When Kevin Stefanski entered the NFL in 2006, he was 23 and had been named a special assistant to Vikings head coach Brad Childress. On Sunday, Stefanski will return to Minnesota as an NFL head coach.
“It will be pretty cool,” Childress said of Stefanski leading the Cleveland Browns against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. “I am proud of him, but he in the end did the heavy lifting to get where he’s at. … He started from the bottom and was able to climb the ladder from there.”
Under Childress, Stefanski rose to assistant quarterbacks coach before Childress was fired midway through the 2010 season. Stefanski maintained that position under Leslie Frazier from 2010-13. Then under Mike Zimmer from 2014-19, he served as tight ends coach, running backs coach, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator before being named Cleveland’s head coach in 2020.
Stefanski, 39, doesn’t deny it will be a bit nostalgic returning to where he spent 14 years as an assistant, but he’s doing his best to approach it as a business trip.
“It’s a special place,” Stefanski said. “I had a great time there and was treated great by the organization, from the ownership, coaches, and the staff. I have really good friends there. With that said, it’s a really big game. They’re a really good team. That has our full attention.”
Childress, who is retired from coaching and spends much of the year at his residence in Mound, won’t be able to make it to Sunday’s game. But he’ll be looking on from afar as Stefanski matches wits with Zimmer.
“Nobody would know Coach Zimmer as well as Kevin, and I’m sure Mike’s thinking that same thing about Kevin,” Childress said. “It’s a chess game.”
Oddsmakers have made the Browns a two-point favorite in their first visit to Minnesota since 2013, when the Vikings played at the Metrodome. That’s because the Browns are 2-1 to Minnesota’s 1-2 and are coming off an 11-5 season while the Vikings were 7-9.
Co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson called Stefanski a “great human being” and “an outstanding football coach.” But he scoffed at any notion that Stefanski has any sort of advantage by knowing Zimmer’s defense so well.
“We know what he likes to do, too, so to me, it evens out,” Patterson said. “When both sides know each other really well, it evens out. It’s not like it’s a one-way street, so it’s not that big of a concern for me, because Kevin is not blocking anybody, he’s not throwing a pass, he’s not catching a pass, he’s not tackling anybody, so what it comes down to is how well their players play and how well our players play.”
Zimmer said Cleveland’s offense is “a little different” from what the Vikings ran when Stefanski was offensive coordinator for the final three games of 2018 and through 2019, but there are still plenty of similarities. Zimmer has been impressed with what Stefanski has done with Cleveland.
Stefanski took over a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2007 and was 6-10 in 2019. But he led the Browns to their first postseason berth since 2002, and they won their first playoff game since 1994.
“He did really good,” Zimmer said. “I think Kevin’s got a great rapport with the players. He’s very analytical, knows what he wants to get accomplished. Very detailed in what he wants to do.”
Stefanski was named NFL Coach of the Year after the 2020 season. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who entered the NFL in 2017, said he was happy for Stefanski.
“Everything that came his way was well deserved,’’ Cook said. “He waited his time, finally he got the job and he took over and did what he needed to do. … Once my coach, always my coach. My coach for life. Just the way he embraced me as a player and as a kid. I came into this thing and he told me, ‘(No.) 33, we’re going to ride you.’ ”
In Stefanski’s first game as offensive coordinator in December 2018, after he replaced the fired John DeFilippo, Cook rushed for 136 yards, then a career high, in a resounding 41-17 win over Miami.
Stefanski later helped the Vikings during a 2019 season when they went 10-6 and won an overtime playoff game at New Orleans. He worked for two seasons with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“One of the many people I could point to in my football career that I’ve been very fortunate to get to work alongside, and grateful that our paths crossed,” Cousins said.
Even though Childress hasn’t been on a staff with Stefanski for 11 years, he keeps in close touch with him. He visited with Stefanski at the Browns’ training camp in August and regularly sends him motivational quotes.
“I’m sure that there will be a wave of nostalgia as he walks into that stadium (Sunday), but he’s going in there to do a job,” Childress said.