BEREA, Ohio — With his new boss, the former Super Bowl-winning coach looking over his right shoulder, Pat Shurmur began his career with the Cleveland Browns.
Mike Holmgren prays it’s a long one.
“This is the first head coach I’ve ever hired,” said Holmgren, the club’s president. “I trust it will be my last. I don’t want to do it again.”
This time, the Browns believe they got it right.
St. Louis’ offensive coordinator the past two years, Shurmur was introduced Friday as Cleveland’s new coach, the fifth in 13 years for the perpetually bad Browns, who have just one playoff appearance and little else to boast since their 1999 expansion return.
In his first head coaching job, Shurmur inherits a talent-thin team that went 5-11 the past two seasons under Eric Mangini, who was fired on Jan. 3. Hours after releasing Mangini, Holmgren set out to find an offensive-minded coach who could bring the Browns back to respectability.
His quest ended with the 45-year-old Shurmur, who was groomed as an assistant under Eagles coach Andy Reid, a Holmgren disciple and one of his closest friends. Shurmur’s intellect, dedication and personality convinced Holmgren he would fit perfectly.
“We have a good man here,” Holmgren said.
Only time will tell if he’s the right one.
Cleveland craves stability, and Shurmur, who signed a four-year contract, intends to give this faulty franchise just that. His transition should be eased by his deep connections with Cleveland’s front office. He spent eight years working in Philadelphia with Browns general manager Tom Heckert, and he’s run the same wide-open West Coast offense Holmgren wants in Cleveland.
For once, there are no philosophical differences. The Browns feel united.
“Our goal is to win the AFC North, to compete in the playoffs and win Super Bowls,” said Shurmur, a father of four who was accompanied by his wife, Jennifer. “I’m ready for this challenge. One of the overused phrases is being on the same page. But I’ll use it, and it happened from Day One here.”
Shurmur’s work has just begun. He’s in the early stages of putting together his staff and would not comment on coordinator candidates. Shurmur’s initial plans are to call Cleveland’s offensive plays, and he may switch the Browns’ defensive scheme from a 3-4 to a 4-4.
“There’s a defense? he cracked. “Typically I don’t tell jokes but that’s obviously a very, very important piece of what we need to get done.”
Holmgren’s persona dwarfs everything in Cleveland. His presence could intimidate any coach, and Holmgren recognizes there will be those who believe Shurmur is merely a coaching puppet. Holmgren, though, made it clear the Browns are Shurmur’s.
“As we speak, our IT guys are creating a phone system where I’m actually going to call the plays,” Holmgren joked before turning serious. “He is the head coach. I am the president. I’ve coached a long time. My door is always open. If he wants to come in and bounce things off me, I hope he does that. We’re going to have a great relationship. But it’s his football team.”
Shurmur promises to tap into Holmgren’s vast knowledge and experience.
“I don’t know everything,” he said. “We have a guy that’s been to three Super Bowls and recently built two organizations. It would be silly for me to not ask coach Holmgren what he thinks about various issues and be able to bounce off ideas about strategy and structure. I intend to use those resources.”
Holmgren knows there’s no margin for error in his choice of Shurmur. If the Browns are to catch and compete with AFC North bullies Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the nearly constant turnover must cease. He can’t guarantee Shurmur will be a success, but he’s committed to him.
“We can not keep changing around here every two to three years,” Holmgren said, his voice rising. “You can’t do that and expect to be successful. My hope and prayer is the change has stopped. My hope is this is the coach for a long, long time.”
Shurmur was one of only three candidates — Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell were the others — to formally interview with Holmgren, whose search committee began with a “finalist group of 10.”
Cleveland’s top executive confirmed he spoke with Super Bowl-winning coaches Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher and a “number of other people” to check on their availability early in his search.
Shurmur was the first to be interviewed, and his wife said he came home feeling victorious.
“I’m sure he knocked their socks off,” she said.
During his search for Cleveland’s 13th full-time coach, Holmgren phoned his agent and longtime friend, Bob LaMonte, to tell him he was getting close.
“He said ‘I’m really zeroed in,'” LaMonte said. “I said, ‘Great, who’s it going to be?’ He said, ‘I really like this guy, Pat Shurmur. I think he can really be great.’ I said, ‘I represent him.’ ‘He said, is there anybody you don’t represent?’ He had no idea.”
In the end, Holmgren was swayed by Shurmur’s background, development of Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford and confidence. There was also his coaching lineage. Shurmur’s late uncle, Fritz, was Holmgren’s defensive coordinator in Green Bay when the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996.
Holmgren fondly recalled the elder Shurmur.
“Fritz would come up to me before any game and wish me luck,” Holmgren said. “He would say, ‘For the next 60 minutes, neither one of us are responsible for what we say to each other.’ Second thing, Pat bought me lunch yesterday. Fritz never did.
“I’m sure Fritz is up there smiling.”
Joe Shurmur didn’t live long enough to see one of his three boys become an NFL coach. Pat’s father, an orthopedic surgeon who played for his brother Fritz at Albion College, died of lung cancer in 1996. Jennifer Shurmur knows this was a day he would have cherished.
“He’d be somewhere in this room in tears,” she said, dabbing her eyes, “very proud of his son.”