Mike Pettine from high school football coach to leader of the Cleveland Browns

Mike Pettine Jr.Photo from ClevelandBrowns.com

I guess I’m getting old.

Why?

I’m beginnig to take great pleasure in talking like my grandfather with that “back in the good ole’ days” stuff.

Well, yesterday, I got a big smile on my face and got nostalgic when I heard that Mike Pettine, Jr. – yes I said Junior – was named head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Why?

Well, Mike’s dad, Mike Sr. (now you understand the junior thing) is one of the best head football coaches and molders of men that I’ve had the pleasure to know in my 40+ years of covering high school football.

Coach Pettine…and I’d never call him Mike…built one of the best high school football programs I’ve ever had the pleasure to cover, the Central Bucks West BucksCB West for short.  West is located in the Borough of Doylestown, 27 miles north of Philadelphia in beautiful Bucks County.
In 33 years as the head coach of the Bucks, Coach Pettine amassed an incredible record of 326-42-4 with four Pennsylvania Class AAAA titles.  When he retired in 1999, he was the state’s winningest coach, handing over a 45 game win streak to his assistant Mike Carey, who then extended it to a then state-record 59 straight during the 2000 season.  Coach Pettine was no stranger to streaks, from 1984 to 1989 his Bucks won 55 straight that was then one-game shy of the state record.

I can still recall, sometime in the late 90’s, Coach Pettine pulling me to the side at War Memorial Stadium before a game to tell me that he appreciated everything I was doing to promote high school football through a television show I created called The Big Ticket, which turned 20 years old last season.  I also remember worrying before he spoke to me that he was going to give me a critique that would make me and the show better…because that’s what legendary coaches do.

Coach Pettine is a special man, who now at 73 years old, loves to talk all-day long about football, which is what the two of us will do on next week’s radio show.

I never saw Mike Jr., play in high school for his dad in the 80’s, but I’m sure there would have been plenty to tell about the two-way starter who was all-state as a quarterback and defensive back for the Bucks. After graduating from CB West, Mike Jr. went to play free safety at the University of Virginia.

The Pettine/Pettine coaching story began in the mid 80’s when the son worked for his dad as an assistant after graduating college. The thing I remembered the most about Mike Jr. in his high school coaching days was his intensity, which I could have spelled with all caps – he was flat out intense.  And, while I haven’t been face-to-face with Mike Jr. since the 2000 season when he was the head coach at North Penn in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, I doubt that he’s any less intense as he takes over the Cleveland Browns.

If you want an up-close look at Mike Jr., try to find the 1999 documentary The Season, which aired on ESPN way before Hoover’s Two-a-Days on MTV in 2006.  I remember plenty of bleeps and joking with Mike Jr. after the show aired that he probably set a ready for bleeps in a television show.

The intensity is a common thread that I remember between father and son.  I also know that both men during those high school years were able to bring out the best in the young men they coached and knew how to game plan an opponent.

Mike Carey, who I mentioned earlier for taking over CB West after Coach Pettine retired in 1999, echoed those same sentiments about Mike Jr. in an interview he did with the Bucks County newspaper The Intellegencer, “I remember Mike being a water boy at CB West. He had a great career at CB West and a very good career at (the University of) Virginia. He’s got all of his father’s attributes — extreme intelligence and such intensity and the ability to bring the most out of people.”

After leaving his assistant’s job at CB West, he took a graduate assistant position at the University of Pittsburgh.  Mike Jr. climbed-out from under dad’s shadow by taking his first head coaching job at William Tennent High School, just down the road for dad’s juggernaut of a program.  Tennent wasn’t really known for its football program, but at 28 years old, it was the first step toward becoming an NFL head coach.

This is what Tennent athletic director Mike Devitt said the day that he hired the younger Pettine in 1995 –  “Mike’s football knowledge, presentation of self, energy and enthusiasm made him the clear choice.”

Prior to Pettine taking over the program, William Tennent had won three games in three years, including a 2-9 mark in 1994.  In his first year as the Panthers’ head coach, Mike Jr. led the school to a respectable 5-7 record, which was the team’s best record since 1990.  He followed that up with a 9-3 record in 1996, which still stands as the school’s record for wins in a season.

A little know fact is that Mike Jr. had a better record then dad at the two year marks in their careers.  Dad was 11-9 in his first two season, while son was 14-10.

Just like his father’s teams, Mike Jr.’s teams were disciplined and hard hitting as you can see from the 1996 highlights at the top of this story.

Things really got interesting in 1997 when Mike Jr. was hired by North Penn, which put dad and son on a collision course for Suburban One League supremacy and also at the holiday dinner table.

Mike Jr. took North Penn to new heights while he was the leader of the Knights from 1997 through 2001.  The younger Pettine led North Penn to a 45-15 mark with a third of those losses coming against dad.

Yes, father always knew best when he went head-to-head against his son.  Five times Mike Jr. faced-off with dad and all five times he lost.

“My foundations still goes back to my dad,” Pettine Jr. said at his introductory press conference. “He was a guy that, to me, just understood football from A-Z. He wasn’t an offensive specialist, a defensive specialist; he was just pure football through and through.

“Playing for him was a rough experience. I really wanted to get away from football after I was done playing for him, but after a while ended up circling back and just fell in love with the game. That’s what I’m most passionate about and it’s something that, again, he gave me the advice that I think a lot of good parents give: Find a job that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. I’ve been fortunate to pair my passion with my profession.”

For those pointing out that the Browns new head coach hasn’t been a head coach since leaving North Penn in 2001, understand that William Tennent wasn’t a good program before Pettine and North Penn would be described as a mediocre program.  Mike Jr. knows how to build, and the fact that he’s worked his way up through the NFL coaching system by starting at the bottom with the Baltimore Ravens as a coaching assistant for quality control, breaking down video and helping to develop playbooks and build scouting reports shows that he respects the system.  His first NFL job was definitely at the lowest rung on the NFL job ladder.

The dad/son rivalry hit fever pitch with the earlier mentioned The Season on ESPN, which chronicled the 1999 season that began with dad (CB West) and son (North Penn) ranked #1 and #2 going into the season. Dad was #1 thanks to a 30-game win streak and back-to-back Class AAAA state titles.

Father and son met twice during that glorious 1999 season, once during the regular season and once in the playoffs.  Dad won both – 17-7 on November 5th and 21-0 two weeks later.

How did dad sum-up those victories in The Season?

“I drank champagne, but it tasted like vinegar.”

On a much happier note for the two, dad joined his son as an assistant at North Penn in 2001.

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About the Author

Jeff Fisher
Jeff is an award-winning journalist and expert in the field of high school sports, underscored with his appearance on CNBC in 2010 to talk about the big business of high school football in America. Jeff turned to his passion for high school football into an entrepreneurial venture called High School Football America, a digital media company focused on producing original high school sports content for radio, television and the internet. Jeff is co-founder and editor-in-chief of High School Football America, which is a media partner with USA TODAY High School Sports.