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Fiery Freddie Kitchens holds players accountable while earning their trust and forming connections

No one was spared.

Not the rookies. Not the injured. Not the water boys. Not the officials.

Especially not the officials.

Freddie Kitchens’ first training camp as coach was full of surprises. For those who didn’t really know him, his fiery personality belongs near the top of the list.

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Kitchens opened camp yelling and never stopped. He just switched targets.

“When he took over the offense last year you caught little glimpses of it,” middle linebacker Joe Schobert told The Chronicle-Telegram. “As professionals, you’ve got to motivate them somehow. And that’s pretty effective when you get your butt reamed out by the head coach. You’re going to turn around and try to do better the next play.

“Freddie walks that line very well. He’s not making it personal, but he’s making sure you know you made a mistake and you’ve got to get your stuff together.”

Kitchens’ career as a head coach truly starts Sunday when the season opens against the Tennessee Titans. He’s charged with taking a team of big talent and personalities, and a limited history of winning, to the playoffs.

Kitchens is a giant unknown. He’s never been a head coach at any level, was only a coordinator for the final eight games last year and plans to call the offensive plays while managing the game.

Mentors tell tales of Kitchens’ long journey to becoming Browns coach

He has boom-or-bust potential and a lot on his plate. If he fails, it’s not going to be for a lack of effort, or emotion, or cussing.

SEARCHING FOR ACCOUNTABILITY

The first impression of Kitchens can be misleading. He sounds like a good ol’ boy from Alabama — which he is — with enough southern charm to be the leading salesman during a short stint at a car dealership — which he was.

He can even come across as laid-back.

Not if you know him. Or even stand within earshot during the 2½-hour practices in Berea.

“If you were up close on the field, you would not think he was laid-back,” owner Jimmy Haslam said. “Freddie has a lot of strengths, but he is very comfortable in who Freddie Kitchens is. That is a tremendous strength of his and it shows through to everybody he deals with.”

Free safety Damarious Randall either never drew the ire of Kitchens, or was too busy talking himself to notice.

“I ain’t really heard him yell much,” he said. “Freddie’s country, so every country — we call ’em country bumpkins — so every country bumpkin’s got that temptation to yell in him. And it’s like sometimes he might not even think he’s yelling. That’s just the good ol’ country that just be coming out of him sometimes.”

No. 2 quarterback Drew Stanton has been with Kitchens longer than any other player. They were together for five years with the Cardinals, and Kitchens trusts him to prepare Mayfield each week and for a long career.

“There’s a sense of urgency you have to have when you step on the football field,” Stanton said. “Especially as the head coach, everybody’s looking to you. So there’s a standard that has been set and he’s trying to hold everybody to that standard.”

Kitchens doesn’t abandon the in-your-face style when practice concludes. He has an accountability board he shows in team meetings that lists the mental errors from that day’s practice with the jersey numbers of the guilty parties.

“That takes guts and leadership, that’s the thing that you need from a head coach,” right tackle Chris Hubbard said.

“You don’t want to be on that board, because then everybody sees that,” left guard Joel Bitonio said.

Kitchens wasn’t sure where he got the idea for the accountability chart but said former bosses Ken Whisenhunt and Sylvester Croom did something similar.

“You had four mental errors, your number’s on there four times,” he said. “Kind of get a sense for who’s on there a bunch and just try to create an atmosphere where you’re holding each other accountable.”

Stanton said games are won by limiting mental mistakes, and they are supposed to decrease in practice as the game approaches.

“We call it a perfect Friday, you want to go out there and have no mental errors,” he said.

SHOW THEM … THE LOVE

Kitchens also loves to “coach off the tape,” according to Bitonio, meaning pointing out players’ mistakes during film review.

“People have to have an open mind to it,” Bitonio said. “Because that’s the way you’re going to get better. If you don’t accept it in front of your teammates, you’re not going to be able to accept it with yourself.

“That’s one of the things that it’s tough. If you have a bad play on film, you don’t want to get called on it, but it’s also how you learn. I don’t think anybody’s taking it bad.”

“I wouldn’t care,” Kitchens said. “If they’re going to hold each other accountable, then they’ve got to know.”

Eric Mangini, who coached the Browns in 2009-10, alienated some players with the same method. They felt unnecessarily picked on during team meetings, as opposed to the smaller, safer setting of the position room.

Kitchens isn’t Mangini.

Mangini would avoid certain personal interactions, which is where Kitchens thrives.

“I was told a long time ago you can coach them any way you want, as long as you put your arm around them,” he said.

Connecting with players is a point of pride, as is calling everyone by their first name when reading off the back of the jersey is a common practice. He seemed genuinely disappointed running back D’Ernest Johnson hadn’t shared his history as a fisherman and he had to learn about it from a reporter.

“The way that Freddie is, how intentional he is in his relationships and getting to know everybody and earning people’s trust, that’s huge,” Stanton said. “It’s a different approach than you see typically in the NFL nowadays, and for Freddie to be able to do that and go about it and build those relationships is only going to help us as we move forward in the regular season.”

It gives him the leeway to light into the players.

“He’s going to get after guys, but then he’s going to love you up at the same time,” cornerback Denzel Ward said. “So that’s what I love about him personally.”

“I feel it’s from love,” Bitonio said. “He truly cares about each player and he cares about the team and sometimes you need some tough love, and that’s just the way you go about it.”

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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