By Aditi Kinkhabwala | Published June 18, 2015
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."
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?"