By Ed Meyer
When you think about how far Freddie Kitchens has come to get the Browns’ head coaching job, you might arrive at the conclusion that he came out of nowhere.
You also might conclude that his stunning rise, from coach of the running backs, to offensive coordinator, to the new face of an historic franchise in a matter of a few months, at the age of 44, is unprecedented in NFL history.
You also would be wrong.
It happened before, with the Browns.
The man they hired as head coach, on Dec. 27, 1977, also 44 years old, was a relatively unknown assistant, with a creative offensive mind, on Hank Stram’s New Orleans Saints staff.
His name is Sam Rutigliano.
The paths that Rutigliano and Kitchens took to the top job in Cleveland have many parallels.
“Very interesting, and very true,” Rutigliano said in an interview this week.
- Kitchens has his quarterback firmly in place with Baker Mayfield, who will be 24 when training camp opens and, it says here, the NFL’s reigning Rookie of the Year.
- Rutigliano had his quarterback firmly in place with Brian Sipe, who was 29 when Rutigliano’s first training camp began in 1978.
- Kitchens has the strong backing of Browns GM John Dorsey, a former linebacker with the Packers, who said the choice of Kitchens by the team’s search committee was unanimous.
- Rutigliano had the strong backing of former Browns GM Peter Hadhazy, an accomplished college tennis player and a former executive in the league office, who won the confidence of Browns owner Art Modell.
- Kitchens turned the team around in the second half of 2018, when the Browns were 5-3 and a playoff contender down the stretch, with his impressive, new ideas for the offense by getting the players involved in crafting game plans.
- Rutigliano, who took Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome with the 23rd overall pick in the 1978 draft, turned him into a tight end after a great career at Alabama as a wide receiver and, all but forgotten now, of all things, a punt returner.
In another of his crafty moves, Rutigliano turned Dave Logan, a 1976 third-round draft pick who had been playing tight end, into a wide receiver.
“When I called him on the phone and told him he was going to be a wide receiver,” Rutigliano said several years ago in a retrospective on his career, “he went through the phone and kissed me right on the lips. He couldn’t believe it. He said: ‘You’ve gotta be kidding, coach.’
“I said, ‘You’re not a tight end. You’ve got to be out there wide, man.’ ’’
Sipe, Newsome, Logan and wide receiver Reggie Rucker, who was acquired by the Browns in a 1975 trade with the Patriots, formed the nucleus of the team’s passing attack in the exhilarating 1980 season when the Kardiac Kids owned the city.
Kitchens has not reached those heights yet. But he is on the right track with his gentlemanly Southern demeanor and, as much as this might not seem like a big deal, his choice of sideline attire – an orange sweatshirt with Dawg Pound blaring across his barrel chest.
The fans immediately ate it up.
“I know I hear from my kids at school that everybody wants that orange Dawg Pound sweatshirt. So I do not know. I may be popular because of that sweatshirt,” Kitchens said at his Jan. 14 introductory press conference.
Just as the Browns still run through Rutigliano’s blood – he played high school football at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn where Al Davis was a reserve on the basketball team – Kitchens developed a love for the Browns as a kid in another part of the country.
“Keep in mind,” Kitchens said, “I grew up in Gadsden, Ala. – it was Alabama football. But on Sundays, you had to do something other than go to church and eat a lot. When the Cleveland Browns were on television, I was watching the Cleveland Browns.
“I liked their uniforms. I love the helmet. I like the simplicity of the helmet. Hopefully, we do not ever change that. Hopefully, it is not in the works anytime soon,” Kitchens said, drawing some good laughs from a packed stadium clubroom at his press conference.
The most impactful similarity in the careers of the two men, however, is in their power base.
Kitchens will report directly to Dorsey, his strongest ally for the job and now the man clearly in charge of decisions that will shape the very future of the team.
Rutigliano made sure that his base was strong during the three days that he spent in Cleveland in the winter of 1977 talking to Modell and Hadhazy about taking over the Browns.
“It looked like they were indicating that I was getting the job,” Rutigliano said, “so on the final day, we got in a telephone booth and I said to both of them: ‘You never saw a jockey carry a horse across the finish line.’
“But I also told them: ‘I’m in the process of putting my coaching staff together, and once I do that, then I and the staff will make all of the player acquisitions. Nobody else will be involved.’ ’’
Rutigliano’s first draft pick was William Clay Matthews Jr., the 12th overall pick in 1978 from the University of Southern California, who played 16 of the 19 years of his great career with the Browns.
“He should be in the Hall of Fame,” Rutigliano said. “He played 19 years as a three-down linebacker, which means he never came out of the game. And Ozzie was the 23rd pick that year, and he is in the Hall of Fame. That was the key.”
Kitchens, Rutigliano said, has the same course charted for his immediate future with Mr. Dangerous, Mayfield.
“I think everything is in good shape,” Rutigliano said, “and I think this guy has the opportunity, starting with his background as a player at Alabama, to be a good coach. He did a nice job this year.
“The key to any team in the NFL, though, is the quarterback, and I think they got the right quarterback. But I worry about Mister and Mrs.”
It was classic Rutigliano – a careful warning about the roles of the Browns’ co-owners, Jimmy Haslam and his wife Dee. They were sitting in the first row of the public gallery, with only Dorsey and Kitchens at the head table, when Dorsey made his first coaching hire official.
Maybe that was the best sign of all.
Predictions for 2019
Although it’s far too early for that, Kitchens would be off to a rousing start as the new coach of the Browns if he approaches Rutigliano’s record out of the starting gate.
In his first three years, Rutigliano was 27-20, led the Browns to the 1980 divisional playoffs, where they lost to the Raiders on the infamous “Red Right 88” misfire, and was named United Press International’s Coach of the Year in 1979 and 1980.
Rutigliano was fired at the halfway point of 1984 – after the late Browns owner Art Modell said in a press conference a few weeks earlier that “firing head coaches in midstream has never accomplished anything in the history of the NFL” – when his record fell to 1-7.
He was 47-50 overall and 0-2 in the playoffs.
The mistake that got him fired, after Sipe angered Modell and the rest of his brain trust by leaving town following the 1983 season to play for Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals of the upstart U.S. Football League, was the next Browns quarterback.
Paul McDonald was no Brian Sipe.
It should be another hard-learned lesson for Dorsey and Kitchens.
After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, Rutigliano went on to play college football at Tennessee where he was a wide receiver.
"He was known to have the best hands," his wife Barbara said.
Sam later transferred to Tulsa, and he and Barbara were married in his junior year.
On May 30, 2019, they will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary.