While building his 28-person coaching staff — the largest in team history — this offseason, new Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell knew there was one specific role that very few could fill: A former head coach who could help guide the 37-year-old through the demands of a job that's seemingly become almost as much about the boardroom as the film room.
Who better to be O'Connell's sounding board, he figured, than the former head coach that gave him his first NFL job?
Mike Pettine, the former Browns head coach who hired O'Connell in 2015 and spent eight years as a NFL defensive coordinator for three teams (most recently the Packers), joined the Vikings' staff in February as something of an aide-de-camp for O'Connell. The new Vikings head coach could learn from the experiences of the 55-year-old Pettine, delegate some tasks and check his own instincts against those of the plain-speaking Doylestown, Pa., native whose first NFL job was on a defense with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
The transition to being the head coach of a NFL team — and, effectively, the face of an organization worth billions of dollars — can be a shock to even the most prepared former assistant coach. Making public appearances, connecting with other departments in the building, conducting near-daily news conferences, receiving late-night phone calls about a player in legal trouble, holding weekly conference calls with ownership, managing a coaching staff, working with the front office, understanding the salary cap and navigating the complexities of a 53-man roster are all staples of a NFL head coach's job. No other coach, in any position at any level of football, faces the same set of demands.
That's where Pettine comes in.
His official title is Assistant Head Coach; he makes "Assistant to the Regional Manager" jokes with a level of self-deprecative humor that Dwight Schrute never possessed. He is there when O'Connell needs another perspective on schemes or roster-building, or perhaps in handling requests from the marketing department or questions from reporters. He is there to remind O'Connell, sometimes forcefully, that he needs time to be a coach.
The importance of delegation
Pettine and O'Connell had been talking about the role since O'Connell's name started to surface as a potential head coach. The Vikings' decision to hire O'Connell as their 10th head coach was "a proud papa moment for me," Pettine said.
"There's no Cliffs Notes. There's no 'Idiot's Guide to Being an NFL Head Coach,' " said Pettine, who was 10-22 in two seasons as the Browns head coach. "I think that's one of the reasons I'm here. Kevin was smart enough to know, 'Here's a guy that I know that has former head coaching experience.' To me, it just made perfect sense when he and I talked about it. Like I joked, 'I can probably tell you more of what not to do versus what to do.' But just to have somebody that kind of steer him clear of some of the potholes you can fall into face-first as a first-time head coach, I'm there to do it."
In 2015, Pettine's second year as Browns head coach, he hired O'Connell as quarterbacks coach. He'd marveled at O'Connell's combination of football acumen and interpersonal skill when Pettine was the Jets' defensive coordinator and O'Connell was a scout-team QB educating coaches on the finer points of stopping Tom Brady and the Patriots.
O'Connell, then 29, managed a quarterbacks room that included Josh McCown, a respected veteran at age 35, and Johnny Manziel, a first-round pick already teetering on the edge of reclamation project by his second season.
"The Xs and Os part just came so natural to him," Pettine said. "But that's just not all that there is. I've been around a lot of coaches where it's like 'A Beautiful Mind' — they can fill up a whiteboard. It's people skills. It's the ability to take complicated schemes and when it comes time to explain it to the player, you can put it terms that they can understand. We always say, 'It's not what we know; it's what they know.' And that's a skill as a coach that a lot of guys struggle with."
In his first several months on the Vikings job, Pettine said, O'Connell has come into his office "a good amount, probably more than he thought he might have to."
Those visits have usually started with O'Connell expressing surprise at a novel task on his plate. They've ended with Pettine preaching the importance of delegation.
"I think he's come into my office frustrated more than a few times," Pettine said. "It's been like, 'I can't believe I have to deal with this' — just some of the things that cross your desk, and that's part of it. I said, 'Listen, you surround yourself with great support.' You can't be that guy that's like, 'If it is to be, it's up to me.' You can't do that."
One of the secrets of the job Pettine has given O'Connell: Carve out your football time.
"Especially for a coach that's going to call [plays], that's the hardest thing," Pettine said. "There needs to be time where it's like, the door's closed and he's got somebody — maybe not literally guarding it, but figuratively guarding it, where, 'Hey, this is a do-not-disturb time.' He needs time to watch film."
Passion for football returns
After Pettine's three years as the Packers' defensive coordinator ended following the team's loss in the 2021 NFC Championship game, he spent last season as a senior defensive assistant in Chicago. In recent years, he said, he'd reached a point where his passion for the game had waned, to the point where his wife, Megan, could see it affecting his health.
Now, he's leading initiatives in Minnesota like the coaching diversity summit the Vikings hosted in May. Knowing who he'd be working for, and who he'd be working with, he said, made the Vikings' environment one he felt could reignite his passion for the game.
"That's important to me at this point: enjoying what you do," he said. "That's why it was such an easy decision."
He's happy to be here now, helping his one-time pupil along.
"I wish I'd had somebody in Cleveland that had been there and gone through it," Pettine said. "I would recommend that for any new head coach. It doesn't matter, really, what the official job is — whether it's a coaching position, whether it's coordinating. Whatever it is. There's no substitute for having gone through it."