CLEVELAND — After nearly a month of twists, turns and talk, the Browns found their man.
Mike Pettine is Cleveland’s new coach.
Buffalo’s defensive coordinator, who met with team officials for the first time just a week ago, finalized a five-year contract Thursday to become the Browns’ seventh full-time coach since 1999. The team fired Rob Chudzinski on Dec. 29 following one season and embarked on a winding search that ended with Pettine.
“We wanted to be thorough from the start,” CEO Joe Banner said, “and we interviewed as many people as we could. From that group, we hired the best individual for this job. Our players and fans are going to really enjoy Mike Pettine and his leadership style.”
The 47-year-old Pettine, the son of a legendary Pennsylvania high school coach, spent one year with the Bills after four as Rex Ryan’s defensive coordinator with the New York Jets.
With his clean-shaven head and no-nonsense approach, Pettine, who also was an assistant coach with Baltimore, is popular with players. He’ll inherit a Cleveland team that went 4-12 this season after losing its last seven games.
“To compete in the AFC North, you have to be willing to bloody your nose a little bit,” Pettine said. “That’s the mentality we’re going to take here. This is team is going to be built on toughness.”
Pettine emerged as the favorite to become Cleveland’s fourth coach in six years as the Browns eliminated candidates and Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, considered the front-runner when the search started, told the team to move on without him.
His hiring ends a 25-day odyssey for the Browns. It was a search filled with rumors, denials, withdrawals and far too much drama for a franchise seeking stability.
On Wednesday night, reports of a “mystery” candidate -- reportedly it was former Bucs coach Greg Schiano -- sent some Browns into a social-media frenzy, jamming Twitter timelines with all types of theories.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said the team spoke with 10 candidates in person and spoke “many more” on the phone before zeroing in on Pettine, whom Cleveland considered for its defensive coordinator opening last year.
Haslam believes Pettine is the right fit for the Browns.
“He’s perfect,” Haslam said. “He’s tough. He’s hard-nosed. He comes to work every day with that lunch-pail mentality. But let’s face it, at the end of the day, it’s about winning games. He gets that. I get that. Everybody in the organization gets that.”
The Browns flew to Mobile, Ala., on Tuesday to interview Pettine for the second time at the Senior Bowl. The four-hour meeting came shortly after Gase, the first candidate the team contacted, called Haslam and withdrew from consideration.
Gase wasn’t the only coach to reportedly bow out. New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — another early front-runner — also told the Browns thanks, but no thanks.
The team had been expected to give Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn a second interview, but if he was their pick, the Browns would have had to wait until after the Super Bowl to finalize a deal.
As other teams filled their head-coaching vacancies, the Browns kept looking. The lengthy delay led to a national perception the team didn’t have a clear plan. Aware of the criticism, Haslam sent a letter to Cleveland fans last week explaining why the team was being “methodical” in finding Chudzinski’s replacement.
And, in the end, Pettine, who had his first interview on Jan. 16, was Cleveland’s choice — even though he may not have been the team’s first one.
In one season in Buffalo, Pettine improved the defense in every statistical category, transforming a shaky unit into one of the league’s nastiest. With an aggressive style Pettine perfected working under Ryan, he turned Buffalo’s pass rushers loose, and the club finished with a franchise-record 57 sacks.
Pettine has his work cut out for him in Cleveland.
The Browns have been to the playoffs (2002) just once since their franchise rebirth in 1999 and have never built any sustained success or momentum. Change has been the only constant.
Perhaps the team’s biggest issue has been an inability to find a franchise quarterback; 20 QBs have started for the club in 15 seasons. Cleveland is expected to address its quarterback quandary in May’s draft. The Browns have 10 selections, including two in the first round.
The Browns also have plenty of salary-cap space to sign free agents, and with six Pro Bowlers, the talent cupboard is far from bare.
Football has formed Pettine’s life. His father, Mike Pettine Sr., won four state championships at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Pa., and retired in 1999 as the winningest coach in state history.
Pettine credited his dad with steering him toward making football his career.
“He gave me the advice that a lot of good parents give,” he said. “Find a job that you love and you never work a day in your life. I’ve been fortunate to pair my passion with my profession.”