Marty Schottenheimer arrived in Cleveland in 1980 as defensive coordinator. He left after the 1988 season after 4½ years as head coach.
He turned the Browns into a consistent winner, something they hadn’t been since the 1960s and haven’t been since. They went to the playoffs in all four of his full seasons as head coach, winning three AFC Central Division titles and reaching the conference championship game twice.
Schottenheimer coached 16 more years in the NFL and won 156 more games after leaving town, but his first turnaround came with the Browns and made a lasting impact.
“The Cleveland Browns are saddened to learn of the passing of Marty Schottenheimer,” the team said in a statement Tuesday. “As a head coach, he led the organization to four playoff appearances and three divisional titles, but it was his tough, hard-nosed, never give up the fight attitude the team embodied that endeared him to Browns fans and often led to thrilling victories.
“His impact on the game of football was not only felt in Northeast Ohio but across the entire NFL. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Pat, and his entire family.”
Schottenheimer died Monday night in Charlotte, N.C., his family said through former Kansas City Chiefs publicist Bob Moore. He was 77. Schottenheimer was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014 and moved to hospice care Jan. 30.
Schottenheimer coached Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington and San Diego and went 200-126-1 in 21 seasons.
His coaching career was as remarkable as it was flummoxing.
There were 200 regular-season wins, the eighth most in NFL history. There were a mystifying number of playoff losses, some so epic they had nicknames: The Drive and The Fumble.
Always there was Martyball, the conservative, smash-mouth approach that featured a strong running game and hard-nosed defense.
“The best coach I ever had,” Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson said in a statement. “I never went into a game with Marty as coach feeling like I wasn’t fully prepared to win. … I considered him a true All-American man.”
“He preached toughness and discipline on both sides of the ball,” Hall of Fame Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome said in a statement. “Though he was an old-school, tough coach, he was also adaptable, as he hired Lindy Infante to run the offense, which helped us to become a complete team.
“Marty got us to the brink of the Super Bowl, and unfortunately, we as players did not deliver, which is something that we all regret because of our affection for him.”
“I want to extend my heartfelt condolences to the entire Schottenheimer family.”
Statement from Ozzie Newsome. pic.twitter.com/YwFhkEucuI
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) February 9, 2021
Schottenheimer was a master at getting his players’ rapt attention. He would gather them in the pregame huddle and holler, “One play at a time!” Among his other favorites: “This is us!” and “We’ve got our people!” Or, “Gentlemen, it’s the 6 inches between your breastbone and your back — your heart!”
Winning in the regular season was never a problem. Schottenheimer’s teams won 10 or more games 11 times, including a glistening 14-2 record with the Chargers in 2006 that earned them the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
It’s what happened in January that haunted Schottenheimer, who was just 5-13 in the postseason.
“Well, we haven’t been real successful when we got there. We need to fix that,” Schottenheimer said in 2006 after San Diego clinched the AFC West.
His playoff demons followed him to the end of his career.
In his final game, on Jan. 14, 2007, Schottenheimer’s Chargers, featuring NFL MVP Tomlinson and a supporting cast of Pro Bowlers, imploded with mind-numbing mistakes and lost a home divisional playoff game to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, 24-21.
A month later, owner Dean Spanos stunned the NFL when he fired Schottenheimer because of a personality clash between the coach and strong-willed general manager A.J. Smith. Schottenheimer and Smith hadn’t spoken for about two years.
A breaking point for Spanos — head of the family-owned team — came when Schottenheimer wanted to hire brother Kurt as defensive coordinator after Wade Phillips was hired away as Dallas’ head coach. Kurt Schottenheimer had been on his brother’s previous staffs, and Marty Schottenheimer’s son, Brian, had been Chargers quarterbacks coach from 2002-05.
Schottenheimer then moved to North Carolina to spend time with his family and golf.
Spanos on Tuesday recalled Schottenheimer as a ”tremendous leader of men and a man of great principle. … You couldn’t outwork him. You couldn’t outprepare him. And you certainly always knew exactly where you stood with him.”
Schottenheimer was 44-27 with Cleveland from 1984-88; 101-58-1 with Kansas City from 1989-98; 8-8 with Washington in 2001; and 47-33 with San Diego from 2002-06.
He turned around the Browns, Chiefs and Chargers.
Tomlinson remembered how much Schottenheimer loved the running game.
“Power football. That’s Martyball,” Tomlinson once said. ”You run it, then run it, and then run it again, and then OK, OK, we can throw a pass. But after that pass, let’s run it, then run it, and run it again. That’s Martyball. Wear you down.”
Schottenheimer never made it to the Super Bowl, either as a player or coach. He was a backup linebacker for the Buffalo Bills when they lost the 1966 AFL title game to Kansas City, which then played the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl.
As a coach, his playoff losses were epic and mystifying.
His Browns twice came tantalizingly close to earning Super Bowl berths, only to have them ripped away by The Drive and The Fumble in consecutive AFC title games against nemesis John Elway and the Broncos.
In the 1986 AFC championship game at Cleveland, Elway led the Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the game on a 5-yard pass to Mark Jackson with 37 seconds left in regulation. Denver won in overtime on Rich Karlis’ 33-yard field goal.
A year later, with the Browns trailing the Broncos 38-31 with 1:12 left at Denver, Earnest Byner fumbled on the Broncos 1-yard line. The Broncos won 38-33 after taking an intentional safety.
Schottenheimer’s Chiefs reached the AFC title game in 1993 but lost at Buffalo. Two of his Chiefs teams went 13-3 and locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs before shockingly flaming out in the divisional round.
Schottenheimer was born on Sept. 23, 1943, in Canonsburg, a small town outside Pittsburgh. He played at Pitt before a six-year pro career as a linebacker with the Bills and Patriots.
He is survived by his wife, Pat, and children Brian and Kristin. Brian Schottenheimer was fired as Seattle’s offensive coordinator last month and then hired by new Jacksonville coach Urban Meyer as passing game coordinator-quarterbacks coach.