On Saturday, August 31, 1996, I was at historic Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama to call Bowling Green's season opening game against the Crimson Tide for my college station, WBGU 88.1.
The Falcons lost that day, 21-7, in front of more than 76,000 fans.
The quarterback that day for Alabama? A junior named Freddie Kitchens.
23 years later, that same man is set to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, the team I've covered and rooted for all of my life.
Talk about a circle of (football) life.
All that said, I really do think that Freddie Kitchens can succeed as he ascends from position coach, to coordinator, to top man. This despite the fact that he's never been an NFL or college head coach.
Here are five reasons why I believe that Freddie Kitchens is the right man for the job:
Yes, he's never been a head coach in his life, but Kitchens has learned from some of the best ever both at the college and NFL level. Here are just a few of his mentors and their accomplishments:
As a player:
- Gene Stallings - Alabama head coach, College Football Hall of Famer
- Dabo Swinney - Alabama wide receivers/TE coach, has led Clemson to 2 national championships
- Bruce Arians - Alabama offensive coordinator, would hire Kitchens on his staff in Arizona with the Cardinals and is now the head coach in Tampa Bay
As an assistant coach:
- Nick Saban - hired Kitchens as grad assistant at LSU, has won 6 college football national championships
- Sylvester Croom - hired Kitchens as assistant at Mississippi State, first black head coach in SEC history
- Bill Parcells - gave Kitchens first NFL opportunity with Dallas Cowboys as tight ends coach, the Tuna is a Pro Football Hall of Famer
- Ken Whisenhunt - hired Kitchens to be tight ends coach as Cardinals made their first and only Super Bowl appearance. Kitchens stayed with Arizona after Whisenhunt's firing, joining staff of Arians
That's a pretty impressive list.
2. Proven success outside of Cleveland
We'll get to Kitchens' performance this past season in a moment. But for anyone who might think that what the Browns did in the final 8 games of the season was a one-trick pony for Kitchens, consider this:
Carson Palmer's career looked like it was over in 2012 as the 33-year-old was struggling with the Raiders. He was given new life that offseason as the Cardinals traded for him. Palmer's quarterbacks coach in Arizona? Freddie Kitchens.
In 2015, Palmer threw for 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns, and had a passer rating of 104.6 as Arizona went 13-3. The Cardinals boasted the top-ranked offense in the NFL that season. Yes, Arians was the architect, but Kitchens deserves credit for his role in Palmer's renaissance.
Kitchens also has had success as the position coaches for Pro Bowlers such as Jason Witten and Adrian Peterson.
3. He is an overcomer
There's something about a guy who has had to persevere through adversity that inspires people.
In June 2013, Kitchens suffered a tear of his aortic valve while the Cardinals were going through OTA practices. The reality was that the mortality rate for such a condition was roughly 80%.
Kitchens went through a seven-hour surgical procedure and recovered in time for the start of Arizona's training camp later that summer. I highly recommend watching the following video that NFL Films did about Kitchens after that experience:
Freddie Kitchens understands what being on 'a comeback team from a comeback town' is all about.
I loved this quote during a press conference before the end of the season. "I didn't have a dad as a coach, OK? I didn't have a starting point in this league. I grew up the son of a tire maker at Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant in Gadsden, Alabama. Benjamin E. Mays said: 'Those who start behind in the game of life must run faster to catch up,' and I feel like I've been running fast my whole life."
4. He is one of us
I thought Jim Donovan did a terrific job pointing out in his 'Jimmy's Take' that Kitchens is a throwback to an earlier era, when coaches had more of a bond with fans.
For those that are old enough, think Sam Rutigliano during the 'Kardiac Kids' era of the late 1970s and early 80s. He was "Coach Sam," the pied piper of Cleveland. Or Marty Schottenheimer, who would get emotional at press conferences a la Dick Vermeil.
Since then, we've been treated to coaches that keep a physical and emotional distance from the fans. Think Belichick, Mangini, or Shurmur.
Enter Freddie Kitchens.
As Jimmy put it, he's Cleveland, with an Alabama drawl. The guy in the orange 'Dawg Pound' hooded sweatshirt who would sit in the Pound if he was a fan at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"I love the town of Cleveland. Cleveland and I get along well," Kitchens said during one of his press conferences this season.
I have a feeling that bond is only going to get stronger.
If the decision between Kitchens and Kevin Stefanski came down to a tie on all angles, there was one thing that put the 44-year-old Freddie over the top: Baker Mayfield.
It wasn't just that Baker Mayfield was good under Kitchens...he was extremely good.
Consider the stats: Mayfield's completion percentage went from 58% under Todd Haley and Hue Jackson, to 68% in the final eight games with Kitchens calling the plays. Touchdown passes went from 8 to 19, sacks went from 20 to 5.
With Kitchens as offensive coordinator, the Browns averaged 6.9 yards per play. Only one team has ever averaged more yards per play for a season: The 'Greatest Show On Turf' St. Louis Rams of 2000.
One more quote from the 'Voice of the Browns': To win in today's NFL, the star quarterback and his coach have to be great together. These two are.
Yes there will be difficult moments for Kitchens as he assumes his first head coaching job. He's the one who will get the late-night telephone call when one of his players gets stopped by police. He's the one who decides whether or not to throw the challenge flag, or use a timeout before the two-minute warning.
There were several reasons why the Browns' head coaching opening was considered so attractive. From a franchise quarterback, to a top-level GM in John Dorsey, to a talented roster of youngsters, plus salary cap space, draft picks, and so on.
Utilizing those strengths to go with the others listed above, plus adding a trustworthy and talented coaching staff around him, will make Freddie Kitchens love Cleveland for many years to come.
Watch the Donovan Live Postgame Show in the player above
Full coverage of Freddie Kitchens becoming Cleveland Browns head coach: