Mike Pettine stands yards behind the practice drill, arms crossed in front of his chest, dark shades hiding all expression in his brown eyes, sunlight bouncing off his shaved head. Decked out in Browns gear, he looks the part of NFL head coach.
The scene was drastically different a little more than a decade ago.
He stood feet behind the action, commands and corrections poised on his tongue, excitement and angst obvious to the teenage boys. With a North Penn T-shirt tucked into his athletic shorts, baseball cap covering a head of brown hair — full except for the spot on top and the expanding forehead — he resembled every high school football coach in every movie about the Friday night lights.
The road from high school to the NFL is a long one, but the journey was short for Pettine. Only 13 years ago, he spent nights on the couch in his messy suburban basement watching film of Pennsylvania high schools. His full-time job was audio-visual specialist at North Penn High School, keeping track of which classrooms had the TVs and overhead projectors and instructing teachers on how to use the equipment.
On Sunday he’ll stand on the Heinz Field sideline for the first time as an NFL head coach in the regular season. A multimillionaire and one of 32 men in that job.
The trip from Lansdale, Pa., to Pittsburgh is only about 300 miles, but Pettine is light-years from where he was in 2001.
“From Day 1, there was the desire,” Pettine, 47, recently told The Chronicle-Telegram. “In the back of my mind, this was the ultimate goal for me.”
His life changed with an oversized dream, a load of confidence and a premature withdrawal from his retirement fund.
Pettine had made a comfortable life for him and his family near where he had grown up. He had built the North Penn program into an area power and was the subject of an ESPN documentary called “The Season.” He was popular, successful … and unsatisfied.
So he applied for a job with the Ravens in the video department. It required a substantial pay cut — hence, the secret 401(k) help — but the job was in the NFL, and that was enough.
“It wasn’t tough. It was exciting,” Pettine said. “I was confident once I got in the door that I’d be able to find a way. I wasn’t apprehensive. It was a risk, but I was betting on myself.”
He hit the jackpot.
Pettine found a benefactor in Ravens defensive assistant Rex Ryan and quickly climbed the coaching ladder. After five years as a defensive coordinator, Pettine was hired unexpectedly as coach of the Browns after a meandering search that was widely ridiculed.
It was the culmination of a plan Pettine hatched when he walked away from North Penn.
“Did I think Day 1 that, hey, this is easy, I can do this? Absolutely not,” Pettine said. “I didn’t have a timetable for it. I think my success has been a product of the people that I’ve worked with.”
He’s on his own in Cleveland.
He doesn’t have to make sure his players attend class, suffer meddling parents or navigate the minefield of teenage troubles. But the Browns have their own set of problems. At the top of the list are double-digit losses for the last six seasons and three coaches fired in the previous four years.
Giant risk, reward
Pettine doesn’t say much on the practice field. He observes, takes notes and occasionally strolls up to a player or an assistant to share a thought or a laugh.
For a guy whose nickname is “Blunt Force Trauma” for his straightforward approach, Pettine isn’t afraid to blend into the background.
“He lets his coaches coach,” said linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach, who played for Mike Pettine Sr. in high school in the late 1960s. “He has a very keen eye. If he sees something he doesn’t like, he’ll walk over and he’ll tell you. He’s quiet about corrections on the field, instead of screaming them.
“For as quiet as he is, he’s as active as any head coach I’ve been around.”
Pettine looks completely comfortable in his skin, another departure from how he was portrayed in the ESPN documentary. Pettine appreciated the two-part series that chronicled North Penn’s 1999 season, but felt it devoted too much attention to the fiery part of his personality.
“Can you please listen to coaching? Ever?” he yells at a player.
“What, what, what’s your excuse?” he screams with his nose inside the player’s face mask.
“You’re the No. 1 reason it’s their ball and we’re only up 7-nothing. The No. 1 reason. What are you doing?” his voice getting louder with each word.
Those were the biggest of the blowups but not the totality of them.
“There were some hard-core moments in that,” Pettine said. “They took really every flip-out I had during the season and I looked like Coach Kilmer from ‘Varsity Blues.’ I was the devil.”
An angel sits on the other shoulder. The postgame speech was straight from the heart when North Penn won a playoff game.
“I could stand here all night and look at your faces,” he said.
Not too many years earlier, Pettine had been in the players’ shoes. He played quarterback and earned a scholarship to Virginia as a free safety.
“He’s very athletic,” Pettine Sr. said. “He could’ve been recruited as a mid-tier Division I basketball player. He ranks up there pretty well with the players I had.”
But he couldn’t live his life in high school football. Whether it was the statewide shadow cast by his dad — a legendary high school coach — or the desire to focus entirely on football, Pettine wanted out.
The entry into the world he wanted was as a low-level video assistant for a 50 percent pay cut. Not ideal for a man in his 30s with young kids who later went through a divorce.
“I was always big on family comes first, the security,” Pettine Sr. said. “It was quite a risk. It worked out for him. I don’t think I would have made those moves.
“You want your kids to go above and beyond what you accomplished and he has. It would’ve been pretty difficult if he stayed at the high school level. It’s been a great ride.”
Despite the stress of the situation, Pettine’s confidence never wavered.
“He did a tremendous job,” Ryan, coach of the Jets, said at the scouting combine. “You talk about a guy working from the ground floor up, that’s him.
“That’s why I think he’s going to be an excellent coach. I don’t think there’s any doubt. He’s got the work ethic, he’s got the passion, the drive.”
Ryan took Pettine under his enormous wing, gave him a low-level coaching job in 2003, promoted him to outside linebackers coach in 2005 and took him to New York as defensive coordinator in 2009 when Ryan became a head coach for the first time.
Five years later — 12 years after leaving the cocoon of high school — Pettine’s the one in charge.
“That’s been a chip on my shoulder, whether it’s real or perceived, that that guy’s just a high school coach or that guy just gets Rex’s coffee,” Pettine said. “That’s what’s motivated me and I think a big part of why I’m here today.”
In the blood
As much as his circumstances and wardrobe have changed, at the core Pettine remains the same. He’s a smart, articulate, witty, engaging man who knows and loves football and was born to coach it.
And his goatee’s the same from 15 years ago.
Pettine’s place on the sideline shouldn’t be a surprise. He had a football in his crib before he could sit up … and there’s his dad.
Pettine Sr. went 327-42-4 at Central Bucks West in Doylestown and retired in 1999 as the winningest coach in state history. Pettine played for his dad, started his coaching career as an assistant at Central Bucks West and went 0-5 against his dad after he took over his own program.
“I never bring it up unless he really gets me ticked off,” Pettine Sr. said of his success in the matchup. “I never enjoyed it. I was in tears the first game. You look over and see your kid dejected. I jokingly say it got easier.”
Pettine Sr. spent much of the offseason watching practice and hanging out at Browns headquarters. He has a huge presence that can be intimidating, talked technique with an assistant coach for a chunk of a practice and sends the coaching staff a critique after every game.
“He has not mellowed to this day,” said Driesbach, who graduated from Central Bucks West in 1970. “I saw him after our last game and saw him walking toward me real fast and I told him, ‘Don’t start.’
“For all that football has changed, he sees how it hasn’t changed. It still comes down to getting lined up right, knowing what to do, getting off blocks, tackling, catching, using personnel the right way. He sees the big picture. And he’s not afraid to let any of us know.”
Father and son are at a good place in their relationship, but it wasn’t always handshakes and hugs. Pettine Sr. was an all-time taskmaster and was even harder on his flesh and blood. He almost drove Pettine away from the game on multiple occasions, but he always returned.
The worst episode was during a teachers strike, so coaches shouted instructions through a fence. As the team performed a duck walk, Pettine Sr. wouldn’t let up on the junior quarterback who happened to be his son.
Pettine stood up and walked toward the parking lot, taking off pieces of equipment as he went. He was tackled by a captain, stayed on the team and the coach got the message.
“It was quite a scene,” Pettine Sr. said. “I realized things had to change but didn’t know if I’d get the chance.
“I give him a lot of credit because he dealt with it. One thing I gave him was thick skin. He gets in situations, he doesn’t get rattled. If I had to do it over, I’d do it a lot differently. But I didn’t hurt him too much. He’s in the NFL and he’s not in counseling.”
Pettine’s principles were forged on the worn-out grass fields of suburban Philadelphia. He learned attention to detail, dedication and toughness. He also learned the intricacies of offensive and defensive systems, as Pettine Sr. was an innovator in scheme and tempo.
“Their core concepts on how they want a team to run and what they believe in are very, very similar,” said defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who played for Pettine Sr. “I mean, it’s in their blood. Mike, just like his dad, is very knowledgeable at all three phases of the game.
“Mike’s a little old-school, not as old-school as his dad.”
Dad won’t make the trip to Pittsburgh on Sunday because he doesn’t think he can take it. He wants to be in his living room, stalking and sweating where no one can see him.
The pride in his son is obvious, but it can’t keep up with the urge to protect him.
“I’m on the Rolaids already,” Pettine Sr. said Tuesday. “Having been in the coaching business, I just know no matter what status of job — it’s great that he’s in the NFL — but that feeling after the game if it doesn’t work out well, I don’t want to see him go through that.”
The Rex and I
Nearly a month of training camp practices passed without Pettine drawing attention to himself. His voice was never audible to reporters ringing the field. If he wanted to drive home a point, he’d gather the team in a huddle.
Hard to believe he’s a Rex Ryan disciple.
On the list of Pettine’s influences, Rex trails only Dad. He might not have an NFL career, and almost certainly wouldn’t be a head coach, without Ryan. They became fast friends in Baltimore and were inseparable for about a decade.
The NFL’s odd couple, living at the office, staying up all hours diagramming blitzes and talking about their coaching fathers. Rex is the son of Buddy, who built the famous 1985 Bears defense.
“For as different as we are personality-wise, there’s still a lot of similarities there,” Pettine said. “Love for the game, passionate about it, we love to compete, love the challenge of it. The chess match part of it is important. But the one thing that I did learn from him is it’s still a people business. It’s all about just building a relationship, whether it’s with the players, with your staff, with everybody around you.”
The relationship between Pettine and Ryan got frosty when Pettine left last year for a lateral move to Buffalo. Pettine was also critical of some of Ryan’s management decisions in “Collision Low Crossers,” a book about the 2011 Jets season.
Ryan singled out Pettine for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last month and they traded barbs, but Pettine swears they’re still friends and keep in touch.
“He’s not a very handsome kid. I’ll start right there,” Ryan said at the combine. “But he’s a football junkie. He’s a smart guy. And I think he’ll want to be great, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. I feel fortunate that I had Mike with me for as many years as I did, and hopefully he learned a few things, what to do, maybe what not to do, from me.”
Ryan nor Pettine is afraid to embrace the label of “players coach.” It might make Pettine Sr.’s skin crawl, but that’s how it works in today’s NFL.
“It’s probably more through humor getting after a guy, then just flat ripping a guy,” Pettine said. “But you can still get the message across that they need to be better in a particular aspect.
“Since I’ve been in the NFL, I’ve never been somebody that’s going to chew a team out or undress a guy. That’s not my style. And I don’t think you need to do it.”
He reminds his dad of the difference between coaching NFL and high school players, but that doesn’t mean he’s a softy.
“He’s not scared to get after a guy if he feels like he needs to,” O’Neil said. “But I think he’d rather go the path where put his arm around him, hey, we need you. But he can be bad cop, worse cop if he needs to be.”
It’s the Browns
Pettine’s daughter Megan tweeted what plenty of people were thinking.
“It’s the Browns,” she wrote while announcing her dad’s second interview in January. “But hey, still pretty cool!”
The entire family knows the challenges facing Pettine. The 10-6 season in 2007 was the Browns’ only winning one since 2002. The turnover in the front office and coaching staff has been staggering, so a culture change must be accompanied by stability.
Of course, Pettine’s hiring was quickly followed by the firing of CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi — the pair that hired him — and reports the Browns tried to trade for San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh.
Pettine was a surprise candidate and a bigger surprise as a hire. He didn’t interview with any other team and didn’t surface in Cleveland’s search until late in the marathon process.
“He’s smart like we thought, he’s articulate, I don’t think he gets rattled easy, he’s tough and I think the players relate well to him,” owner Jimmy Haslam said during camp.
Pettine was reminded of the work the team has to do in a sloppy preseason. He plans to commit to the run, play great defense and win games late. Competent quarterback play would be helpful.
“We’re confident as we get going that we’ll improve by leaps and bounds, but there’s a process,” he said.
Pettine’s trying to build a winner, something no one’s been able to do since Romeo Crennel in 2007, or sustain since Marty Schottenheimer in the late 1980s. He made a strong first impression.
“As soon as I got to meet him, I knew that he was the real deal,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. “He’s got an excellent plan. That’s the first thing that comes across is he knows how he wants to get things done. He’s going to do a great job communicating his message.”
“I like him a lot,” defensive end Phil Taylor said. “He tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. He’s not going to take any mess from anyone.”
Pettine believes becoming a head coach changes a man. He saw it with Ryan, and has done his best not to fall into that trap.
“He’s more focused and has a lot more on his plate and mind than he did,” Driesbach said. “As far as personality, absolutely not. He’ll still walk down the hallway and say hi to everybody, ask about your family.”
From the halls at North Penn High to the renovated Browns headquarters in a little more than a decade.
“That’s what’s so great about this profession,” O’Neil said. “There’s no one path. Mike’s story is awesome. I think everybody roots for that. That’s what all these high school and college coaches are dreaming and aspiring to get to one day. Just to get their chance.
“And he made a helluva sacrifice to go take that job in Baltimore, financially, family wise, all that. And it paid off for him, because he worked his ass off and he knows the game of football.”
This article was published in the 2014 Browns preview, which ran in Thursday’s Chronicle-Telegram. Read the entire preview via the e-edition.
The Mike Pettine File
Birthdate: Sept. 25, 1966
Hometown: Doylestown, Pa.
High School: Central Bucks West
Degree: Bachelor’s in economics
Family: Divorced; daughters Megan and Katie, son Ryan
Athletic career: Two-year letterman as a free safety at Virginia; led team in interceptions in 1986, including three against North Carolina State. Earned all-state honors as quarterback and defensive back in high school.
Famous father: Mike Sr. went 327-42-4 in 33 years as coach of Central Bucks West and retired as the winningest coach in Pennsylvania high school football history.
- 1988-92 — Central Bucks West H.S., assistant coach
- 1993-94 — University of Pittsburgh, defensive graduate assistant coach
- 1995-96 — William Tennent H.S., head coach
- 1997-2001 — North Penn H.S., head coach
- 2002 — Baltimore Ravens, coaching and video assistant
- 2003 — Ravens, coaching assistant/quality control coach
- 2004 — Ravens, defensive assistant
- 2005-08 — Ravens, outside linebackers coach
- 2009-12 — New York Jets, defensive coordinator
- 2013 — Buffalo Bills, defensive coordinator