Thursday, December 03, 2020

Mike Vrabel, a Walsh Jesuit grad, molds Titans in his own image, gets 'old school' team to believe


Marla Ridenour

Akron Beacon Journal

Scott Pioli’s close relationship with Mike Vrabel was forged during their 10 seasons together, Pioli as an NFL executive, Vrabel a linebacker with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.

But Pioli had no idea what kind of professional coach Vrabel could be until he sat in on meetings at Ohio State in 2013.

“I listened to him present in team meetings and I said to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Pioli said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘If I become a GM again and he’s not a head coach, I know my first phone call.’ And it happened pretty quick for him.”

At the time, Walsh Jesuit product Vrabel was in his third year as a position coach at Ohio State, where he was a two-time All-America defensive end. Pioli had been fired as Chiefs general manager that January and received an invitation from Vrabel to visit and stay at the Vrabels’ home.

Pioli observed Vrabel in position meetings with his defensive linemen and in front of the larger group and said it wasn’t just Vrabel’s presence that struck him.

“It was a combination of things,” Pioli, now an NFL Network analyst, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “It was his presence, but also his delivery and his ability to listen and his ability to communicate.”

Four years later, in just his fourth season in the NFL after three with the Houston Texans, Vrabel was hired as coach of the Tennessee Titans. The Titans have not posted a losing record since.

In 2019, the Titans survived a 2-4 start to finish 9-7 and reach the AFC Championship Game. That surprised NBC Sports analyst and former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who thought the Titans were a year or two away.

On Sunday, the Titans host the Browns in a crucial AFC clash of 8-3 teams. And what Vrabel has done — bringing in smart, tough, talented but yet relative unknowns who fit the mold of what he was as a player — is finally starting to gain notice around the league.

Sunday during “Football Night in America,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth asked if Vrabel was getting enough credit for what he’s built and Dungy responded, “I don’t think he does. He’s done a tremendous job changing their attitude and changing their culture. He’s built a physical team, a team of no excuses.”

Tony Dungy lauds Mike Vrabel

A Hall of Fame coach who won the 2006 Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, Dungy doesn’t know Vrabel well. But he’s heard plenty of stories from NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, who played six seasons with Vrabel in New England. Dungy also knows several members of the Titans staff, including safeties coach Scott Booker, who attended Dungy’s church in Pittsburgh when Booker was about 5 years old.

“It’s an eclectic cast of characters, but they all have the same belief in how they do things, they believe in Mike’s system and they’ve got it going,” Dungy, 65, said of Vrabel’s staff in a telephone interview Tuesday. “They love him. When you transmit that belief and you give your people confidence in themselves, that’s a big part of it.

“I love the way [Vrabel] has put it together. I love the way they play. It reminds me of old-school football. I guess that’s why I like it.”

Dungy lauded Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk and General Manager Jon Robinson for going old school in hiring Vrabel, now 45.

“All these owners looking for coaches, these successful guys, [but] it’s not all the X’s and O’s that we know and we’ve got this wide-open spread offense, we can run the zone read or all these multiple defenses, it’s creating that mentality,” Dungy said. “That can be done whether it’s Mike Vrabel, a linebacker and a defensive coach, Kevin Stefanski, a quarterback coach and an offensive-minded guy, Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Mike Tomlin, you create the mentality. You get guys to believe.

“These owners that are looking for this cookie cutter, ‘I’ve got to get a 29-year-old offensive genius, otherwise we’re not going to be successful’ — it doesn’t make sense. When you look at who’s been able to turn franchises around, it’s that strong will, that personality who’s going to get everybody to buy in. That’s what Mike has done, that’s what Kevin’s done in Cleveland and changed the culture, that’s what good coaches do.”

Dungy believes Browns’ first-year coach Stefanski may be another in the Vrabel mold.

“I think he is. I think it’s real. The way they’ve built it, it’s real,” Dungy said of the Browns. “I don’t know that they’re with the top echelon teams yet. We saw them early in the year against Baltimore and against Pittsburgh, so they’ve got a ways to go. But they’re not the old Browns, that’s for sure.”

Mike Vrabel didn't originally have his sights on coaching

Vrabel said in a Wednesday conference call he didn’t have his sights set on coaching, that he never had a Plan B besides playing in the NFL for as long as he could. He achieved that, putting in 14 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Patriots and Chiefs and winning three Super Bowls in New England. He saw his father, Chuck, coach basketball. Vrabel said coaching his sons’ basketball and baseball teams got him going. (Vrabel’s son Tyler is an offensive lineman at Boston College, and Carter is an infielder at Wabash Valley.)

Vrabel said when he was driving to work in the mornings while with the Patriots, he would call former Ohio State teammate Luke Fickell, then a Buckeyes assistant and now coach at the University of Cincinnati. Sometimes they discussed what they would do if opportunities came up.

“You love the game and you love competing and trying to get players to become a team and function as a team. It’s a great challenge and it’s obviously a difficult one,” Vrabel said. “It will be even tougher this week going against the Browns, who seem to have that unity and identity.”

Vrabel’s parents were Akron school administrators, and Pioli said some of the best coaches he’s seen have come from families of educators. But Pioli wasn’t sure Vrabel would coach.

“I always thought it was possible because he was so smart and he was a coach on the field,” said Pioli, who started his career as a Browns scouting assistant in 1992. “You couldn’t play for that team in New England ... you had to be a communicator, you had to know what you’re doing and you had to be helping your teammates. People like that become good coaches if they want.

“I didn’t know because he’s capable of so many other things. He’s incredibly smart outside of football and he has a balanced life. A lot of people in football aren’t that balanced.”

When the Titans were 2-4 last season, there were rumblings about Vrabel’s job security. That took Dungy back to his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996, when they started 1-8; they made the playoffs the next season. Pioli said the same was true when the Patriots opened the 2000 season 1-4; Belichick led them to their first Super Bowl victory the next year.

During his playing days, Pioli saw Vrabel develop the skills he’s now using with the Titans.

“Mike is a teacher and ... one of the things I’ve watched him get better at was as a player, he was so smart, he knew so much, he often didn’t have patience for people that weren’t as smart as him,” Pioli said. “Being that smart is a blessing; not having patience can be a curse. But Mike has matured and developed an understanding that people aren’t going to keep up with him, and he can deliver a message without being condescending.”

As Vrabel grows in his profession, Pioli said it won’t bother Vrabel if the sports world doesn’t recognize what he’s doing in Tennessee. Vrabel will get all the satisfaction he needs if he hoists the Lombardi Trophy again in this chapter of his football career.

“He was always a really good player, but he didn’t crave attention and celebrity,” Pioli said. “It’s an interesting part of his personality that I really adore. He gets more satisfaction out of being able to look at someone knowing that he whipped ‘em than he does the world saying that he won.

But that’s Mike Vrabel’s life. Mike has, for most of his career and life, he hasn’t been the celebrity anything. But he’s been incredibly dependable and successful every place, everywhere, every station in life.”

Marla Ridenour can be reached at Read more about the Browns at Follow her on Twitter at

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