LAST MAY, Mike Pettine took a seat in a classroom at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, where the NFL was holding a symposium for assistant coaches and deputy executives who held grander aspirations. Pettine had just turned down a contract extension with the Jets -- where he had been the defensive coordinator under Rex Ryan, a man whose shadow had threatened to become an eclipse -- and joined the Bills instead. "I wanted to prove that I could do this on my own," Pettine says today. He pulled out his notebook and soon found himself wondering how much further his solo dreams might take him.
At the front of the classroom, Charley Casserly, the former Redskins general manager, was talking about the practical mechanics of building a football dynasty. His lecture, in effect, was a step-by-step guide for new head coaches and GMs: You got the job, now what? Casserly walked through the first week, the first month, the first 100 days, and Pettine took careful notes, listening the way only certain men do, those rare and often delusional men who believe that one day they will be in a position to apply the lessons of greatness.
Only eight months later, Pettine was hired to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and he has been consulting those Wharton notes like maps. In some ways, reading them now feels unreal, as though he's woken up in a different man's life; he was coaching Pennsylvania high school kids as recently as 2001. "There have been days when I've had to pinch myself a little," Pettine says. But Casserly's teachings have given him no guidance for the all-too-real challenge he has faced in his calamitous opening weeks: How do you get past the feeling that you were a choice of last resort for a team that can't make up its mind in a city that so quickly does?
The early whispers, that the Browns had targeted several more desirable others before finally giving Pettine the job, were easy enough for him to address. "That's like getting married and all of a sudden you're worried about who your wife used to date," he says. But when the object of apparent affection is Jim Harbaugh, one of the game's true catches, and the news of his courting breaks at your first combine, that might require a different kind of defensive scheme.
"I'll use that," Pettine says. "That will help me. In my mind, the perception is that I'm not qualified. I'm just that guy who coached high school." Pettine has built an underdog coaching staff out of obscurities like him -- "the Island of Misfit Toys," he calls it. They are the overlooked and unwanted, men who know football but none of its privileges. "You have to find guys who love the game and not what the game gives them," Pettine says. So he plucked them out of the miseries of Buffalo and Washington and Tampa Bay, and then he put them in a room together and gave them a presentation that erased any sense that they might have been saved: The Browns have won a single playoff game since 1991, he told them, and burned through 141 coaches to do it.
The Browns being the Browns, odds are that it won't take long for Pettine's speech to turn prophetic: a doomed man leading other doomed men to their certain and terrible fate. "Any time you're trying to turn a franchise around, you have to be extraordinary," he said at his introductory news conference, as though setting himself a standard that he knows will be impossible for him to meet.
Because maybe, just maybe, you have to be ordinary -- maybe you have to be average, and put upon, middle-aged and bald and Pennsylvanian. Maybe you have to be the guy who coached high school, the occupier of shadows, the dreamer who sits in a classroom taking notes in the vain and laughable hope that the world might one day open a window for someone like you.
Maybe Mike Pettine is exactly the man Cleveland needs after all, the sort of man who will stand on the sideline and look across at the extraordinary man on the opposite end of life's spectrum and think, I'll show you when that whistle blows, I'll show you what happens when the one who's wanted runs into the one who wants.