Before he formed a special bond with Baker Mayfield …
Before he became a fan favorite in Cleveland …
Before he signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract to be coach of the Browns …
Freddie Kitchens was as an offensive assistant in 1999 at Division II Glenville State University in West Virginia. His job description included coaching running backs, mowing grass and procuring orange cones for practice drills.
Pluto seemed closer than the NFL.
Rick Trickett was the man who gave Kitchens that first job. Trickett was between assistant jobs at big-time Division I schools and inherited a program in dire straits.
“When I got here the guy before me had took all the footballs. He was pi—- and he took all the cones,” Trickett told The Chronicle-Telegram by phone Friday from West Virginia. “I went over and got some footballs over at Walmart just to toss around. And then coming back and I told Freddie and them — I had an old Chevrolet pickup — I said, ‘Look, up there on the interstate they’re doing some construction work.’ I said, ‘Ya all take my truck tonight and go up there and get some of them damn cones. I figure state school, state road.
“The next day we had 3-foot cones, we had 2½-foot cones, we had all kinds. I think they took every damn cone they had on the interstate.”
Kitchens, 44, has embraced the underdog role throughout his life. He’s faced an uphill climb in the coaching profession as the son of a tire maker in tiny Gadsden, Ala.
He finished the unlikely ascent with a stunning eight-week trial as a first-time offensive coordinator that earned him an interview and the job as Browns coach. The first people he thanked at his introductory news conference were ownership and management. Then came his mentors: former Alabama coach Gene Stallings, former Alabama offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey, former Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom and Trickett.
They described to The Chronicle-Telegram a man who’s tough, smart, dedicated, fun, true to himself and prepared to succeed with the Browns.
IT’S IN HIM
Kitchens wasn’t sure he wanted a career in football.
After a three-year run as Alabama’s starting quarterback in the mid-1990s, he stayed in Tuscaloosa but took a job as a car salesman “making more money than I have ever made.” On the weekends he’d wash FedEx trucks, forced to listen to the Crimson Tide games on the radio.
“It almost brought me to tears listening to it,” he said. “So I do not know that I ever wanted to coach, but I knew that I couldn’t live without the game of football.”
He didn’t have to once Trickett hired him. He’s worked continuously since 1999, spending seven years in college — at LSU, North Texas and Mississippi State coaching running backs and tight ends — before jumping to the NFL in 2006, where he coached tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks before the promotion to coordinator at midseason last year.
“I always told them not to take a job for the money. Take a job that they enjoyed,” said Stallings, who coached him at Alabama. “And I think that’s what Freddie did.”
Trickett is 70 years old and back coaching at Glenville. He plans to do it for the next eight or nine years, and sees the same passion in Kitchens.
“If you’re working for FedEx and you’re listening to a ballgame and you get tears in your eyes, then it’s in ya and you need to go do it,” Trickett said. “When emotions boil up like that, I think that’s a true sign.”
Kitchens has made a good living for a while and got an incredible bump in salary when he beat out six other candidates to become the 17th full-time coach in Browns history. Glenville State was a different story.
After a last-play loss on the road, Trickett was steaming and told the players to hurry up and get on the bus, then he told the driver to bypass the exit of the food stop. Despite Kitchens’ pleas.
“Freddie told the old boys, ‘He told me he couldn’t pay me very much but he’d give me a place to live and feed me. Now the son of a b—- ain’t even feeding us,’” Trickett said.
“Freddie’s had to fight for everything he’s ever got in his life, nothing’s ever come easy for him,” said Croom, the first African-American coach in the Southeastern Conference when he hired Kitchens in 2004 at Mississippi State. “So he knows the value of preparation and being ready when an opportunity would come.
“He’s done the work, he’s prepared himself, so now I think he’ll make the most of this opportunity.”
McCorvey, now Dabo Swinney’s right-hand man at Clemson, coached Kitchens at Alabama and stayed in touch. When Croom got the job at Mississippi State, he relied on McCorvey to help build the staff. Croom soon spotted a wealth of potential in Kitchens, listening to him ahead of more experienced coaches.
“I always valued his input,” Croom said, recalling Kitchens pestering him to add a sprint draw to the playbook. “He wouldn’t let up on the thing. He believed in it so. It ended up being one of our best plays.
“Freddie is Freddie. Either you like him the way he is or you don’t. He’s not going to change for anybody. And that’s what I like.”
A PLAYER, A LEADER
The four mentors knew Kitchens first as a player. He was Mr. Football in Alabama, played for his beloved Crimson Tide, was a three-year starter and finished his career in 1997 third in school history in pass attempts (680), fourth in yards (4,668) and fifth in completions (343).
He had a right arm so gifted he was a pitcher for the Tide and got looks from major league teams. But with a thick frame and wayward delivery (50.4 career completion percentage), the impression he made was more about intangibles than throws.
“He wasn’t just what you’d call a great passer,” Stallings said. “His strength was in his leadership and the way he handled the huddle. He’d get in the huddle and call the play and the players just believed in what he said.”
Playing quarterback at Alabama is a big deal. The roll call begins with Joe Namath and Ken Stabler and includes Walter Lewis and Richard Todd. Kitchens didn’t reach those heights as Alabama was placed on probation and lost scholarships, but he earned respect among coaches with perseverance, clutch performance and leadership.
Everyone who talks about Kitchens is quick to mention the toughness inherited from his father, “Big Freddie.” He played through injuries, including fractured ribs, overcame adversity and didn’t back down against the likes of Tennessee’s Peyton Manning.
“He was mentally tough, but he was physically tough, too,” Stallings said. “He was just a tough guy. I would refer to him as an offensive lineman playing quarterback.”
“One time our defensive people hit his arm and he fumbled the ball and, hell, you see two Auburn players dive on the ball, then you see Freddie dive in and then all of a sudden Freddie comes out of the pile with the football,” Trickett said. “And there’s no way in hell he should’ve had that football. But I just think he willed it. He’s one of the guys that just wills his way.”
Kitchens’ crowning moment was a late comeback win over Auburn in Stallings’ final game in the rivalry before retiring. Kitchens led the winning drive.
“He was just a great competitor,” Stallings said. “That was his long suit.”
MAKING A COACH
The greatest influence on Kitchens was his omnipresent father with the big personality. Kitchens Sr. died in 2015 but left his son with a blueprint for how to speak his mind, stand his ground and grind tirelessly.
Kitchens said he learned “the ability to work” as his father, a tire maker for Goodyear, would figure out a way to survive through repeated layoffs and strikes.
“So to see the resolve and the resiliency of going out and finding work, that’s tough,” Kitchens said. “What we do is not tough. What we do is coach football for a living and get paid well doing it. We have hard days, not bad ones. And that’s not the case with everyone.”
When Kitchens left home for the University of Alabama, he was further shaped by men who devoted their lives to coaching. Stallings, Trickett, McCorvey and Croom taught him as a young adult, and Hall of Famer Bill Parcells and Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians stepped in once he made it to the NFL.
“He’s always had an idea of how he wanted to do things,” said Croom, who said he recommended Kitchens for several coordinator jobs in college but he chose to stay in the NFL. “But definitely working with Bill and then Bruce, you can’t get with two better guys than that.
“I know there’s no question he talked about the influence that Bill had on him as far as how to manage a football team and how to get guys to play. And then Bruce, as far as his offensive schemes, all of that is going to serve him extremely well.”
Trickett said Stallings had the greatest impact on Kitchens, but Stallings said Kitchens must set his own course.
“He’s got to be his own man,” said Stallings, who played for the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant. “There’s no way that I could’ve coached like Coach Bryant. You’ve got to coach your own personality.
“(Kitchens is) a gung-ho guy, he’s not going to be satisfied with winning eight and losing eight, he’s going to be playing for the championship.”
The popular refrain of “Freddie is Freddie” doesn’t indicate inflexibility. It means he won’t pretend to be someone he’s not and won’t compromise on his core values. He said he learned from Stallings, McCorvey and Croom that coaching is more than X’s and O’s. It’s about earning the trust and respect of the players.
“He’s always going to put his players first,” McCorvey said. “He does it with a disciplined structure, and they know he loves them, they know he cares about them.”
MAN IN CHARGE
The rise of Kitchens to head coach was startling to many. Not those who know him best.
“I’m not the least bit surprised that he got a head coaching job in the pros,” Stallings said.
Kitchens says he never campaigned for a promotion in his career, he just did his job as well as he could. When the chance came to be a coordinator for the final eight games, that was all he needed to convince owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam and general manager John Dorsey the right man was already in the building.
“I think they saw the top qualities he had,” Trickett said. “I think they knew that the guy knew how to win. He was a winner as a player, he’ll be a winner as a coach. He’ll make the Browns a winner.”
Stallings guaranteed the Browns will be tougher and said Kitchens will benefit from being “blessed with a good, young quarterback” in Mayfield. They formed a bond instantly when Kitchens took charge of the offense, and the way Mayfield flourished played a significant role in Kitchens getting the job.
“They’re probably two guys who are a little bit alike,” Trickett said.
The Browns went 5-3 with Gregg Williams as interim coach and Kitchens as coordinator. Croom said Kitchens’ impact was obvious.
“It wasn’t X’s and O’s that just turned the season for Cleveland,” he said. “I mean, you’re talking about the same players now.
“I think life is about people and relationships, but especially football. And especially at the NFL level. Coaching is about getting those players to play their absolute best as a team. That’s great leadership, and that’s what Freddie is, he’s a leader.”
Kitchens had never been a head coach at any level, so he’s never stood in front of the entire team day after day. Croom said it won’t be an issue.
“In his mind he knows exactly what he wants to do right now, and he’s seen himself in this position for a long time,” he said. “So it’s almost like the great golfers. They always say you practice the round in your head a thousand times before you go out there and play.
“There will be no question in anybody’s mind what’s expected of them. And there won’t be any deviation. They’ll always know where he stands. They may not like it sometimes but they’ll know.”
Kitchens’ mentors say all he needed was a chance.
“It’s all about opportunity,” McCorvey said. “Now he has to take the opportunity and go make the most of it. I’m sure he will, in his own way.”