Family Business


By Aditi Kinkhabwala

BEREA, Ohio, and DOYLESTOWN, Pa. -- It's not a platitude, just a fact: A parent never stops parenting.

"From the cradle to the grave," Mike Pettine Sr. says, nodding his head matter-of-factly.

But then he's asked if a coach ever stops coaching. He pauses. He thinks about the three teenagers he once coached who are now coaches themselves -- with the NFL's Cleveland Browns, no less -- and he protests, "These are all grown men." And then he falls silent.

Because the hours he logs on his Browns-issued "ePad" (as he accidentally first called it), the painstaking way he takes one finger and hunts-and-pecks his way toward lengthy email (or, as his son teases him, "i-mail") missives and the earnestness with which he argues over where Cleveland's cornerbacks line up -- all of it defines "coach." One who teaches and trains. One who attempts to guide his charges to success. One whose goal is to win.

"Oh, it's so much worse to watch them lose than it ever was for me to lose," Pettine Sr. says. And then, by way of explanation: "That's my son."




Mike Pettine Jr. is the second-year head coach of the Cleveland Browns, a team coming off a 7-9 campaign that managed to be both disappointing (the Browns lost their last five games) and surprising (they won at least seven games just three times in the previous 15 years). He's built an impressive defense. He's soldiered through the quarterback drama that seems to rise annually out of Lake Erie (Josh McCown is in line to become the fourth starter of Pettine's tenure). And he's done it all while his father has played unofficial consultant to his staff -- unofficial, unpaid, unsolicited and occasionally, Pettine Sr. says, unappreciated.

"Sometimes," the elder Pettine says, "it feels like I'm sending things into a black hole. Stuff goes in; not much comes out."
Mike Pettine Sr. sends his son and the Cleveland Browns' coaching staff detailed notes and pointers based on his evaluations of the team.

With apologies to native daughter Alecia Moore (a.k.a. Pink), Pettine Sr. is the most revered human in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In 33 years as head coach of Central Bucks High School West, he won 326 games, four state titles and a slew of "mythical" championships, captured in the era before statewide playoffs were initiated. In three separate decades, he coached Chuck Driesbach, Pettine Jr. and Jim O'Neil. All are on the Browns staff now, connected by the taskmaster who drives eight hours to each of Cleveland's home games and plenty of practices and can't keep himself from evaluating film -- or arguing about the way their linebackers set the edge.

"You've seen them against the run, haven't you?" Pettine Sr. asks a visitor.

"It drives him nuts," says O'Neil, the Browns' defensive coordinator.

Pettine Sr. first started sending breakdowns to his son a decade or so ago, a few years after Pettine Jr. quit building boats and selling insurance, and after he left the high school coaching ranks for a job with the Baltimore Ravens' video department. Pettine Jr. eventually moved up to outside linebackers coach, and his father -- knowing his son had then-defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's ear -- began writing him.

It's an obvious passing situation; get your defensive linemen crowding the ball more.
Your corners are giving up inside releases too early.
What's with the tackling? Are you doing any tackling drills?

"I told him, 'I'm going to give you Rex's email, and then you can just copy both of us on it,' " Pettine Jr. says, swearing that Ryan -- the son of an old-school, hard-nosed coach himself -- enjoyed the critiques.

"It was always just a whole laundry list, because he wants things to be perfect. Some of the things he saw were confirmation for things we saw, as well. Some instances, he pointed something out that we hadn't picked out. So it was always welcomed."

When he's told later that this is what his only son said, Pettine Sr. keeps his trademark straight face and asks, "Well, then, why doesn't he listen to me more?"
Pettine

Pettine Jr. first cut film (16 millimeter film, his dad proudly says) for Central Bucks West athletes when he was 7 or 8 years old. He jokes that it was just one of his many chores, like taking out the trash, but Driesbach -- who graduated from Central Bucks in 1970 -- says he remembers the younger Pettine as a veritable gym rat, running into tackling dummies.

Of course, Pettine had put his son through his paces even earlier: basketball drills in the basement, sprints in the backyard, even living-room boxing matches when Pettine Jr. was 4 and his mother, Joyce Pettine, wasn't home -- until the afternoon Mike accidentally walloped his sister. ("Oh, they couldn't wait for me to get home and tell me about that one," Joyce says, still shaking her head all these years later.)

Pettine Sr. says he regrets rushing Pettine Jr. into Pop Warner football at 7; the boy liked it so little, he only agreed to keep going to practice once his father promised stops at Dairy Queen afterwards. But by 11, Pettine Jr. wanted to play again, and his father had a dilemma: Did he want to coach his son -- who showed potential to be an imposing quarterback -- or coach against him?
Pettine Sr. says his decision to make Pettine Jr. Central Bucks West's quarterback, though it initially drew charges of nepotism from the community, was validated by Pettine Jr.'s play.

The elder Pettine moved his family out of Central Bucks East territory and into Central Bucks West land. By his son's senior year, "he showed that, without question, he deserved the job, and he wasn't playing quarterback just because his old man was the coach," Pettine Sr. said.

The previous year, though, when a teachers strike kept the players out of practice and away from their coaches for a month, Central Bucks West lost its first three games. And students circulated a petition charging Pettine Sr. with nepotism and demanding Pettine Jr. be removed as quarterback.

"It's a tough position to play; you're in the spotlight, and then, when your dad's the head coach, it was difficult," he says. But that year, "he took it in stride. As much pressure as I put on him, the flak that he received, he went with the punches. He went with the flow."




Pettine Jr., who suited up at CB West in the 1980s, says his father went soft by the time O'Neil played for him, in the 1990s. O'Neil says Pettine Jr. is nuts. Driesbach says they both have no concept of what tough is.

"I guarantee it's a generational thing," Driesbach says with a rueful chuckle. "Some of the way I was raised is just not in existence anymore. Back then, you said, 'Yes, sir; no, sir.' You were just held so much more accountable to other people, to those you worked with or to those you played sports with."

It's Driesbach whose affection for Pettine Sr. is least guarded, Driesbach who gets the most emotional talking about his old coach. Maybe it's the passage of time; he's the only grandfather of the group, and he's had a somewhat peripatetic four-decade career himself. Or maybe it's because he might not be a coach -- or even a high school graduate -- if it weren't for Pettine.

His senior year of high school, Driesbach ran away from home. He slept in the school's press box, and when he was found, the school's principal threatened to toss him off the basketball team. Pettine Sr. intervened, convinced the principal to allow Driesbach to keep playing and, after Driesbach's graduation from CB West, helped guide him to Fork Union Military Academy, where a post-graduate year secured his academic future.

"I went from having zero opportunities to having about 40 scholarship opportunities. I owe quite a bit to him for keeping me in line at a very hard time," says Driesbach, who ultimately graduated from Villanova. "I loved him. ... He taught you how to be a man in the right way, just by learning to respect yourself, respect your teammates, respect the game. Just so many good things that he brought to all of us."

Pettine Jr. aims to do the same. He treats his players as grown men (perhaps none so obviously as Johnny Manziel, especially after Manziel's Vegas-tripping, inflatable-swan-floating first few months in the NFL). And yet, he still looks at them as he did his former high school charges: as individuals who need to be talked to and taught. The size of his players' paychecks never influences his approach. Ask corner Joe Haden, perhaps his best Browns player, who will tell you Pettine is unstintingly demanding, but fair, too.

Pettine says coaching, at its core, isn't any different on the pro level, even when working with true superstars. Of Darrelle Revis, Pettine says: "The great ones still want to learn. ... When we took over (with the Jets), he came in and talked to the coaches, and he's like, 'I want to be coached, and I want to be coached hard.' " The wins, the losses, the esteem; sure, it all matters. But Pettine -- this son of a coach -- became a coach to, well ... coach.
Mike Pettine has modified his approach to coaching since leaving the high school level for the pros, adopting a quieter, more restrained style.

Ultimately, Pettine sees one major difference between high school and the pros: dealing with high school players, he sees "a military-type model." Professional athletes? "A peer-to-peer-type model," he says.

When Pettine first set out on his own coaching path, as a grad assistant at the University of Pittsburgh (a job Driesbach helped him secure, after a phone call from Pettine Sr.) and then as a high school coach in Eastern Pennsylvania, of course he took after his dad. He ranted; he stomped; he got in players' faces. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick laughingly says his first thought upon seeing old game film of Pettine manning a sideline was, "Holy mackerel, who is this a------?"

Driesbach says his biggest shock upon reuniting with Pettine Jr. in Buffalo in 2013 was how much quieter he seemed to be. Whether it was the result of a concerted effort or not, Billick said Pettine deserves credit for tweaking his demeanor to match what Billick calls "a pro personality."

"In the pros, you scream like that, the players will rip your head off and hand your ears back to you," Billick says. "I don't know that Mike changed so much as refined things. He still has that passion; he still has that toughness; he's still very demanding. And he hasn't fallen into that trap of, 'I'm going to be your friend.' "

Pettine Sr., of course, finds his son's practice-field evenness odd. "I've told him, 'You ought to show more emotion in practice.'

"When somebody's not hustling, a little anger can get your point across."




Driesbach and O'Neil say father and son share a lot more than they don't. A sense of accountability, Driesbach says. Meticulousness, O'Neil says.

"They're both great football minds," O'Neil says. "They're both very detail-oriented. They're going to focus on the little things; that's what they believe is going to win football games. They're going to get the best out of you."

Father sounds like son when he talks about teams that play with a chip on their shoulder. Son sounds like dad when he talks about toughness. The father tells you more quickly than the son how their personalities differ. And while Pettine Sr. might mock-grumble about some of those differences, he leaves room for some awe when discussing the biggest: Pettine Jr. is much more of a risk-taker, both on the field (Pettine Sr. says when Pettine Jr. was head coach at North Penn High School, the Knights were good for one trick play a week) and in his career.

Pettine Jr. was a successful high school coach (outside of five face-offs with his dad, none of which he won) with three kids and a wife when he drove down to Owings Mills, Maryland, and interviewed with Billick for a position in the Ravens' video department. He'd be doing what he did for his dad when he was in grade school: cutting film. There would be no coaching of players or guarantees he'd get on the practice field, but there was a definite $30,000 pay cut.

Billick loves telling people he tried talking Pettine out of taking the job; Pettine Sr. says if he'd known the truth about the pay cut, he "would've done the same thing, only in much stronger terms than Brian Billick." Joyce Pettine says it probably took a good five years before her son copped to fudging the truth to his parents about the salary situation.

Ultimately, betting on himself wasn't much of a hazard. Pettine Jr. quickly built a connection with Rex Ryan in Baltimore, openly telling friends he knew Ryan would be a coaching star one day and that he was attaching himself to him until then. Raised similarly and like-minded, they went to the Jets together, Ryan as head coach and Pettine as his defensive coordinator. (A year ago, before the draft, Pettine said he firmly believed he could win with a great defense, a solid run game and a serviceable quarterback. That's exactly how the Ryan-led Jets got to the 2009 and 2010 AFC title games, and it's exactly the formula Pettine Sr. says offers the easiest path to success in football, on any level.)

Upon hearing industry chatter that he was just riding Ryan's coattails, and that the Jets' impressive defense was more Ryan's doing than his, Pettine Jr. left New Jersey to become the Bills' defensive coordinator in 2013. He put together the 10th-ranked defense and the fourth-ranked passing defense, and Buffalo finished with 57 sacks, second-most in the NFL. And then he was tapped to be the Browns' 15th head coach.

"He wasn't afraid to take chances in his career. I was more, with my personality, looking at the security. I never looked at taking the next rung on the ladder," Pettine Sr. says. "To his credit, he's made a lot of career gambles. And they've paid off."

Then again, the son doesn't take risks -- he doesn't bet on himself over and over -- without having a father who ultimately believes in him.




Last summer, Pettine's parents came down to a home in the Outer Banks, off the Atlantic Coast, that their son had rented for a week. Pettine Sr. walked into the house and, before saying hello, launched into a worried monologue over the bombast displayed by one of Pettine Jr.'s players in a radio interview. Driesbach, who witnessed the whole exchange, is fairly sure Pettine Sr. told Pettine Jr. "you need to shut that down" before he even put his suitcase down.

Pettine Jr. admits he often says, "Dad, this isn't high school." Pettine Sr. says back, "Football is football."
"As good as they are, and you watch the pros, it's graduate-level play-calling and systems. But some of the fundamentals that you see wouldn't pass Football 101. We're talking about tackling and blocking," Pettine Sr. says. "Most of the things I point out are more on the fundamental side, the little things that give you the winning edge that I think sometimes coaches on the college and pro level overlook."

Still, he doesn't have any problem acknowledging that he occasionally gets carried away. Once, after watching the St. Louis Rams' defensive line, he went to Browns D-line coach Anthony Weaver and said, "You need to get your guys playing more like the Rams."

"Anthony Weaver looked at me and said, 'You get me three first-rounders and I'll get my guys to look like that!' " Pettine Sr. says, shaking his head at himself. "Sometimes I get in trouble."

And yet, the film-watching won't slow, the emails won't stop. When asked if his father's critiques have become any more deferential in tone since he landed the top job in Cleveland, Pettine Jr. exclaims, "No!"

"There's a chance that they're even worse now that I'm head coach," Pettine Jr. says. In the past, "he would send me stuff where he would talk to me about what's going on on the other side of the ball, and I had an easy out. I'm like, 'Dad,' to steal Rex's phrase, 'that's farming somebody else's land. I'm strictly defense. I can't talk about special teams.' That was easy for me. Now that I'm in charge of it all, it's all fair game."

Pettine Sr. has already connected with new Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo (the son of longtime Boston College athletic director and one-time college football coach Gene DeFilippo). O'Neil sent secondary coach Jeff Hafley's email address to Pettine Sr., so that they could carry on the debate about where the Browns' corners play. O'Neil insists -- even as he says he once considered blocking his old coach's emails last season -- he reads every last word of the evaluations Pettine Sr. sends.
Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil (left), shown posing with Pettine Sr. and fellow CB West product Dennis Cliggett during his time at Towson, maintains a strong relationship with his former high school coach.

"He'll know if I don't!" O'Neil says with a laugh.

Make no mistake: This isn't tolerance or blind respect. Driesbach does not call his old high school coach to discuss these emails to be polite; Pettine Jr. does not say "it's good stuff" because he cares about pretense.

Pettine Sr. very specifically writes play numbers and jersey numbers. He backs up every critique with evidence and identifies what he sees as trends. Sometimes, because of what Pettine Sr. points out, film gets rewatched with new eyes. And yes, the Browns' coaches do, on occasion, use their old coach's ideas in their game plans.

"We don't tell him," O'Neil says. "He never tells us if we're doing anything good, so we're not going to tell him if we put in anything that he suggested to us."

Maybe not, but there's no way that gets by Pettine Sr.

"When he sees they're doing something he suggests, he'll yell to me, 'Look at that -- Junior listened to me after all!' " Joyce Pettine says.




O'Neil was an assistant coach at Towson when Pettine Sr. called his son, who was then with the Ravens, and asked that he open his meetings to a bright, young fellow CB West alum. Pettine Jr. was allowed one hire as the Jets' defensive coordinator, and he used it on O'Neil.

Remembering how Driesbach had immediately responded when Pettine Sr. asked for help for his son two decades before, Pettine Jr. offered Driesbach a position with the Bills. Driesbach became linebackers coach in Cleveland last year.

High schoolers in three different decades, with nothing but a coach in common. And yet, that's enough to be, as Driesbach puts it, "just like brothers."

"They all come from the same background, as far as the work ethic," Pettine Sr. says. "They know what's going to be demanded; they know what the expectations are; they know to never be satisfied, even if you win. Your yardstick is perfection."

And then, though it certainly goes against his nature, he calls the trio's first season in Cleveland "a pretty good year."

Yes, he thinks the Browns were lousy against the run. Yes, that five-game losing streak to end the season still gnaws at him, and yes, he's already highlighted 25 different categories of things he thinks the Browns need to clean up before training camp.

And so, no, there probably won't be all that much in the way of warm-and-fuzzy displays between the Pettine men this Father's Day. But with every critical email Mike Pettine Sr. sends, he's telling his son he loves him. And with every word Mike Pettine Jr. reads, he's telling his dad he appreciates him.

Aditi Kinkhabwala is a reporter for NFL Media. Follow her on Twitter @akinkhabwala.
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