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Dad’s tough love helped shape Mike Pettine’s path to the NFL

Posted Jun 15, 2014

Browns coach learned plenty from coaching legend

Twice, Mike Pettine, Jr. nearly quit football.

The first time he was just a small, seven-year-old boy. He wasn’t ready to hang with some of the other 10-year-olds. He begged to give it up. Dad, Mike Pettine, Sr., had to bribe his son to continue playing the sport with Dairy Queen visits after practices.

“The problem was, we had other kids riding with us to practice,” said Pettine, Sr. “So it cost me a small fortune, by the time the year was over.”

The second instance would alter Pettine, Jr.’s direction forever.

It was a steamy August day in Doylestown, PA, in 1982. The current Cleveland Browns head coach remembers it like it was yesterday.

The teacher’s union in Bucks County was on strike. But the Central Bucks High School West football team, on its way to becoming a staple program on the East Coast, was still running offsite practices.

Pettine, Jr., was a junior quarterback trying to unseat a senior for the chance to start. Pettine, Sr. was the head coach. And a demanding one at that. 

Pettine, Sr. did not want to show favoritism to his son. The coach went overboard.

“I think he was punishing me a little bit harder than most,” Pettine, Jr. said. “It was a hot day. And I had just had enough.”

“I mean, it got to a point where my assistant coaches came over and said what are you playing games for, he’s the best quarterback you got,” said Pettine, Sr.

After receiving yet another tongue lashing from his dad, Pettine, Jr. snapped. He started walking off the field during the middle of practice. Dramatically. Every ten yards he would strip off a piece of equipment. First the helmet. Then the jersey. Then the shoulder pads.

The quarterback with whom he was competing ran towards Pettine, Jr., tackling him to the ground. The two tussled for a bit. It got emotional. At the end of the day, dad was there to reel back in his son. Days later, Pettine, Jr. would be named the starter.

“I look back at that moment, as unpleasant as it was at the time, I think it was a real turning point for my football career,” said Pettine Jr.

Without his father often pushing him to the brink, Pettine likely would not be the head coach of the Browns.

“The only credit I will take for his success is I gave him thick skin,” said Pettine, Sr. “Just about everything that’s controversial or a problem, will bounce off his back.”

After playing four years in college at the University of Virginia, Pettine, Jr. had sworn football off. He was burnt out. He used his economics degree to obtain a business job back in Pennsylvania. Let’s just say Pettine’s career in business wasn’t a flourishing one.

“Sure enough, the fall rolled around, and something was missing,” said Pettine Jr.

Pettine, Jr. joined his dad’s staff as an assistant and realized very quickly, it was something that came very natural. He counted down the hours till his day job would let him leave. He adored bestowing wisdom upon his young players. He obsessed over the X’s and O’s.

For more than a decade, Pettine, Jr. graced the sidelines of Pennsylvania high school football circuit. Ironically until Pettine, Jr.’s first NFL gig with the Baltimore Ravens, he was known as an offensive guru. Most Friday nights he was victorious – except the 0-5 record against his dad, a number he won’t let his son forget.

Today, their father-son relationship is as strong as ever.

Pettine Sr., has his own Cleveland Browns iPad stocked full of practice footage. The longtime coach gives his views on all aspects, whether his son likes it or not.

“He’ll be a great resource for me as far as someone who sees things from a birds-eye view,” said Pettine. “Sometimes I don’t necessarily appreciate the packaging that it comes in, (laughs) but when you get through that, the message is usually very clear. And for the most part it’s very correct.”

Smiling at his son for achieving a dream he himself would’ve never concocted, Pettine Sr., is at ease with the way things turned out.

“I feel better about all those years that I had to play bad cop,” said Pettine Sr. with a laugh.

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