BEREA, Ohio — Shortly after completing his ascension from running backs assistant to Cleveland Browns head coach in just a few months, Freddie Kitchens gathered his players.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” he told them. “I’m just a big ol’ redneck from Alabama. Nobody ever figured I’d be here.
“But you know what? I’m here.”
Here is Kitchens, perhaps the biggest unknown among NFL head coaches, who, until taking over as Cleveland’s offensive coordinator midway through last season, had never even been a playcaller at any level of football.
And yet, here is Kitchens, who, despite being a first-year head coach, might be under more pressure than any other coach in the league for the moment, facing the tempest of a star-studded yet — so far — underachieving team off to a 1-2 start.
Not that he’s panicking.
“Everything I’ve ever done, there’s been adversity to it,” said Kitchens, who six years ago survived a tear within the wall of his aorta, just above his heart, while on the practice field with the Arizona Cardinals. “The one thing our players know about me is that I’m not going to panic. I’m going to stay who I am, whether you like it or dislike it. It doesn’t really matter to me. I know our players have trust and confidence in me that I will not panic and that I will do my very best to put them in situations to be successful.
“My life has been all about adversity. This is nothing. This is just doing your job a little better.”
Until the Browns gambled on him, Kitchens had never been considered head-coaching material.
He was never regarded as the hotshot, 30-something offensive prodigy like the Rams’ Sean McVay. Nor was he ever groomed for such a post in the way the Patriots’ Bill Belichick has done for so many future head coaches.
And yet, heading into its most anticipated season in three decades, Cleveland tasked the folksy 44-year-old native of northeast Alabama — who never tries to hide his thick Southern drawl — with snapping the NFL’s longest playoff drought.
“Freddie doesn’t try to be something he’s not; he’s very comfortable in who he is,” owner Jimmy Haslam said before the season. “That’s a tremendous strength of his, and it shows through to everybody he deals with. Freddie can talk to guys who cut the grass, he can talk to the scouts, he can talk to players. … I think that’s what will make him a really good head coach.”
That is already being put to the test.
Kitchens has been criticized since Sunday for becoming the first coach in at least 12 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, to attempt a draw play on fourth-and-9 or longer. Doubling as the offensive playcaller, he also has struggled to unlock a seemingly loaded offense featuring budding star quarterback Baker Mayfield and All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
“Some of these situations are new for me,” Kitchens said. “I understand that. … but I’m not shying away from it. I’m not shying away from our shortcomings, my shortcomings. … I will get better from it and our team will get better from them. Every step along the way, we will get better from it.”
So who exactly has Cleveland banked its franchise on at this pivotal moment? ESPN asked those from Kitchens’ past, which has included selling cars, stealing cones and securing a rivalry win for an outgoing Alabama legend.
‘Doesn’t get intimidated’
During HBO’s “Hard Knocks” show in Cleveland last year, Kitchens, then the running backs coach, had one notable moment and it proved to be rather memorable. To coaches from his past, it underscored the backbone Kitchens always brought to meetings, all the way back to when he was a graduate assistant.
Captured in the season premiere, Kitchens questioned then-head coach Hue Jackson for allowing idle players to stand along the sidelines, as opposed to dressing and participating mentally, even if they weren’t going to get any snaps. He was overruled.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, who was offensive coordinator for LSU for the one season Kitchens was a graduate assistant there in 2000, remembers Kitchens never being afraid to speak his mind, even as a young coach.
“Freddie gave you his opinion, and in this business, I feel that’s very important,” Fisher said. “You always look for ideas as coaches, and you hate yes-guys — and he was not a yes-guy. He was a team guy.
“He was never scared, even though he may have been in the room with more experienced people. He wasn’t disrespectful, but … he didn’t get intimidated in a room. And that’s one of the qualities [why] I always felt he would make it in this business.”
Coaching under Nick Saban at LSU and Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys, Kitchens has found himself in intimidating rooms. But he has never let that dissuade him from speaking up.
“Some people may not like you, but at least they’re going to know who you are,” Kitchens told ESPN. “It’s their job to either accept it or not, but if you don’t ever tell the truth, how do you know what the truth is? I just think, where are you going to get in life, if you don’t tell the truth? How do people know who you are if you don’t tell the truth?”
That mentality paid off 15 years ago for Mississippi State, when, as an offensive assistant, Kitchens kept suggesting to coach Sylvester Croom that he install a sprint draw play for running back Jerious Norwood.
“He just thought Jerious would be very good at it, and I had no experience with the play, none whatsoever. And I was a little reluctant about going forward with it,” Croom said. “But he kept on me, kept on me. I finally relented and it became an extremely successfully play for us.”
Norwood went on to back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons before playing in the NFL.
“He believed in the play and didn’t give up on getting it in. But I was impressed with the way he did it,” Croom said. “I see so many young coaches, they get either mad, or go sulk or become so overbearing about it, the coach might decide not to put it in, just because the guy is being an a–hole about it.
“I always appreciated and respected that about Freddie. He’s going to stand up for what he believes in, but he does it the right way.”
Salesman of the month
A 24-year-old Kitchens actually sold cars for three months in Tuscaloosa in 1999 before starting his coaching career.
“I know that I was making enough money that my girlfriend at the time, who is my wife (Ginger) now, her and I could go out to eat dinner every night,” Kitchens said. “That was plenty. That was more than I’d ever had before.”
Kitchens can’t recall how many cars he sold. But twice in three months, Magnolia Nissan BMW named him salesman of the month.
“He did a nice job and everybody liked him,” said dealership president Tommy Townsend, whose father hired Kitchens. “Dad had given him the leeway that, ‘OK, if job opportunities come up for you, you’re welcome to go. Take what time you need to go and check out and see if this is for you.’ But we knew that he wasn’t gonna be with us for a long time.”
Kitchens’ favorite story from that time involved a state highway patrol trooper.
“I got pulled over my junior year in college going back to Gadsden from Tuscaloosa, and I was going too fast,” Kitchens said. “He found out who I was and started reading me the riot act, just all over my ass. He gave me a ticket, said he could give me two or three more tickets, but he didn’t.”
Years later, a woman came into the dealership looking for a car.
“She comes back in and brings her husband,” Kitchens said, “and it’s him.”
Kitchens said he wound up selling them a BMW.
Soon after, though, Kitchens realized he wouldn’t be happy selling cars.
“I like just being straight up and honest with people,” he said. “I would like to like tell you, ‘I would not buy this car for this much. Here is what we can give it to you for.’ But then you do not make any money so you are kind of torn.”
Kitchens called former Auburn offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who’d just become the head coach at Division II Glenville State in West Virginia. After hearing the sales pitch, Trickett agreed to give Kitchens a job for $500 — total in 1999.
“I went in and quit at the car dealership,” Kitchens said, “got in my truck with the broken front suspension and drove to Glenville.”
‘A great personality’
Darrell Dickey was coach at North Texas when he visited LSU to pick the collective brain of Saban’s superstar staff that featured several future head coaches, including Fisher, Mel Tucker, Adam Gase, Will Muschamp, Derek Dooley and Mike Haywood.
“They set me up with Freddie, so he spent a lot of his time with me watching film and talking about different things they were doing,” Dickey said. “I was really, really impressed with his football knowledge.”
When the running backs job came open on his staff months later in 2001, Dickey hired Kitchens away.
“The most unique thing about him is he would go to practice and he could be a hard-ass, he could be demanding, but at the same time the players loved him,” said Dickey, now Fisher’s offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. “You don’t find that often. Some [coaches] are demanding and nobody likes them. And sometimes guys are really well-liked, but they’re not able to get the most out of their players.”
Former North Texas running back Patrick Cobbs remembered Kitchens always hilariously tussling with Mean Green offensive coordinator and former SMU star Ramon Flanigan about who had more hits on Google or who was the more mobile quarterback in college. Kitchens would then put on his Alabama highlight tape to prove — or maybe not prove — his point.
“His head looked like a marshmallow crammed into that helmet, his face all smushed in there,” said Cobbs, now an assistant with North Texas. “It was funny, like, ‘Dude, you look like a guard, not a quarterback …’ But as big as he was, he was shockingly pretty athletic, to be honest.”
In the three years Kitchens was there, North Texas lost one conference game and won three Sun Belt titles. And in 2003, with Kitchens as his position coach, Cobbs led the nation in rushing.
But those aren’t the only reasons Dickey looks back fondly at his time with Kitchens.
“One year, we were all stressed out, because it was in the middle of the season, and everybody’s probably eating more than they should. Freddie had put on some weight and I looked over at him one day and I said, ‘My God, Freddie, are you 300 pounds?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, no, no, no, not at all. … I’m about 295.'” Former North Texas coach Darrell Dickey
“Freddie has a great personality, and he’s really, really funny, and sometimes he doesn’t even mean to be,” Dickey said. “One year, we were all stressed out, because it was in the middle of the season, and everybody’s probably eating more than they should. Freddie had put on some weight and I looked over at him one day and I said, ‘My God, Freddie, are you 300 pounds?’
“And he goes, ‘Oh, no, no, no, not at all. … I’m about 295.'”
‘They’ll always remember Freddie’
Kitchens is quick to point out he’s not among the greats to play quarterback at Alabama.
And yet, Crimson Tide coaching legend Gene Stallings said Kitchens will always hold a special place in his heart for engineering the touchdown drive that beat Auburn on the same day Stallings announced his retirement in 1996.
“That was quite a feat and Freddie just sort of willed the team down the field,” Stallings said.
Coming out of the tiny Alabama town of Attalla, Kitchens wasn’t the most polished quarterback prospect the Crimson Tide had ever signed.
“He could throw pretty much as far as he wanted to and as hard as he wanted to,” said Jay Barker, who preceded Kitchens as Alabama’s starting quarterback. “He just had a little bit of an accuracy problem at first. He could throw it through the indoor facility wall, but we weren’t sure where it was going to go.”
Stallings said Kitchens “didn’t have a lot of finesse about him” but was “extremely tough.” For that reason, Barker noted Kitchens’ personality meshed well with the offensive line. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, then an offensive assistant under Stallings, even joked Kitchens was like a lineman playing quarterback.
“He was a piece of work, man,” Swinney said. “He was as tough as they came. He hated to train, hated to run, hated to exercise … but he loved to sling that ball around.”
In 1996, Kitchens got his chance to quarterback the Crimson Tide. And in the Iron Bowl, the chance at Alabama immortality arrived with it.
Neither Kitchens nor his teammates knew yet that Stallings was retiring. But they found themselves at their own 26-yard line trailing Auburn 23-17 with just over two minutes left and no timeouts.
Knowing the moment called for a drastic measure, Alabama offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey suggested the Tide go to the shotgun formation.
“We had never really used shotgun, because coach Stallings didn’t believe in it,” McCorvey said. “But Freddie had cracked ribs from the NC State game, he wasn’t mobile, and we couldn’t get him from under the center quick enough, a lot of the times, in the passing game. We knew we had to throw the football to win.”
Swinney recalled the Tide installing the formation on the fly just before the final drive.
“Our line coach is like, ‘We don’t do shotgun,'” Swinney said. “But we go over there with the line and Freddie practice a little bit, and Freddie’s just like, ‘We’re good. I’ve got this.’ Other people, it’d freak them out. Freddie was just like, ‘Let’s go.’ … It was one of the most unbelievable things, watching it all unfold.”
Adding to the storybook finish, Kitchens remembers jogging to the huddle and seeing Kareem McNeal in the Legion Field end zone. McNeal, Alabama’s left tackle, had been left paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident.
“I told everybody in the huddle, ‘Look down there, there’s Kareem,'” Kitchens said. “It’s almost like one of those pictures, he’s just right there. … still gives me chills.”
With McNeal cheering him on, Kitchens marched the Crimson Tide down the field out of the shotgun. Then, from the Auburn 6-yard line, he swung a pass to Dennis Riddle, who dashed in for the deciding touchdown, sending Stallings out a winner in his final game against their rival.
“People in the state of Alabama, on both sides of the rivalry,” McCorvey said, “they’ll always remember Freddie for that drive.”
‘Whatever it is, Freddie’s got it’
Kitchens’ path to becoming an NFL head coach inauspiciously began with an order to commit petty theft in 1999.
Trickett said members of the previous coaching staff at Glenville had taken much of the football equipment with them. So to make up for what was lacking, Trickett asked Kitchens to steal cones from a highway construction site near exit 79 off Interstate 79. Kitchens waited until 3 a.m., then conducted the heist.
“Well, the next day we had 5-foot cones, 4-foot cones, 3-foot cones,” Trickett said. “We had more cones …”
“Different colored ones, too,” Kitchens added.
In addition to pilfering cones, Kitchens’ responsibilities at Glenville included picking up rocks off the practice field — “Have you ever been to West Virginia?” Trickett said, when asked why — washing laundry and cutting grass with a Bush Hog.
“He liked to ride that tractor,” Trickett said. “We couldn’t keep him off it.”
When Saban hired Trickett to coach his offensive line at LSU the following year, Trickett brought Kitchens with him.
“That was a lot of fun, and I think it was a big learning experience for all of us, to kind of take you back to the roots of football, and kind of humble you a little,” Trickett said. “Freddie’s earned everything he’s gotten. … There’s lot of guys coaching pro ball and college ball that I do not know how in the hell they got there. But Freddie’s one of them guys that had it in him. Not too proud to get down in the dirt and do what he’s got to do.
“You could see the guy was a coach. You spot it. He had it. Whatever it is, Freddie’s got it.”
‘A winner and a competitor’
Kitchens’ entire career has been building to this season with the Browns. And though he’d never been a head coach, Kitchens has operated against criticism and under pressure before, dating to when he was the quarterback at Alabama.
“He used to joke about getting booed out of the stadium, even though he was a good player,” Dickey said. “He made fun of himself a lot, which you know people can’t do unless they’re really, really confident in themselves.”
Kitchens was back to making fun of himself this week, joking he’s glad the Browns have psychiatric help available to him if he needs it. But along the way, Kitchens also demonstrated the resolve those from his past say he has always carried.
“He’s easygoing, but with Freddie there’s a real toughness. It’s obvious, the genuineness of it,” Fisher said. “And I think it will help him tremendously, the mental toughness to deal with everything. … It’s one of his best qualities.”
“… Freddie’s one of them guys that had it in him. Not too proud to get down in the dirt and do what he’s got to do. You could see the guy was a coach. You spot it. He had it. Whatever it is, Freddie’s got it.” Former Glenville State coach Rick Trickett on Kitchens
Reinforced by the experience of coaching under the unflinching Saban and Parcells, among others, to draw back on, as well.
“He’s had some really good stops along the way. … I think his time with Bruce Arians was very important for him, too,” Barker said of Kitchens, who was an assistant with the Arizona Cardinals for a decade before coming to Cleveland, including four under Arians. “The fingerprints of great coaches are all over him.”
Still, because of the Browns’ start, Kitchens has his doubters now. Then again, he had his doubters in that fourth quarter against Auburn, too.
“The main thing is he’s a winner and a competitor,” Swinney said, “and he’ll bring all those attributes to the Browns.”
Kitchens isn’t panicking. And neither are those who know him best.
“Everybody just hang in there,” Croom said. “I think the Browns have got some good days ahead.
“They really do.”