BEREA, Ohio — With an easy grin, the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns extends his hand and introduces himself with a southern drawl.
This is a warm summer Friday, minutes after a training camp practice this August, and Freddie Kitchens is standing in the Browns’ indoor facility, set to do yet another 1-on-1 interview about his team. It seems reporters from all over want to know how Kitchens, a first-time head coach on any level, plans on handling one of the most talented (yet potentially combustible) teams in recent memory, as the collection of football starpower accumulated by general manager John Dorsey is matched by the collective sum of its big personalities.
There’s second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, for instance, who pairs a megawatt smile with a fiery personality, one that can turn sharp when receivers run wrong routes or TV/radio personalities talk out of pocket.
There’s also the newly acquired megastar Odell Beckham Jr., who was liked by his ex-teammates in New York but nonetheless remained a media lightning rod due to his occasional sideline outbursts and tendency to criticize his coaches or quarterback.
There’s also star running back Kareem Hunt, who was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs last season after a video surfaced of him shoving and kicking a woman in a Cleveland hotel, not to mention other players who either bring plenty of attitude (receiver Jarvis Landry) or baggage (receiver Antonio Callaway).
It’s easy to wonder what will happen to the Browns, a team whose tendency for dysfunction has contributed to 11 consecutive losing seasons. What will happen when someone says or does something that will, at the very least, lead to headlines and at the very worst, become a dreaded “distraction”?
Dorsey doesn’t sound worried.
“That’s natural,” Dorsey told Yahoo Sports.
He believes his roster, led by Mayfield, is stacked with talented players with a passion for the game, which he believes will trump whatever waves may come. Dorsey’s calm also stems from the presence of the man he hired to lead this group in January, a head coach who pairs an affable, workmanlike attitude with a leadership approach he has spent years crafting.
“One thing you admire about Freddie — he’s got no ego, he’s willing to roll his sleeves up, he’s coming to work every day and he understands the task at hand,” Dorsey said. “He’s consistent with his message day in and day out … the players have absolute trust in him. But he’s gonna hold those guys accountable.”
Doing this in the NFL is a delicate balance. Go too hard on players, and a coach can lose them. Go too soft on them, and a coach has an undisciplined team. Kitchens plans on walking that tightrope this year by leaning on an approach he learned from two of his legendary mentors, current Alabama head coach Nick Saban and former New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells.
“I ain’t changin’,” Kitchens told Yahoo Sports with a laugh, when asked how he plans to lead from the front. “I think you have to develop trust, you have to develop respect, and you have to develop loyalty.
“I learned some of that from Coach Saban, I learned some of it from Coach Parcells; there’s nothing that I have that I thought of myself — I’ve seen other people put it into action. Now, I’ve put my own spin on it because I’m always gonna be myself. But at the core of everything they stand for, I think you can put it into those things.”
Start with trust, Kitchens said. To earn it from players, he has learned that a coach must establish that he’ll never lie to them or let them down. He also learned the importance of this during his childhood from his father, Freddie Kitchens Sr.
“My dad, if he ever told you something, you could take it to the bank — it was gonna happen, and there was no excuse for it not happening,” Kitchens said. “It was just gonna happen, and it didn’t matter what he had to go through to make it happen.”
Kitchens also recalled seeing his dad get up at 4 a.m. — once he was laid off from Goodyear — and working until nightfall, all to make ends meet.
“He was fixing people’s plumbing, anything he could do to put food on the table,” Kitchens recalled.
He respected his dad’s sacrifice, and came to realize that a good leader can cause others to sacrifice if they engender that respect and set a good example.
“You create respect by showing them that you’re willing to pay the price with them — not by just telling them to pay the price,” Kitchens said. “And there’s other things dealing with respect that doesn’t have anything to do with coaching them hard. Don’t get hung up on that because we’re gonna coach ’em hard, but they’re gonna know we’re in it for the right reasons.”
So while Kitchens takes pride in his staff being straightforward with players — new safety Eric Murray told Yahoo Sports he appreciated their direct nature — he doesn’t want it to venture into the name-calling occasionally seen on this level, which almost always leads to contempt.
“You can still coach ’em hard and respect ’em, alright?” Kitchens said. “We don’t call players names, we don’t degrade them. But we’re gonna get all on that ass if they do something wrong.”
Even loyalty comes with a condition.
“They’re only going be loyal to me as long as I can do something for them,” Kitchens said. “You just have to understand that, and that’s fine. Because I’m always gonna be able to do something for ’em.”
This is why Mayfield and other Browns seem to like Kitchens so much. Their new coach has an internal sense of personal responsibility to always be useful to his players, a trait that also helps him weed out players who aren’t.
“If you wanna see if someone’s loyal to ya or not, teach ’em something they don’t know, watch ’em have success with it … and see if they come back,” Kitchens said.
And if they don’t?
“I’m telling you, you’ve probably got the wrong guy [on your team],” Kitchens said.
So far, so good. It’s training camp, so everyone’s saying nice things in Cleveland now, from the front office to the players. That includes Beckham, who noted that Kitchens has made him “feel at home,” and Mayfield, who consistently praises Kitchens.
“The best part about Freddie is how honest he is, his communication, he is himself and he brings that same energy every day,” Mayfield said recently. “He is the same guy every day, and guys need to see that. We knew that offensively, just because we dealt with him the back half of the year, but then the defense seeing that every day is very important.”
The real test comes in the fall, when the Browns lose a game or two. Kitchens knows that, and he also knows how much they stick together amid the storm will determine whether all those AFC North championship predictions come true. Perhaps that’s why, when asked who will make sure the Browns will stay bonded when tough times come, Kitchens chuckled.
“I hope everyone, alright,” Kitchens said. “Because when adversity hits, you’re going to crumble, and when you crumble, you’re [either] going to put the pieces back together or it’s gonna get swept up. We want to put the pieces back together.”
Dorsey is betting that Kitchens’ three-pronged approach of earning the trust, respect and loyalty of his players will have something to do with ensuring that actually does happen if the winds of potential strife that reporters keep asking about eventually hit the shores of Lake Erie,
“We, the Cleveland Browns, believe in the group that’s right here in this building,” Dorsey said. “And that’s the only thing that matters.”
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