CLEVELAND — Freddie Kitchens wanted to wear the bright orange Dawg Pound hoodie he made popular on the sideline. Senior vice president of communications Peter John-Baptiste wouldn’t allow it for the formal occasion.
He settled for a white baseball cap with the plain orange helmet to complement his dark sport coat and orange tie.
“He tried to take that off of me,” Kitchens said of the hat.
Kitchens made one thing clear Monday as he was introduced as the 17th full-time coach in Browns history. He’s gotta be him.
“What is so rewarding about getting the job here with the Cleveland Browns, they are not expecting anything different than what they have had. I can be myself,” he said at FirstEnergy Stadium. “I don’t have to put on a show. It kills me with some guys that they think they have to be more head coach-ish. I won’t be that. I will be who I am.”
Kitchens answered questions for about an hour between the news conference and a less formal gathering with reporters. He touched on a multitude of themes — how much he values trust and respect, the importance of communication, his burning desire to win a Super Bowl, his love of the game — but staying true to himself was a point he drove home.
“I know you have to put on a show in certain areas of business or whatever, but that is the great thing about the game of football. You can be authentic and you can be successful in doing that,” he said. “You don’t have to change who you are.”
As he answered questions next to general manager John Dorsey — owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam sat in the first row of the audience — Kitchens, 44, looked out at the downtown skyline. The Alabama native and three-year starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide has been in town less than a year but already feels at home.
“I feel like there’s a close-knit community here,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the common interest in the Cleveland Browns.”
Kitchens said he wasn’t the “popular” choice, citing a stunning ascension from associate head coach/running backs coach in less than three months. He has never been a head coach and was an offensive coordinator for only eight games.
“It takes some guts to do what they did and I appreciate that,” he said. “I won’t let them down.”
“We got it right,” Dorsey said.
The offense and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield took off over the final eight games with Kitchens calling plays after coach Hue Jackson and coordinator Todd Haley were fired. The Browns went 5-3 and Kitchens went from not being on Dorsey’s list of potential candidates to squarely in the mix. The interviews last week sealed the deal.
“He is a real unifier of men and people,” Dorsey said. “Freddie did an outstanding job the last eight games of the season. He galvanized the offense, he put players in positions to make plays and Freddie has a great vision for this organization moving forward.”
The strong finish thrilled a fan base that suffered through 1-15 and 0-16 records in 2016 and ’17 and has people already excited for 2019. Kitchens wasn’t impressed and promised the downs so prevalent since 1999 would no longer outnumber the ups.
“It drives me crazy that people are happy with 7-8-1,” he said. “If I was in a different setting, my vocabulary would demonstrate that. That is not acceptable. Nobody here wants that.
“We all understand that it was an improvement, but under no circumstances is that ever going to be acceptable. We only have one goal here and that is to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.”
Kitchens was tight ends coach when the Cardinals lost a heartbreaker to the Steelers in the Super Bowl after the 2008 season. It haunts him and motivates him to deliver a championship to Cleveland.
“That was the most-gut wrenching thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life,” he said. “And that’s what drives me every day, is to get back there and win it.”
He wouldn’t provide a playoff prediction for next season but said “I know we’re going to compete our a– off.”
“At the end of the day we need to match the passion that our fan base has, and we’ll be just fine,” he said.
Kitchens revealed he’s long known about being a Browns fan. He didn’t have an NFL team growing up in Alabama and gravitated toward the brown and orange.
“On Sundays, you had to do something other than go to church and eat a lot,” he said. “When the Cleveland Browns were on television, I was watching the Cleveland Browns. I liked their uniforms. I love the helmet. I like the simplicity of the helmet. Hopefully, we do not ever change that.”
The journey to NFL head coach started in 1999 as an offensive assistant at Glenville State, took a leap forward in 2006 when he broke into the NFL as Cowboys tight end coach and hit fast-forward when he became coordinator in October. He said 2½ months ago becoming the head coach didn’t cross his mind.
That changed at the end of the season when Dorsey told him he’d interview for the job.
“I had no doubt that I could do the job, and hopefully I demonstrated that by my interview,” he said.
Dorsey said the decision was unanimous among the search committee. He said Kitchens fit all the criteria and called his ability to connect with players “very special.”
After giving a lot of answers and taking a lot of pictures, Kitchens tie was askew. He missed the sweatshirt that fans are clamoring to buy and admitted they were pulling for him by the end of the season.
“I think I am popular in Cleveland because we won some games,” he said. “I may be popular because of the sweatshirt. I do not know.”
He has no doubt about how to keep the fans on his side.
“The fun is in the winning and we are going to have fun,” he said. “We are going to win and we are going to have a damn good time doing it.”