When Kevin Stefanski left the Vikings to become coach of the Cleveland Browns, it ended his 14-year tenure here, but it also extended one of the best coaching stories in the NFL.
The fact that Stefanski went from being a personal assistant to Vikings coach Brad Childress in 2006 to himself becoming the coach of an NFL squad 14 years later at age 38 is as impressive as any coaching rise in the league.
And the Vikings have to be proud about how last season served as a great steppingstone for Stefanski. Mike Zimmer brought in Super Bowl-winning coach Gary Kubiak as a tutor of sorts while Stefanski was in his first full season as Vikings offensive coordinator.
When Kubiak joined the coaching staff last season to help oversee the offense, he told me that working with Stefanski reminded him of how he used to work as an assistant under Hall of Fame coach Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos.
“I’m just with him every day, every minute, in meetings with the coaches. We go in, he teaches, and I’m in there watching him teach. What we do is then we sit down and talk, because he’s doing things that I’ve done for a long, long time,” Kubiak said. “Mike Shanahan used to sit in his office and watch me teach with a monitor, and I remember those days, in a lot of the ways I’m sitting there watching Kevin teach every day.
“I really enjoy it and am very impressed with his work ethic and his passion and his ability to reach people in a lot of different ways.”
Zimmer said his journey to being a head coach involved a similar mentorship.
When Zimmer was a coordinator under Bill Parcells in Dallas, he said he got a lot of tough love from the Hall of Fame head coach.
“No different from when I was first a coordinator,” Zimmer said. “I remember Parcells yelling at me a lot. Actually, I was already a coordinator before then, but he would yell at me a lot.”
Up the ladder
Stefanski’s path with the Vikings lasted through three coaching staffs, beginning with Childress and following with Leslie Frazier and then Zimmer.
Stefanski was the assistant to Childress from 2006 to ’08; assistant quarterbacks coach from 2009 to ’13; tight ends coach from 2014 to ’15; running backs coach in 2016, quarterbacks coach from 2017 to ’18; and interim offensive coordinator at the end of 2018 when John DeFilippo was fired, before getting that job himself in 2019.
And now, with a five-year contract in hand, Stefanski is one of the hottest topics in coaching because the Browns squad has a lot of talent and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2002 and hasn’t had a winning season since 2007.
One of Stefanski’s first big moves was to reunite with Kevin Rogers, the Vikings quarterbacks coach from 2006 to 2011. Rogers will be the Browns special offensive assistant and will oversee their offense much the same way Kubiak did for the Vikings last season.
Childress told me last year that when he promoted Stefanski to assistant quarterbacks coach in 2009, it was so Stefanski could work directly with Rogers and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
“[Stefanski] worked kind of as Darrell Bevell’s right hand man there as the assistant quarterbacks [coach] with Kevin Rogers there,” Childress recalled. “And he had some things that he actually typed the game plan out, put it on paper, and you have to know what you’re doing to do that, because if you put an R where there’s supposed to be an L, someone is going the wrong way,”
Getting to know the Browns
Stefanski will have his hands full leading a young Cleveland squad with a lot of talent but no winning culture. It figures to be one of the highest-profile jobs in the league next season.
The Browns will feature Baker Mayfield at quarterback, Myles Garrett at defensive end and an explosive tandem at running back with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
When the Browns opened training camp, Stefanski said in his news conference that he had already been to meet with Mayfield over the offseason and he knows the relationship between head coach and quarterback will go a long way toward how well he does in his first season with the Browns.
“I just felt like it was important for me to sit face to face with him, meet his family and kind of get to know each other. That is something that I will continue to do,” Stefanski said. “We have to get to know each other real quick. We want to come together as a team, and part of that is we really have to work. I have to work hard and our coaches and our players have to work hard at getting to know each other in a bunch of different ways so that we can come together and get ready to go practice and play.
“There is just this element when you are virtual, when you do have two separate locker rooms and when you have the Plexiglas up, you have to work extra hard to come together.”
• Pro Football Focus ran a 2021 NFL mock draft and had Gophers wideout Rashod Bateman going No. 24 overall to the Packers. PFF had North Dakota State quarterback and Marshall grad Trey Lance going No. 5 overall to the Panthers.
• Amir Coffey, former Gophers star guard, got a chance to play big minutes for the Clippers in their final regular-season game in the NBA bubble and played great. Coffey scored 21 points in 50 minutes of action to go along with four assists, four steals, two rebounds and a block. In addition, Roseville native Mike Muscala has also been getting good playing time for the Thunder in a playoff matchup with the Rockets.
• Last week, Brady Counsell, the son of Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell, announced he would play baseball for the Gophers and coach John Anderson. Brady Counsell will be a senior shortstop and second baseman at Whitefish Bay High School in suburban Milwaukee. Craig Counsell and Gophers alum and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor have a great relationship and that might have helped in recruiting.
• Rick Kolodziej, longtime great Vikings team photographer, died July 15. He was 68. Kolodziej worked for the Vikings from 1981 to 2011. His son Nic worked with the club alongside his dad from 1997 to 2009.
• Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians told the Tampa Bay Times that defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., the Gophers great drafted by Tampa Bay in the second round, could start this season. “He’s an intelligent player. It’s not too big for him. He’ll be competing for a starting job quickly,” Arians said. Winfield is taking snaps with the first team.
• Former Twins slugger Byung Ho Park continues to have a great season for Kiwoom in his native South Korea. Park is hitting .229 with 10 homers and 58 RBI in 83 games.