CLEVELAND -- Freddie Kitchens channeled John F. Kennedy on Monday.
He talked about the importance of every person employed by the Cleveland Browns during his introductory news conference, right down to the individual who cleans the locker room.
Which brought to mind the story of Kennedy visiting NASA and asking a janitor what he was doing. “I’m helping put a man on the moon," the janitor said. The notion of all working together to complete a goal could barely be stated better, and it's a belief Kitchens subscribes to.
But that was just one of a key series of statements made by Kitchens as he expressed his vision of team. Taken individually, they are pillars that support an overall approach. Taken collectively, they comprise the philosophy of leadership that Kitchens has honed in years as an assistant coach -- a philosophy that few had asked him about prior to this past season.
Here's a rundown of some of Kitchens' more notable principles:
“The letter ‘I’ is a letter. It is not a word. When it is used as a word, you have problems.”
Call it an offshoot of the bromide that there is no "I" in team. Or as Kitchens also said: “Two is one, and one is none.”
“I have been running fast my whole life.”
When he talks, Kitchens often refers to a quote from Benjamin E. Mays, a son of former slaves born in 1894 in Epworth, South Carolina. As president of Morehouse College, Mays regularly spoke on civil rights. One of his students was Martin Luther King Jr., who called Mays his spiritual mentor and intellectual father.
Kitchens quotes Mays saying that “those who start behind in the game of life must run faster to catch up.” In Kitchens’ view, there is only one way to catch up.
Run fast. Work hard. Earn your place.
Then keep working.
“I am invested in people, not just players.”
Kitchens used another example to illustrate this belief, referring to Browns coordinator of stadium operations Clete Deiner.
“I don't know how many people know Clete,” Kitchens said. “I know Clete, I talk to Clete, I understand where Clete lives, I know how many kids he's got. You know what I did? How I found that out? I talked to him and I asked him, so I'm invested in people.
“That's how you start building relationships.
“You have to have a trust and respect.”
Kitchens’ first message to the offense when he took over as coordinator was to ask the players to trust him. His method for gaining that trust was to involve the players in the game plans, by asking Baker Mayfield what plays he liked and the offensive linemen what runs they preferred for a particular opponent. He knows asking for trust sets a high bar for his actions because when players give trust, he has to return it.
But Kitchens is comfortable with who he is. The team’s in-house media posted a video of him riding to his news conference saying he was not in the least nervous. All he had to do, he said, was tell the truth.
“Once you have the trust and respect aspect of things and you create an environment where you are listeners and not you just don’t hear people, there is a big difference.”
To listen means to “give one’s attention to a sound.” To hear means “perceive with the ear the sound made.”
The difference is significant. Active listening means paying attention to what is said; it’s more than just hearing the words.
“I will ask questions, because it benefits us all.”
Put it another way, again from Kitchens: “Sometimes as a coach, you are self-centered and you don’t want to ask for help, because that admits weakness.”
“Were you ready to be a parent?”
This rhetorical question was his answer to another rhetorical question: Are you ready to be a coach? During the season he addressed that issue by asking if someone has a résumé of items they check off. Asked Monday if he was ready, he was honest in saying he didn’t know. Instead of vowing he was -- which given his honesty he couldn’t -- or planning to be ready, he prefers to just do the job. Much like parents do when they start raising children.
“It kills me with some guys that they think they have to be more head coach-ish, or whatever you call it,” he said.
“What we do is not tough.”
Sum that statement up in one word: Perspective.
Kitchens is a football coach who grew up the son of a factory worker at a Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama. He watched his dad survive strikes and layoffs and saw him get his plumber’s license to make ends meet.
“So to see the resolve and the resiliency of going out and finding work -- that’s tough,” Kitchens said. “What we do is not tough. What we do is coach football for a living and get paid well at doing it. What these kids do is they play football for a living and they get paid well doing it. So what we do is not tough, all right?
“Single parents out there providing for their children, knowing that they have to go out and work two or three jobs to provide for those children, that’s tough. Like I said, we have hard days, not bad ones. And that’s not the case with everyone.”