John DeFilippo sips a Diet Pepsi in his corner office at the Cleveland Browns facility. He wears a dark sweater, sharp khaki slacks and shiny brown shoes – an uncommon look in the sweat pants world of coaching.
A chart on his computer details an elaborate formation. Two weeks into the job, DeFilippo is knee deep in revamping the way the Browns play football on offense.
How do you become a 36-year-old offensive coordinator in the NFL?
You cultivate meaningful relationships. You visibly show players they can trust what you are teaching. You take chances.
You do what DeFilippo did.
DeFilippo's coaching career began on a charter bus before he even graduated college.
His promising tenure as the starting quarterback at James Madison University – a 1-AA school nestled in the mountains of Virginia two hours south of Washington D.C. – ended with broken ribs and a collapsed lung from a nasty hit.
Instead of soaking in his last semester with friends, co-eds and parties, DeFilippo accepted his first job as quarterbacks coach at Fordham University. Every other Friday, DeFilippo would board a bus, forego his weekend and arrive in The Bronx seven slippery hours later.
It's no secret the coaching business is heavy on connections. DeFilippo fascinated Fordham head coach Dave Clawson when the two worked high school summer football camps together at Villanova – where DeFilippo's dad, Gene, was the athletic director.
Clawson's plan for the 22-year-old DeFilippo was to spoon-feed the first-time coach – let him observe, give him minimal input in the game plan and assist with menial but necessary tasks in running a college football team.
That plan quickly was torn to shreds and tossed out of the window.
"You could tell right away he was going to be on to bigger things," Clawson said. "John has a gift."
DeFilippo instantly took command. He was up in the front of the classroom intricately explaining how a certain play call in the first quarter would manipulate the defense later in the game. He was helping push quarterbacks to the brink in the weight room. He was eating with players in the dining hall. "Flip," as he's called by those close to him, was everywhere.
Driven to turn around a Fordham program that had won 20 games in the previous 10 years combined, DeFilippo demanded excellence while also coming across as genuine. This wasn't a first-time coach being tough for no reason. He was going to coach every little detail the only way he knew how.
Fordham freshman quarterback Kevin Eakin wasn't as sold on DeFilippo as everyone else.
A promising recruit from Florida, Eakin was predicted to be the player who would lift Fordham from irrelevancy. The problem? DeFilippo's coaching wasn't getting through to him.
"I was a knucklehead," Eakin said. "I thought I was going to be really good."
Said Clawson: "We didn't know if Kevin was going to make it to his sophomore year. He just didn't care enough about football."
The tense, boiling waters Eakin created spilled onto the practice field in the middle of the season. After Eakin had once again been goofing around, DeFilippo stopped practice.
"Do you know how much potential you are wasting?" Eakin recalled DeFilippo shouting at him. "If you keep sleepwalking through this process, you will never see the field. EVER."
The public callout was a bold tactic from DeFilippo, but it was just what Eakin needed. The quarterback led Fordham to 17 wins during his junior and senior seasons, set multiple school records and got invited to New York Jets training camp – basically unheard of for a Fordham product. He later bounced around NFL Europe, Canada and the Arena Football League.
"Coach Flip planted the seed in me for my success," Eakin said. "He knew exactly how to push my buttons."
After one season at Fordham, DeFilippo was on to Notre Dame to become a graduate assistant.
"I told Kevin Rogers, Notre Dame's offensive coordinator," Clawson said. "If you get John, you are getting a rising star."
U-Haul trucks and rearranging furniture were a large part of DeFilippo's childhood.
In the mid-80s, Gene DeFilippo hung up the coaching headset to pursue a career as an athletic director. Various college positions – Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Kentucky and Villanova -- had the DeFilippo family of five crisscrossing the country.
John tagged along with Gene to victorious locker room celebrations, to snowy practice fields, to faraway bowl games. For John, football has always been life.
"I can honestly say I had the best childhood of anybody out there," John said.
But Gene was always a public figure. At school and the grocery store, John heard the whispers about his dad's job security and others bad-mouthing the college programs he led.
"Those are difficult things for a kid," John said. "It made me grow up quickly."
It was 2009, nine years since DeFilippo began his coaching journey at Fordham, and the 31-year-old was seriously questioning if his dreams were dying a slow and painful death.
After steadily climbing up the ladder – from graduate assistant at Notre Dame to quality control coordinator with the New York Giants – DeFilippo latched onto Lane Kiffin's staff with the Oakland Raiders as the quarterbacks coach from 2007-08.
The Kiffin era in Oakland was sour from the start. There were disagreements within the organization as to whether to draft quarterback JaMarcus Russell. And there was an impatient owner in Al Davis.
After the 2008 season, the Raiders let go of their entire staff. DeFilippo was scrambling for a job and ultimately landed on his feet with the New York Jets as the assistant quarterbacks coach.
"My job was a glorified quality control guy," DeFilippo said. "I didn't know why I was in New York. I was grinding, working ungodly hours. I kept saying prayers. I'm here for some reason. There's a reason I'm here."
And then DeFilippo met Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
"Who was this extraordinarily bright, witty bald man?" DeFilippo said he thought when he first met Pettine. When DeFilippo had a chance to breathe between other duties, he would pop into a defensive meeting. He was in awe of Pettine.
"Mike had unbelievable control of the room," DeFilippo said. "He had this knack for being stern with players, but also not tuning players out. He knows the defense inside and out, and has a solution for every problem. It was incredible."
Pettine has an affinity for coaches' kids and started conversing with DeFilippo on a daily basis, fishing for DeFilippo's opinions on opposing offenses or even just the headlines of the day. Their chemistry as friends was binding.
"A lot of times we'd look over on the offensive side and in the little area where the coaches were, his light would be the only one on," Pettine said. "We spent a lot of late nights in New York talking football. That's when I knew this guy had something to him."
The year with the Jets hadn't been a waste after all for DeFilippo. The next season, he found himself back in control of a quarterback room at San Jose State. Three weeks into the season, head coach Mike MacIntyre recognized how vociferously DeFilippo handled the offense and gave him play-calling duties.
Year 2 with San Jose State is when DeFilippo leapt from the elevator lobby to the penthouse in terms of experience. Stocked with the new title of offensive coordinator, DeFilippo was an outside-of-the-box game-planner and an esteemed speaker in front of the team, unafraid of quizzing his players in an open forum.
"John will laugh and he'll get along with the players – but he'll get after them, too," MacIntyre said. "His players will notice his intensity and attention to detail."
In an ESPN Friday night showdown against Hawaii, DeFilippo's forward-thinking came to fruition. Trailing 27-21 with no timeouts, 1:10 left on the clock and 80 yards to go, DeFilippo helped guide quarterback Matt Faulkner past midfield with intermediate routes toward the sideline.
DeFilippo wanted the kill shot.
Like he sensed, Hawaii slid its coverage to protect the sidelines, hoping to tackle a Spartan receiver in-bounds. Instead, DeFilippo called for a deep dig route up the middle of the field. Hawaii's safeties were completely out of position, Faulkner hit wide receiver Chandler Jones in stride and the San Jose student section stormed the field after an improbable 28-27 victory.
"Sometimes," DeFilippo said, "you've got to take that gamble."
"That was the program-changing win for us," said MacIntyre, who later parlayed the San Jose State job into the head coaching gig at Colorado.
A year after going 1-11, San Jose State posted a 5-7 record. The NFL started to take notice. Again, DeFilippo's career was at crossroads. Should he stay at San Jose State, where the roster would finally be full of talented juniors and seniors and could possibly serve as a launching pad to a head coaching gig in the college ranks? Or should he return to the pinnacle of football at the professional level?
The Oakland Raiders called again. This time, it was Dennis Allen leading the charge. DeFilippo knew Oakland was $30 million over the salary cap and would have to cut a bunch of solid players. But with the Raiders, he saw radiant offensive minds in Tony Sparano and Greg Knapp. When the opportunity presented itself, he couldn't pass up the NFL.
Quarterbacking expertise. It's an intriguing part of DeFilippo's background and it is a reason Pettine and the Browns chose DeFilippo to be their man.
DeFilippo's approach throughout 15 years of coaching has remained the same: Honesty.
"Sometimes, you have to say things they don't want to hear," DeFilippo said. "I think as long as you keep it real and don't blow smoke at people, you can earn respect. And they have to feel like you know what you are talking about."
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr wasn't afraid of DeFilippo's truth serum.
DeFilippo saw major inconsistencies in Carr's footwork and he strongly emphasized the basics from Day 1, even if they were monotonous. The Fresno State product was creeping up in the pocket while scanning the field, which lessened his arm strength. Carr gobbled up DeFilippo's instructions and repeatedly asked, "what's next?" So DeFilippo put more on his plate – an increased role in setting protections and broader concepts of the playbook.
"He handled it well," DeFilippo said. "He can take hard coaching."
Improving quarterback techniques and implementing the game plans aren't DeFilippo's only specialties. While at San Jose State, he found David Fales (now with the Chicago Bears) at Monterey Peninsula College. Because Fales had only one offer from Indiana State, DeFilippo made the 45-minute drive down to Monterey not expecting much besides a nice lunch by the beach. But from the start, DeFilippo saw potential in the 6-foot-3 Fales because of his arm strength, accuracy and character.
"He was the type of kid you want your sister to marry," DeFilippo said.
Fales started the next year, leading San Jose State to 11 wins.
Browns assistant coaches are buzzing in and out of DeFilippo's office. February's main duty is getting the entire offensive staff on the same page. DeFilippo is sorting through concepts he liked from last year's offense, integrating some of his philosophies and creating a new language.
DeFilippo's genuine tone, his intensity and the fair way he treats people have already resonated in Berea.
"My wife always told me, 'John DeFilippo is going to be a head coach in the NFL one day,'" MacIntyre said. "He just has all those qualities."
Maybe one day, but DeFilippo won't even entertain that thought at the moment.
Right now, the 36-year-old plans to execute what he's done in all of his previous stops: From Fordham, to San Jose State, to the Oakland Raiders, his footprint was lasting; his commanding but personal style was embraced.
The same could ring true with the Cleveland Browns.