CLEVELAND — Kevin Stefanski coached running backs, tight ends and quarterbacks in Minnesota. He’s about to take on his most challenging group yet — the Browns.
The Vikings offensive coordinator, who came close to getting Cleveland’s job last year but finished second to Freddie Kitchens, was hired as the Browns new coach — their 10th since 1999 — on Sunday, a person familiar with the team’s decision and plans told The Associated Press.
Stefanski agreed to accept the position a day after Minnesota’s season ended with a 27-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC playoffs, according to the person who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the sides have yet to finalize a contract. An official announcement is expected Monday, and Stefanski will be introduced early in the week.
The Browns chose Stefanski after a detailed two-week search during which they interviewed eight known candidates. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh were believed to be the other finalists. McDaniels, an Ohio native, was the last candidate to interview for the opening. He met with team officials for seven hours on Friday.
The hiring of the 37-year-old Stefanski, considered one of pro football’s rising young coaching stars, ends a deliberate, two-week search by the Browns, who cycle through coaches like no other NFL team and were the only ones without one until this weekend.
A year ago, Stefanski was a little known assistant when he so impressed the Browns during his interview that chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta recommended to owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam that they should hire him. However, the Haslams were swayed by then-general manager to hire Kitchens, and the results were atrocious.
The Browns went 6-10. Kitchens was fired. The team wasn’t going to pass on Stefanski again.
And now that they’ve got their coach, the Browns can focus on restructuring their front office around a new GM to replace John Dorsey, who parted ways with Cleveland on Dec. 31 after refusing to accept a reduced role.
On Saturday, the Browns requested permission to interview Eagles vice president of football operations Andrew Berry, who spent three years in Cleveland as vice president of player personnel. Berry reportedly favored Stefanski during last year’s search and may now have a chance to work alongside him.
Berry has not yet met with Haslam and there have been no interviews for the GM opening to this point, according to the person familiar with the decision to hire Stefanski.
A member of Minnesota’s staff since 2006, Stefanski is Cleveland’s 10th full-time coach since the franchise’s expansion rebirth in 1999 and the sixth hired by the Haslams since they bought the team in 2012 from Randy Lerner, who was widely criticized by Browns fans during his tenure but is now viewed as more stable than the Haslams.
Cleveland’s search committee selected Stefanski over McDaniels and Saleh, two of eight candidates the Browns met with the past two weeks.
And while Stefanski’s hiring was a positive for the Browns, it also underscores the NFL’s continued struggles in hiring minority head coaches. Dallas, Carolina, Washington and the New York Giants also filled vacancies. Of those hires, only the Redskins’ Ron Rivera, who previously coached Carolina, is a minority.
Stefanski hasn’t even signed his contract in Cleveland, but the Vikings already miss him.
“He’s a great leader,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. ”I have so much respect for him and the way he carries out his life, his business. I’m obviously thankful for his support and everything he’s done for me over the years since he’s been here — since I’ve been here. Happy for him.”
Stefanski drew praise throughout the Vikings organization for his eagerness to adjust and work with and integrate new offensive adviser Gary Kubiak’s scheme, while calling plays on a full-time basis for the first time.
“Through the good times and the bad times, he’s the same guy,” Thielen said. “He’s not going to throw anybody under the bus. He’s going to take ownership and do whatever it takes to put you in the best position as an offense.”