban and wooed Oregon’s Chip Kelly, but couldn’t land either high-profile name.

They also spoke with Penn State’s Bill O’Brien and Syracuse’s Doug Marrone, along with Canadian Football League veteran Marc Trestman, and NFL lifers Ken Whisenhunt, Ray Horton and Mike Zimmer.

None of them, however, won the affections of Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam III or CEO Joe Banner.
But Rob Chudzinski did, making him a most unlikely selection as the 14th full-time coach in Browns history.

“I think hiring people is both an art and a science,” Haslam said Friday. “The facts and the data and the references on Rob were outstanding. But there is also an instinctive gut feel, and early on, Joe and I both felt like Rob was the right guy — both from the art part and the science part.

“Sitting here today, I feel very confident that we got the right guy for the Cleveland Browns.”
Long-suffering Browns fans certainly hope so, given the franchise’s disastrous run since returning to the NFL in 1999.

Remarkably, the last Cleveland coach to finish with a winning record came all the way back in 1988, when Marty Schottenheimer wrapped up his five-year run with a 44-27 mark. Chudzinski was a sophomore tight end at Miami (Fla.) at the time.

“To bring back the pride, the passion, the success that this franchise has had in the past, I want to be part of it,” said Chudzinski, his voice wavering with emotion. “I promise you that we’re going to put a product and a team on the field that you can be proud of, and we will win.”

While “Chud” grew up in Toledo passionately rooting for the Browns, it was refreshing to hear Haslam say that had nothing to do with the hire. Too many previous executives have pandered to the locals with that angle.

The Tennessee billionaire even admitted, “Until Rob got in and I asked him, “Where are you from?” I was not even aware of it. I’ll be honest, that’s a nice-to, not a have-to, but it is a great story.

“If Rob would have been from Plano, Texas, we would have hired him. Again, it’s a nice-to, not a have-to.”

Haslam and Banner also said they didn’t contact Chudzinski until Tuesday, didn’t interview him until Wednesday and didn’t offer him the gig until they met for a second time Thursday night in Charlotte.

Once Chudzinski agreed to join the organization, the trio boarded a flight to Cleveland, arriving in town less than 11 hours before their introductory news conference in Berea.

“I’ve been on cloud 9 and I think I slept about an hour last night,” a visibly exhausted Chudzinski said. “It’s almost unbelievable in a lot of ways that this kid from Toledo, Ohio, growing up as a Browns fan and loving the Browns, understanding how important this team is to this region, this area and this city, it’s a dream come true.”

It’s also a solid — if unspectacular — move by Haslam and Banner, who called Cleveland the marquee coaching vacancy in the NFL when they fired Pat Shurmur just 11 days earlier.

Chudzinski is much more qualified for his first head coaching shot than Shurmur or Chris Palmer, who were haphazard hires, and commands a room better than they ever did.

The 44-year-old married father of three also inspires confidence with the way he carries himself, not unlike Haslam. Both genuinely make you believe they’re going to get the job done, another quality which has been lacking in Berea for a long time.

Additionally, Chudzinski is well regarded around the league from his nine seasons as an assistant with the Browns, Panthers and Chargers, where he proved he could adapt his offensive system to vastly different styles of quarterbacks.

“When we first talked to Rob, it was clear that he had a very thoughtful plan about what he would do as our head coach,” Banner said. “It’s not something he was figuring out during the interview, which was very important to Jimmy and myself.

“If we didn’t feel like we had our guy, we had additional people we would have talked to, but there was no need because we believed in Rob.”

And so begins the Chudzinski Era in Cleveland. He wasn’t the first person interviewed for the job — or the second, third, fourth or fifth — but, much to his satisfaction, he proved to be the best option for the Browns.

“You hope that in this case, especially with the love I have for this organization and this team, that you get the call (for an interview),” Chudzinski said. “That call came on Tuesday. When it did, I knew I was going to get this job.”

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.

THE ROB CHUDZINSKI FILE

• AGE: 44
• BIRTHPLACE: Toledo
• HIGH SCHOOL: Toledo St. John’s
• COLLEGE: Miami (Fla.)
• FAMILY: Married (Sheila) with two sons (Kaelan and Rian) and one daughter (Margaret)
• NFL COACHING EXPERIENCE: Nine years with Carolina, San Diego, Cleveland
NCAA coaching experience: 10 years with Miami (Fla.) … Previously worked for Browns in 2004 (tight ends coach/interim offensive coordinator) and 2007-2008 (offensive coordinator).
• Engineered third-highest scoring offense in Cleveland history in 2007, racking up 402 points and 5,621 yards.
• Served under Browns coaches Romeo Crennel, Butch Davis and Terry Robiskie.
• Spent 2011 and ’12 seasons as offensive coordinator of Panthers.
• Helped Carolina set franchise records for yards (6,237) and first downs (345) in 2011, one year after establishing team-record lows.
• Tutored Panthers quarterback Cam Newton during his AP Offensive Rookie of the Year season in 2011.
• Also had two stints working for Chargers from 2005-2006 (tight ends coach) and 2009-2010 (assistant head coach/tight ends coach).
• Worked closely with San Diego coach Norv Turner as his second-in-command.
• Began coaching career at Miami (Fla.) as graduate assistant in 1994-1995.
• Was later promoted to Hurricanes’ tight ends coach (1996-2000) and offensive coordinator/tight ends coach (2001-2003).
• Miami (Fla.) set school records with 527 points and 6,074 yards in 2002.
• Played tight end for Hurricanes from 1986-1990, winning national championships in 1987 and 1989.