Gene Stallings put Dabo Swinney on his staff for four years but only had Freddie Kitchens as a player during the final years of his storied coaching career.
Still, Stallings pictured Kitchens, the burly Alabama starting quarterback who sent him out a winner with a memorable 1996 Iron Bowl victory over Auburn, as the more likely future head coach.
“Both of them had what you look for in the ability to win,” Stallings said Wednesday in an interview on 92.3 The Fan’s ‘Bull & Fox’ show. “It just tickled me to death to be able to follow their careers. It’s just fun to watch their success.”
It’s been a heck of a week for both of Stallings’ former players-turned-coaches.
Swinney, who has been the head coach at Clemson since 2008, won his second national championship Monday. Kitchens, of course, was officially named Friday as the Browns’ head coach.
Stallings might have been off in his prediction for who would be the first to become a head coach, but he’s equally confident in their abilities to lead. And while he saw the traits surface in Swinney during his stints as an assistant coach in the mid-90s, Stallings noticed it in Kitchens as a player.
“The thing that impressed me from Day 1 about Freddie was his toughness,” Stallings said. “A lot of people who play quarterback are not as tough as some of the other positions, but Freddie was extremely aggressive and tough.
“He was not a finesse quarterback at all. As far as throwing the football, his leadership was better than his passing ability. When he would step in that huddle and call a play, the players believed in him.”
Swinney used the same word to describe Kitchens: tough
“He’s tough and he’s a winner. He always has been,” Swinney said. “I thought he did a great job of taking advantage of his interim opportunity and rallying the team, which has afforded him this opportunity. I have no doubt he’ll take and run with it. I think the Browns got it right giving him the opportunity to lead them.”
That toughness has been exemplified in a number of ways since Kitchens joined the coaching ranks. He bounced around a number of jobs at the collegiate level before hooking up with Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells and the Cowboys in 2006. From there, Kitchens proved his worth as a tight ends coach under Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona and showed enough value to be retained on staff when the team fired Whisenhunt and hired Bruce Arians, who was Kitchens’ offensive coordinator in his final season at Alabama.
In 2013, Kitchens showed that toughness in the clearest sense when he survived a major health scare. In the blink of an eye, Kitchens went from the practice field to the operating table, where he underwent emergency heart surgery to repair a defective aorta. He was back with the team a little more than a month later.
“I did not have a dad as a coach, did not have a starting point in this league,” Kitchens said last month. “I grew up the son of a tire maker at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant in Gadsden, Alabama. (Dr.) Benjamin E. Mays said, ‘Those who start behind in the game of life, must start running faster to catch up.’ I feel like I have been running fast my whole life. That is the way it is going to continue.”
His college coach doesn’t see Kitchens letting up anytime soon, either.
“His team will be a tough football team,” Stallings said, “I’ll assure you of that.”