Pat Shurmur hasn’t lost a game as Browns head coach. He hasn’t had a player disrespect him in front of the team. He hasn’t been grilled by reporters for a third-down play call that backfires against the Steelers.
So maybe any discussion about his calm and composed demeanor should wait. Pressure does strange things to people, and Shurmur has never been under the intense scrutiny that awaits him in his new job – his first as a head coach at age 46.
But after spending some time with Shurmur, watching him interact with people and talking to those who have known him for decades, a picture comes into focus of a man content with his decisions, comfortable with his convictions and happy, but not surprised, by where he is in life.
It’s difficult to imagine him in a Chris Palmer “runaway train” situation, having a Butch Davis pregame panic attack in Cincinnati or trying the repeated Eric Mangini power plays that turned off countless players and staff members.
“Players’ emotions ride the roller coaster and I think it’s important when you’re communicating with them to provide kind of a steady approach,” Shurmur said in March from his office overlooking the Browns practice fields in Berea.
Shurmur had time back then to talk about his past and his philosophies. The free time has vanished, as the Browns are embarking on a training camp unlike any other in team history. The NFL lockout ended Monday and camp opens to the public today without the benefit of a single offseason meeting or practice.
The calm and composure will be tested early.
Comfortable in his skin
Shurmur avoids them like a third-and-15 on offense, but he knows they’re coming. The comparisons to Mangini. You don’t replace a high-profile coach with such a divisive style without references to your predecessor.
As Mangini opened up – to a degree – in his second year in Cleveland, he admitted to trying to copy his mentor, Bill Belichick, in his first head coaching job with the Jets. He followed the same practice schedule and borrowed from his news conferences. As Mangini grew into the job with the Browns, he felt more comfortable being himself and showed glimpses of his personality.
“I don’t know if I ever tried to mimic a coach in his mannerisms or his speech patterns or any of that,” Shurmur said. “I never did.
“Somewhere early in this deal I realized that the best way for me to seem credible to players who you’re working with – they don’t work for us, they work with us – is to be yourself. I think that’s the important piece. I think we’re all looking for sincerity. I think we’re all looking for people that are going to be consistent and be who they are, that are going to be honest and upfront.”
Shane Bullough was teammates and classmates with Shurmur at Michigan State from 1983-87. They remain close and get together with teammates to play golf and tell stories. Bullough wasn’t surprised to hear Shurmur doesn’t hand out pat answers to reporters’ questions, instead considering each one before replying.
“Pat’s always been sincere. He tells it like it is,” Bullough said. “He does have confidence in himself to say something other than normal coachspeak. It’s probably because he thinks he’s smart enough to give an answer and not get in trouble. He doesn’t have anything to hide.
“He trusts a lot in his Catholic faith. He’s a great guy and likes to have fun. What you see with Pat, it’s all out there. He’s always taking care of his priorities and responsibilities.”
If Shurmur seems grounded, it’s because his roots run deep. He speaks often of the guidance and support he received from his parents. Then there’s Uncle Fritz, who died at age 67 in 1999.
Fritz Shurmur was an NFL assistant coach for 24 years, including as defensive coordinator in Green Bay when Browns president Mike Holmgren was the coach. Pat would hang around the Packers during the summer and learn from the stable of future head coaches Holmgren had assembled.
“Fritz looked like Pat,” said former Michigan State coach George Perles, who made Pat his first recruit to East Lansing and hired him as a graduate assistant. “There are hints of red hair, and fire under there. They’re two peas in a pod.”
Pat Shurmur worked himself up from lowly college assistant to NFL assistant to offensive coordinator with the Rams the past two seasons. Defensive lineman Robaire Smith, who spent the past four years with the Browns, was a player at Michigan State when Shurmur was coaching tight ends.
“He’s always been cool, always been approachable,” Smith said. “I think people are gonna really enjoy him. He’s a guy who demands a lot from you, demands the best from you. But he keeps it fun. It’s hard not to play for a guy like that.
“If you knew Coach Shurmur back in the day, you knew he’d be a good coach. You knew he’d be at the highest level one day. He knows how to get the most from players, and that’s the hardest thing for a coach.”
Rams general manager Bill Devaney was Shurmur’s most recent boss and gave a sparkling recommendation.
“You know, you hear the stuff about players and coaches ‘getting it.’ More than anything, Pat gets it,” Devaney said at the scouting combine. “He’s got a great way with players, relating to ‘em, understanding. Knowing when to push, when to back off.
“He’s got a really good offensive mind, but besides that, just the way he relates with players I think is fantastic.”
Locker room leader
Maybe his ability to relate to the guys in the huddle comes from the time he spent in a helmet and shoulder pads.
Shurmur doesn’t look the part now – he’s fit and trim – but he was a starting center for Michigan State’s Rose Bowl team in 1988. He was a captain and earned Academic All-American honors.
“I was fortunate to be on winning teams and one of my favorite people in the world said that I was an overachiever, so I find that to be somewhat of a compliment,” Shurmur said. “I like overachievers as a coach, because they’re doing the best they have with the skill and ability that the good Lord has given them. I think that’s what you’re trying to get out of your players.”
“He was a great player,” Perles said. “He was something special. He’ll do well as a head coach in Cleveland. He has a lot of ability. He was a tough son of a gun.”
The journey to center also speaks to Shurmur’s character. He was a high school All-American out of the Detroit area as a linebacker, and was Perles’ first recruit. But Shurmur suffered a knee injury as a freshman and the staff asked him to make the switch to center.
“It was tough, especially for a guy who loved linebacker. He could really hit you,” Bullough said. “I’m not sure the move was his first choice, but you wouldn’t have heard him complaining too much. His focus was on being the best center he could be, the best center in the Big Ten. That’s what he ended up being.
“Tough and leadership. It’s hard to find many people who could match Pat in those two categories.”
Perles also raved about Shurmur’s intangibles but didn’t want to discount his on-field ability.
“He’s the only center I’ve been around who pulls on sweeps,” he said. “You could pull him and keep everybody tied up, which really helped the running game. And Pat made all the calls at the line of scrimmage. He could’ve played a lot more positions, too. Pat was just a great athlete and smart.
“And he was good in the locker room. If a guy was acting up, uh-huh. He was like Joe Greene. No one acted up in the Pittsburgh locker room. Leaders like Pat Shurmur and Joe Greene make life easier on a coach.”
The choice to coach
Shurmur wasn’t always on the coaching path. He earned a master’s degree in finance from Michigan State and went to work for IBM.
“Let’s get into business and get going,” he said.
He went through a sales training course and worked in the field helping marketing reps.
“Pat certainly had the right stuff for a career like that,” Bullough said.
But he couldn’t shake the memories and feelings he had as a graduate coaching assistant.
“That’s kind of what made the decision for me,” Shurmur said. “What put a little tension on the decision was it was in a year we were planning to be married, so I went from making a very good salary to going back to Michigan State as the volunteer coach. As you might expect, the ‘What are we doing?’ questions came up.
“And this is where my dad had great influence on me. Although he wasn’t a coach, he’s awesome. He basically said, ‘Hey, pick a profession and do something you love to do.’ And that’s what was the final reason to make the switch. That’s where you really have your best chance of having success or being able to fulfill some dreams.”
Shurmur, who is still married to Jennifer and has four kids, spoke to Perles when he was wrestling with the decision to leave the business world for a life on the sidelines.
“He had all kinds of offers from IBM, they wanted him badly,” Perles said. “He loved football and came back. It wasn’t his cup of tea to work for IBM.
“I was tickled to death. Didn’t take long and he was on his way. He’s a very exceptional young man. He’s like a son to me.”
Shurmur was quick to name Perles one of his biggest coaching influences, along with Uncle Fritz. Shurmur also credits all the head coaches he worked for as an assistant: Nick Saban at Michigan State, Ty Willingham at Stanford, Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles and Steve Spagnuolo with the St. Louis Rams the last two years.
“Each one of these men have strengths that are unique,” Shurmur said.
Bullough sees a lot of similarities between Perles and Shurmur.
“Tough-minded, old-school philosophies,” Bullough said. “I don’t mean football philosophies. How you behave, how you treat players. I certainly see George’s roots in the things Pat’s accomplished.”
Perles beams with pride.
“Smartness, toughness and loyalty,” Perles said, describing why Shurmur’s a good coach. “He’s a loyal, loyal person. After family, loyalty is No. 1 in his priorities. Coaches working for him are going to appreciate that. His assistant coaches are gonna love him.”
Teaching is the foundation
In his first job as a head coach, Shurmur will spend much of his days administrating and delegating. He’s adamant he’ll make time to teach.
The teaching gene might come from Holmgren, via Reid. Holmgren was a high school teacher before he got a job at BYU then went to work for 49ers legend Bill Walsh.
When Holmgren was Packers coach, he hired Reid and taught him his West Coast Offense. Reid hired Shurmur in 1999 as tight ends/offensive line coach, then moved him to quarterbacks coach in 2002 for the final seven years of a 10-year stint.
“Andy is a teacher at heart, he likes dealing with the details of the positions,” Shurmur said. “Andy’s really good taking a big picture and boiling it down to the details, so I’ve always appreciated that and I always thought that if I ever was going to be really good as a teacher that I would have to do the same.
“I know I have other things I need to do, but to be able to work with the players and teach them, I think is an important piece. And I don’t think that stops when you become the head coach.”
In today’s NFL, with its unimaginable athleticism, highlight-reel plays and $50 million contracts to inattentive knuckleheads, the role of teaching could seem to be shrinking. Shurmur disagrees and thinks good teaching shows up frequently on Sundays.
“Early in the process you’re working on fundamentals and you’re working on installing systems and plays and how you attack defenses,” said Shurmur, who will also serve as offensive coordinator. “Then all the details of the position work. Then as you get into games, now you’re attacking specific opponents and using plays that are systematic yet attack the weaknesses of those defenses.”
Perles, the mentor from Michigan State, was asked about the origin of Shurmur’s emphasis on teaching. He didn’t hesitate.
“That’s Chuck Noll. That’s where I got it from,” said Perles, who was an assistant under Noll for a decade with the Steelers, winning four Super Bowls. “Noll hired college coaches because he wanted teachers, fundamentals, basics. That’s what I tried to teach our kids.
“Anytime you lose a game, go right back to basics, fundamentals.”
Quiet but tough
Noll came up a lot when Perles discussed Shurmur. Like when he was asked about Shurmur’s seemingly laid-back personality.
“Just like Chuck Noll. He’s a spitting image of him,” Perles said. “Those kind of guys, oh, oh, they’re tough. Very quiet, very humble.
“I remember one time, an official came over and was pointing a finger at Chuck. He was always a gentleman, but he said, ‘Get that finger out of my face or I’ll bite it off.’ Patrick’s a lot like Chuck Noll. And Noll’s from Cleveland.”
Of course, Browns fans wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if Shurmur had close to the success that Noll enjoyed in Pittsburgh. With the talent deficit he inherited and the huge gap between the Browns and AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Shurmur will have every facet of his coaching repertoire tested.
“There’s times where you have to get on ‘em in public,” he said of his players. “But there’s also times when you need to be very calm and maybe whisper to ‘em, ‘Hey, you’re better than that.’
“I wouldn’t call it a strategy, and I wouldn’t call it an approach. I think it’s important to be who you are, and to know who you’re working with.”
Not to pick on Mangini again, but this is an area in which he struggled. He seemed to have the same approach for everyone – and often scripted it.
“I think if somebody’s running around yelling all the time, that gets old,” Shurmur said, not referring to Mangini. “I think it’s important that as a head coach or, really, as a person in this business when you’re on the coaching end of it, you have to be a good communicator. l
“I think it’s different for different people, depending on who you’re communicating with, and I think it’s important that you keep your composure. But then I think it’s also important that if you have a message to get across and there’s some emotion attached to it that it comes out that way.”
Shurmur’s personality may lean toward controlled and laid-back, but that’s not the same as meek. He said team discipline is a priority and he expects his players to behave off the field.
“I don’t know what fans are expecting to hear or what they want to know, but the difference between a loose ship and a tight ship, I guess,” he said. “We’re going to try to create a professional environment here where guys are responsible for their behaviors and work together based on that. We obviously don’t want the bad behavior to be part of what the Cleveland Browns are all about.”
So, will the mild-mannered and always-in-control guy drop a few four-letter words to get his point across?
“I’ve been known to say a few bad words,” he said. “I’m at peace with everything.”
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THE SHURMUR FILE
• Age: 46
• Family: Wife Jennifer, daughters Allyson, Erica and Claire and son Kyle.
• Birthplace: Dearborn, Mich.
• College: Michigan State
• Playing career: A four-year letterman at Michigan State; All-Big Ten; All-America honorable mention in 1987; played guard and linebacker as a freshman; started at center the next three seasons; co-captain as a senior
• Education: Master’s degree in financial administration
• Shurmur is the 13th full-time head coach in Browns history.
• Was hired Jan. 13.
• Has coached for seven playoff teams in 12 NFL seasons, including five division titles and a Super Bowl appearance.
• Rams went from 1-15 in 2009 to 7-9 last year.
• Rams quarterback Sam Bradford set NFL rookie records in 2010 for completions (354) and attempts (590), and his 3,512 passing yards were the second-most by a rookie in league history (Peyton Manning had 3,739 in 1998).
• 1988-89 … graduate assistant, Michigan State
• 1990-97 … tight ends/special teams/offensive line, Michigan State
• 1998 … offensive line, Stanford
• 1999-2001 tight ends/offensive line, Philadelphia Eagles
• 2002-08 … quarterbacks, Philadelphia Eagles
• 2009-10 … offensive coordinator, St. Louis Rams