Included in Sunday's game between the Browns and Detroit Lions at Ford Field is a matchup between two head coaches who, back in the day in Cleveland, needed wild imaginations to envision they'd ever be in this position, running an NFL team.
We all know about Browns boss Eric Mangini, who was a public relations intern in 1994 and was able to get hired on as a coaches assistant in '95, the last year for the original Browns in Cleveland before their move to Baltimore.
But in the spring of 1993, a year before Mangini arrived, current Lions first-year head coach Jim Schwartz, not quite 27 years old and as green as the grass when it came to the nuts and bolts of football, got his big break when Browns head coach Bill Belichick hired him as a college and pro scout.
A native of Baltimore, he was a four-year letterwinner at linebacker at Georgetown and, upon graduation, had slowly begun to climb the coaching ladder. He spent 1989 as a graduate assistant at Maryland and then went to Minnesota the next year in the same role.
Schwartz got his first real coaching job in 1991 as the secondary coach at way-off-the-beaten-path North Carolina Central. Then at Colgate – the school, not the toothpaste – he spent 1992 as secondary coach.
All nice opportunities, but nothing that was going to land Schwartz on the sideline at Ford Field next Thursday wearing a headset for the Lions' traditional Thanksgiving Day game, this year against the Green Bay Packers.
After that year at Colgate, Belichick called, and Schwartz's professional life was never the same. He had hit the lottery, staying three years in Cleveland, and he parlayed that stint to a job as a defensive assistant with the relocated Browns, the Baltimore Ravens, from 1996-98. Following that, he went to the Tennessee Titans for a decade, serving the first year as a defensive assistant, the second year as linebackers coach/third-down package and then eight seasons as a defensive coordinator.
It was after helping the Titans finish 13-3 in 2008 on the strength of a dominating defense that sent four players to the Pro Bowl, including two who made All-NFL, that the Lions hired him.
But none of that – the high-profile role as coordinator with the Titans and the low-profile roles with Tennessee and the Ravens – would have happened had it not been for getting hired at Cleveland.
Because Ted Marchibroda gave him a shot as a young guy with the Baltimore Colts in 1975 on nothing more than blind faith, Belichick has always been willing to do the same for coaches in whom he sees himself all those decades ago. It began in 1991 in Cleveland, since that's when he got his first head coaching job, and Schwartz – and Mangini – were among the many unknown Belichick hired. No one else knew who they were, where they came from or if they even knew what a football was, but Belichick had the keen sense to see greatness in them.
Some of the other coaching/scouting neophytes with the Browns at the time were former Cleveland general managers Phil Savage and George Kokinis, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars director of player personnel Terry McDonough, Kansas City Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, New York Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum and Falcons assistant director of player personnel Lionel Vital.
Belichick also gave Browns Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome, now GM/executive vice president of the Ravens, his start in coaching and scouting after he retired as a player. In addition, he gave two well-known current college head coaches, Alabama's Nick Saban and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, along with Fresno State head coach Pat Hill, their starts in the NFL.
"We had a very talented building at the time," Schwartz said in a conference call with the Cleveland media on Wednesday morning. "We were all young guys who were in the same boat. We had no responsibilities and no bills. It was fun living in the city.
"Not just us, but you could go on and on with the guys we had back in Cleveland then – Nick Saban and Kirk Ferentz. The success all of those guys have had in their careers is no accident. Working under the program that Bill Belichick ran, it was a great place to start."
Like the other young – and even younger-looking – coaches and scouts, Schwartz is remembered by those who knew him from his Cleveland days as very studious, serious and hard-working. With his round face and the round-rimmed glasses he wore then, he looked more like a chemist – or a chemistry major – than an up-and-coming football coach. Maybe that was a tip-off, for he was analytical in his job then. He broke down the game and found how it all worked like … well, a chemist breaking down some concoction of fluids to see what made it fizz.
It's not a whole lot different from what he's doing now, breaking down the long-suffering Lions to see exactly what's been wrong with them all these years and how – and how soon -- he can fix it.
He will get another chance at that repair work on Sunday, against his old buddy from the Cleveland days, Mangini, who will be doing the same with the Browns.
With both teams at 1-8 and on extended losing streaks – the Browns at four in a row and the Lions at six -- Jim Schwartz and Eric Mangini have a long, long, long way to go.
Not to worry, however, for that's exactly what they thought back in the first half of the 1990s with the Browns. So maybe long doesn't seem as long as it used to.