BEREA, Ohio – In the aftermath of his first win as an NFL head coach last weekend, Mike Pettine talked about "a big old cigar" he’d been saving to celebrate that first victory, whenever it came. The next day, he joked about the celebration and how he was still feeling it when the Monday morning alarm came calling.
NFL coaches rarely rest anyway. That long day was well earned.
The last time Pettine was a head coach, the victory cigar stayed in the wrapper for two weeks longer. Nineteen years ago, Pettine took over at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pa. His Panthers started the season 0-3.
Pettine said he doesn’t remember those first games, the opponents or the exact circumstances. He just remembers losing.
"I had a crowd of parents walking up to me after the game (and) I was getting ready for the worst," Pettine said. "They just wanted to thank me that the games were close in the fourth quarter. I didn’t realize the culture I had gotten into, but it was…good memories."
William Tennent had won three total games in the three years before Pettine, then 28 and freshly removed from two years as a graduate assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh, took over. He ended up coaching two seasons at William Tennent before moving on to North Penn High School northwest of Philadelphia, about 15 miles from where he’d grown up in Doylestown, Pa.
In 2002, Pettine left that job — and his tenure, his salary and comfort level — to be what was called a "coaching and video assistant" with the Baltimore Ravens.
Sunday, the Ravens will be on the other side against Mike Pettine, head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Maybe another victory cigar will be waiting.
Of his early experiences with the Ravens, Pettine said: "I was very fortunate that the circumstances played out that I got my foot in the door. It was just bunker in and work. I worked a lot of long days. I was with the video department during the days, during practices. Then, I went and worked with the coaches at night just helping out with some of the computer stuff and overflow, quality control type of stuff and was just very fortunate to just step into a situation where it was (Falcons defensive coordinator) Mike Nolan, (Falcons head coach) Mike Smith, (Jets head coach) Rex (Ryan), just guys that were future head coaches in the league. (I was) very fortunate to have been essentially dropped into that situation."
Pettine said for three seasons it was his job "to be seen and not heard," to take orders and chart plays and soak in all he could. Pettine was promoted to outside linebackers coach with the Ravens in 2005 and retained by current Ravens coach John Harbaugh when he took over as head coach in 2008. After that 2008 season, Pettine followed Rex Ryan to the Jets where he was defensive coordinator for four seasons before spending last season as defensive coordinator in Buffalo.
Last January, he interviewed twice with the Browns before catching an early-morning flight from the Senior Bowl to Cleveland to accept the head coaching job. He’s the only active NFL head coach who once served as a high school head coach.
Now a week short of turning 48, Pettine is getting used to the spotlight. His face has been on billboards, his name is on a weekly radio show and his stamp goes on just about every decision. In Harbaugh, he encounters not just a former boss but a coach who’s won a Super Bowl. After taking the job last January, he was recruiting assistants against Harbaugh and ended up hiring Wilbert Montgomery as running backs coach after Montgomery spent the last six seasons with the Ravens.
"I was a little bit star struck when I first met Wilbert (in Baltimore)," Pettine said. "I grew up a Philadelphia Eagles fan. I had a big poster of him. I had a Wilbert poster and my Farrah Fawcett in my room.
"I mean, my hands were shaking when I met him. He’s Wilbert Montgomery."
And he’s Mike Pettine, head coach of the Cleveland Browns.