Browns’ Stefanski impresses but faces huge challenge

Sports from the AP

Cleveland Browns new NFL football head coach Kevin Stefanski answers a question during a news conference at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Phil Long)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Kevin Stefanski made a favorable first impression. Dressed impeccably, he came across lawyer-like, polished and articulate. He exuded confidence and passion.

Now, he’s got to win.

In Cleveland, that’s always the issue for coaches.

“I’m excited for this challenge,” Stefanski said. “I’m ready for it.”

The former Vikings offensive coordinator, who worked his way up the NFL ladder, was introduced Tuesday as the Browns’ new coach, the 18th in the team’s history and 10th since the team’s expansion return in 1999. Stefanski, who was a candidate for Cleveland’s job a year ago, is also the sixth hired in just the past eight years by owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, whose atrocious track record with coaches and front office executives — along with bad draft picks — best explains the Browns’ inability to win.

Maybe they got it right this time.

“We spent a lot of time with Kevin,” Jimmy Haslam said. “His references were outstanding. We feel very comfortable with him. We’re highly confident that he’ll be our coach for a long time.”

Stefanski, who spent one season running Minnesota’s offense, inherits a talented roster that underachieved in 2019. The Browns went 6-10 last season amid a steady drizzle of drama that detracted from the few positives. Stefanski isn’t concerned about the past or boarding a coaching carousel.

It’s about today and tomorrow.

“The focus is 2020,” he said. “We’re not looking backward, we’re moving forward. And I hope all of our players know that, too. When they walk in the building, whenever it is in April, we’re moving forward. And anything that’s happened in the past does not affect our future. So I’m just confident in the group that we have.”

This is the first head coaching job at any level for Stefanski, who got his start as a low-level assistant in 2006 with Minnesota, where he learned a variety of jobs that prepared him as a leader. He worked under three head coaches during 14 seasons with the Vikings, and while experiencing change he developed the well-rounded skills that made him popular with players and appealed to the Browns.

Stefanski said personal connections are the key to success.

“My leadership style is to be authentic,” he said. “I’m going to be me, and I think that’s good enough. And, I’m going to be direct with our players and they are going to get to know me and I’m going to get to know them. I want to lead from a relationship standpoint. I want them to understand what I’m about. I’m ready and willing and excited to lead from out in front. And I’m also ready and willing to step back and let the success and the light shine on our players — where it should be.”

Stefanski was joined at the news conference at FirstEnergy Stadium by his wife, Michelle and their three young children, Gabe, Will and Juliet, who struggled to stay awake while her daddy was at the podium.

After being settled for so long, the Stefanski family is dealing with the shock of moving.

“It’s a tough 48 hours that we’ve been through and we’ve made some promises to these children,” Stefanski said with a smile. “We’re getting a dog. We’re going to Disney World.”

Stefanski was also accompanied by his mom, Karen, and dad, Ed, a longtime NBA executive who currently works as an adviser with the Detroit Pistons.

In describing the kind of coach he wants to be with the Browns, Stefanski said he wanted to use a basketball analogy “so my dad can understand this.”

“I want to be the point guard for this organization,” he said. “I want to bring the ball up and I want to share the basketball and let someone else get an easy bucket.”

Stefanski was a finalist for Cleveland’s job last year, when the team picked Freddie Kitchens after his successful half-season stint as offensive coordinator. Kitchens, though, proved to be the wrong hire and was fired a few hours after the Browns lost their season finale to Cincinnati.

Stefasnki’s introduction came exactly one year after Kitchens’ and the difference between the two was striking.

A year ago, Kitchens tapped into the unabashed passion of Cleveland’s rabid fans by saying, “If you don’t wear brown and orange,” a signature phrase that faded with every loss and bad play call. Stefanski didn’t make any proclamations or bold predictions, but he admitted being staggered by the Browns’ rich history.

“I pinch myself to think that I’m going to talk to Jim Brown later today,” he said referring to the Hall of Fame running back. “That’s my dad’s favorite player growing up, so I’ve heard all about Jim Brown. That’s special to me.”

Although Stefanski wasn’t picked by the Browns last year, that didn’t diminish his interest nor did the Browns’ quick trigger with Kitchens.

“I’m undaunted,” he said, adding he has already spoken to quarterback Baker Mayfield. “And I think the challenge is there and I can’t wait to be a part of this change.”

Stefanski is in the early phases of putting together his staff, and the Browns are in the process of hiring a new general manager to replace John Dorsey.

Jimmy Haslam said the team will be methodical in selecting a GM. The Browns have scheduled interviews with Eagles vice president of football operations Andrew Berry, who was in Cleveland from 2016-18, and Vikings assistant GM George Paton.

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