Before a couple of days ago, Mike Pettine had never sat down with Joker Phillips. Still, when the two coaches shook hands for the first time, there was a sense of familiarity.
Though Pettine hadn't worked with Phillips before Thursday -- when Phillips was announced as the Browns' new wide receivers coach -- offensive coordinator John DeFilippo had. DeFilippo's father, Gene, was an associate athletic director at Kentucky when Phillips was hired as a graduate assistant in 1988. Thirteen years later, Phillips and DeFilippo worked alongside each other at Notre Dame, with Phillips as a wide receivers coach and DeFilippo as a graduate assistant.
Fourteen years after that, DeFilippo thought of Phillips as a potential fit for his offensive staff. So, when Phillips' name came across his desk, Pettine called one of his top mentors, Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, to gather some perspective from someone he trusts.
"Very first thing he said was music to my ears," Pettine said. "He goes, 'Well, I know your receivers are going to know how to block.'"
It was a win-win.
Not only did Pettine get a solid recommendation from Ryan and had those good words confirmed within 10 to 15 minutes of sitting down with Phillips, but he also brought in a coach whom with DeFilippo had comfort and a rapport.
"That's important," Pettine said. "I like kind of weaving those personal connections throughout the coaching staff. That's important. I think that's one of the reasons why you look at the defensive staff and a lot of those kind of connections. It's nice to have those going through a staff. You don't want to be in the business of hiring friends but at the same time, if you've worked with somebody before, a recommendation only paints so much of a picture.
"To have it where you've worked with somebody and you know their work ethic and how they attack their job, all the things that come with that, I think that's important."
On the defensive side, which has remained completely intact since the end of the season, Pettine has connections that run deep with the majority of assistants. Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil, linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach, assistant linebackers coach Brian Fleury, secondary coach Jeff Hafley and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver all worked under Pettine in Buffalo. Assistant defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn was a scout with the Jets during Pettine's final season in New York.
DeFilippo and Pettine connected during a season with the Jets that ended with a trip to the AFC Championship. With Phillips on board, DeFilippo's comfort level promises to increase as he prepares for his first season as an NFL offensive coordinator.
"It was important for him to not only surround him with experts at their craft but then have the bonus of somebody's he's worked with and he knows how hard they work and how they approach the game," Pettine said. "There's certainly a trust and loyalty factor to it."
It goes both ways in this case.
Phillips, who did not coach in 2014, said he had a number of opportunities to coach in the NFL before he opted to join the Browns. His connection with DeFilippo, which dates back to when DeFilippo was a third grader, made this the right time for the 51-year-old Phillips to take his first coaching job in the NFL.
"We always stayed in contact," Phillips said. "This just felt like you wanted to come up here and help him and be with him again because he's such a young knowledgeable coach."