CLEVELAND — The history is ugly. It can also be intimidating, alarming and discouraging.
The last five men to hold his job have been fired by his new boss, with the longest tenure 2½ years by Hue Jackson. Exactly 365 days earlier Freddie Kitchens went through the same pomp and circumstance only to be out of a job after 16 games.
Kevin Stefanski isn’t scared.
“I am undeterred. And I’m undaunted,” he said Tuesday at FirstEnergy Stadium after being introduced as the 18th full-time coach in Browns history. He signed a five-year contract Monday. “And I think the challenge is there and I can’t wait to be a part of this change.”
The Browns are desperate for different results.
They are 33-94-1 since owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam agreed to buy the team in 2012. They’ve hired Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine, Jackson and Kitchens, only to fire them with years and millions of dollars left on their contracts.
The Haslams sat in the front row again Tuesday, looking on hopefully as Stefanski answered questions about why he can be different from his predecessors.
“It’s easy, the focus is 2020,” said Stefanski, who spent the last 14 years with the Minnesota Vikings in a variety of roles, including offensive coordinator in 2019. “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.”
The search committee of Jimmy Haslam, executive vice president JW Johnson, chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and vice president of football administration Chris Cooper interviewed eight candidates, including Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. It selected Stefanski, 37, who interviewed with the Browns twice in 2019 before finishing runner-up to Kitchens.
“We were really comfortable with him,” Jimmy Haslam said. “We had some outstanding people we had an opportunity to spend time with, but it felt right with Kevin.
“Kevin has a great deal of humility. You could tell he learned from the year of calling plays. That benefited him.”
Haslam and DePodesta praised Stefanski’s leadership, which was conveyed by a litany of references. Stefanski emerged from an initial list of more than 50 candidates in 2019 to become a finalist despite having never been a head coach and calling plays as an interim coordinator for only three games. He took the next step this year.
“What kind of communicator is somebody? How collaborative is he? How natural or authentic is he?” DePodesta said. “All of those things are important but they all really point toward leadership and that’s ultimately what we were looking for first and foremost in this process.”
Stefanski knows jumping from coordinator to commanding the whole team will be a change but said he’s ready.
“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 and I want to lead from a relationship standpoint.”
Stefanski wore a blue suit and orange tie and was prepared, articulate, insightful and disciplined in the 30-plus-minute interview session. Leadership and discipline were problems under Kitchens, who had a similar resume as Stefanski but a completely different demeanor.
“We’ll have a culture of accountability,” Stefanski said. “We’ll have structures in place and the players will understand our rules and what we’re about and we’re going to be demanding. We’re going to hold each player accountable because ultimately, it’s about players and they may not come out and ask you for that, but it’s what they want.”
The constant change within the organization — the Haslams have ousted five head of football operations and are searching for a new general manager to pair with Stefanski — has taken its toll. And not just on the fan base.
“I’m a big believer that there’s a real cost to change,” DePodesta said. “Forget about financial cost, there’s a cost to turnover. The different coordinators that people have had to go through, different people in the building, different philosophy, different schemes, there is a real cost to that. We have to get this right.”
He added the search began with the goal of finding a coach for the next decade-plus.
“Now, we can’t jump from Year 1 to Year 10 in two years, it’s going to take awhile, but that’s really what we’re looking for is someone we thought could give us some sustainable success and some real continuity for a long period of time and someone who could really be, for lack of a better term, the CEO of the football organization, especially in terms of his leadership and his ability to bring everybody together, both on the field and off the field,” DePodesta said. “I think that’s what we have in Kevin.”
Despite the history of losing — the Browns haven’t had a winning season since 2007 and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002 — Stefanski does enter with expectations. The roster is much improved from the 0-16 2017 season, and Haslam said the latest regime change isn’t a rebuild.
“We have a really good core group of young players we think we can build around,” he said.
“Those are some really good young football players, so that is where this job was so attractive to me because not only do we have the right people in the building, we have the right players in the building,” he said. “It is definitely somewhere where we have a really good start on this.”