When Kevin Stefanski arrived in the Twin Cities in 2006, he was 23 years old and was named special assistant to Vikings head coach Brad Childress. Stefanski returns to Minnesota on Sunday as the NFL head coach.
“It’s going to be pretty cool,” said Childress of Stefanski, who led the Cleveland Browns against the Vikings at US Bank Stadium. “I’m proud of him, but in the end he did the hard work to get where he is. … He started right at the bottom and was able to climb the ladder from there. ”
Under Childress Stefanski rose to Assistant Quarterbacks Coach before Childress was fired in the middle of the 2010 season. Stefanski held this position under Leslie Frazier from 2010-13. From 2014 to 19, he worked under Mike Zimmer as tight ends coach, running backs coach, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator before he was appointed head coach of Cleveland in 2020.
Stefanski, 39, doesn’t deny that it’s getting a bit nostalgic about going back 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,” said Stefanski. “I had a great time there and was treated wonderfully by the organization, the owners, the coaches and the staff. I have really good friends there. In that sense, it’s a really big game. They are a really good team. That has our full attention. ”
Retired from coaching and spending much of the year at his Mound residence, Childress won’t make it to Sunday’s game. But he will watch from a distance as Stefanski compares Zimmer with his mind.
“Nobody would know Coach Zimmer as well as Kevin, and I’m sure Mike thinks the same of Kevin,” said Childress, who first met Stefanski as an intern in Philadelphia in 2005 and Childress was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. “It’s a game of chess.”
Oddsmakers made the Browns a two-point favorite on their first visit to Minnesota since 2013, when the Vikings played at the Metrodome. That’s because the Browns are 2-1 to Minnesotas 1-2 and end an 11-5 season while the Vikings were 7-9.
Co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson called Stefanski a “great person” and “an outstanding football coach”. But he scoffed at any notion that Stefanski had any advantage because he knew Zimmer’s defense so well.
“We know what he likes to do too, so that makes up for me,” Patterson said. “When both sides know each other really well, it balances out. It’s not like it’s a one-way street so it’s not a big problem for me because Kevin doesn’t block anyone, he doesn’t throw a pass, he doesn’t catch a pass, he doesn’t attack anyone, so what comes out is how good yours Players play and how well our players play. ”
Zimmer said Cleveland’s offense was “a little different” than the Vikings’ when Stefanski was offensive coordinator for the last three games from 2018 and through 2019, but there are still many similarities. Zimmer was impressed with what Stefanski did to Cleveland.
Stefanski took over a team that hadn’t had a season since 2007 and was 6-10 in 2019. But it led the Browns to their first postseason spot since 2002, and they won their first playoff game since 1994.
“He did really well,” said Zimmer. “I think Kevin has a great relationship with the players. He’s very analytical, knows what he’s trying to achieve. 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 joined the NFL in 2017, said he was happy for Stefanski.
“Anything in his way was well deserved,” said Cook. “He waited his time, finally he got the job and he took over and did what he had to do. … Once my trainer, always my trainer. My trainer for life. Just like he hugged me as a player and as a kid. I got into this and he said to me, ‘(No.) 33, we’re going to ride you.’ ”
In Stefanski’s first game as offensive coordinator in December 2018, after replacing the sacked John DeFilippo, Cook stormed 136 yards, then a career high, in an overwhelming 41-17 win over Miami.
Stefanski later helped the Vikings during a 2019 season when they went 6-10 and won a playoff game over time in New Orleans. He worked with quarterback Kirk Cousins for two seasons.
“One of the many people to point out in my football career that I have been very fortunate to work with and I am grateful that our paths have crossed,” said Cousins.
Although Childress has not been employed by Stefanski for 11 years, he remains in close contact with him. He visited Stefanski at the Browns’ training camp in August and regularly sends him motivational quotes.
“I’m sure there will be a wave of nostalgia when he walks into the stadium (Sunday) but he goes in there to do a job,” said Childress.