Kevin Stefanski got his first job in coaching nearly 15 years ago. At that time, his old high school coach was unsure how to feel about it.
But Gil Brooks wasn’t surprised when his former St. Joseph’s Prep quarterback was chosen over the weekend to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. He first realized Stefanski’s coaching potential two decades ago. Wouldn’t the whip-smart Wayne native have been better off taking his prestigious degree and going into a more lucrative profession?
“He was a bright guy. … I was a little bit betwixt and between when he started coaching immediately after Penn,” Brooks said by phone Monday. “He could have been very successful in the business world, and he had to make a lot of sacrifices early on in his career in order to pursue coaching."
Stefanski is doing all right, though. At 37, he has climbed through the coaching ranks since his first job at Penn, going from an offensive assistant for the Minnesota Vikings to offensive coordinator. He will be the third-youngest head coach in the NFL.
Stefanski, son of former 76ers general manager Ed Stefanski, grew up a standout athlete. He first encountered a lifelong friend and eventual teammate, John Paul Mantey, on a football field when the two were in grade school. From fifth grade until high school, the two played against each other in football, basketball, and baseball every year.
“Kevin often reminds me that I never won a single game in any of those sports against him,” said Mantey, who had dinner with Stefanski last month. “I didn’t know him [yet], but I knew him as a competitor.”
Mantey and Stefanski joined sides by high school. Stefanski was the starting quarterback for the freshman team, beating out Joe Judge — who was named the head coach of the New York Giants last week. Sometimes that year, Stefanski even played with the junior varsity.
By his senior season, Stefanski was the MVP of the Catholic League, a standout quarterback and safety bound for Penn. Mantey, a fullback and middle linebacker in the same class, said even then it was evident Stefanski’s understanding of football was elite.
“Kevin, without effort, could tell you exactly what your position was supposed to be doing on every play, down to the first three steps,” Mantey said. "He would be able to see things from the balcony and the dance floor in a way that was beyond what any of us really could do or made sense of.
“His ability to see the football field and all the dynamics going on and not have to zoom in on one player; he would be able to watch the whole thing and make sense of it.”
Stefanski’s cerebral nature wasn’t the thing that stands out most to Brooks and Mantey. They described him as a fluid athlete, a gifted runner and a hard hitter on defense.
His high school highlights drew lofty comparisons to Michael Vick and Harrison Smith.
“You couldn’t meet a nicer young man off the field, but on the field, when you stepped inside those lines, you better be ready, boy, because he was going to bring it,” Brooks said. “His ability to diagnose plays in film study and being prepared, then he would see something in terms of scheme; he had an idea of what they were trying to achieve and he could anticipate, and he brought the wood.”
Brooks said the term he’d use to describe Stefanski would be “high character" before quickly adding: “That, and he was an assassin. He was a killer. He would have, at least once or twice a game, you’d go, ‘Oh, man, he just walloped that guy.’ He took no prisoners, but he would then pick you up and pat you on the butt and send you back to your huddle."
Mantey, the starting middle linebacker, didn’t get to see as much of Stefanski’s play at safety during their respective careers because he was busy with his own assignments. But when he lined up at fullback, he said he was consistently left awestruck by the plays Stefanski could make from under center.
“He was behind me always on defense so I didn’t get to watch him,” Mantey said. “As a fullback, I would go make my block, and the amount of times that it would be third-and-26 for whatever reason, his ability to run the ball as a quarterback in the open field was incredible."
Al Bagnoli, the former Penn coach who now is at Columbia, said in an email: “I am very happy for Kevin and his family. He is a young man whom has paid his dues and worked his way up the ladder from an Ivy League player, to college graduate assistant, to NFL position coach, to coordinator and now as a head coach. Given his unique people skills, intellect, leadership ability and work ethic, I am confident he is more than ready to lead the Browns.”
Stefanski left his job at Penn to take an assistant coaching gig with the Vikings in 2006 when Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress was hired as Minnesota’s head coach. Stefanski managed to survive Childress’ firing and stayed on as the Vikings’ assistant quarterbacks coach when Leslie Frazier took over in 2011.
When Mike Zimmer was hired as head coach in 2014, Stefanski was promoted to tight ends coach. He was the running backs coach in 2016 and quarterbacks coach in 2017 and part of 2018 before the Vikings fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in midseason and gave Stefanski the job on an interim basis. They removed the interim tag last offseason.
“He hung in there,” Brooks said. “He had a culture shock; he moved from the Philly area for the first time in a way. … He was able to endear himself to the coaches that came and went.”
Stefanski came from a family with a front-office executive in the NBA, and his three brothers were standouts in football or basketball.
Mantey said Stefanski is fortunate to have grown up around successful athletes and executives, but the work he’s put into reaching the highest level of NFL coaching underscores it all.
“In a lot of ways, people could make up a story that he’s lucky,” Mantey said. “He is very fortunate. Simultaneously, his entire life he’s been a workhorse. So, not only has he been gifted in a lot of ways athletically and mentally and he comes from a really amazing family … this dude works his [butt] off. He’s taking all of the opportunities and all the gifts that he’s been given, and he’s compounded them with his work ethic.”
Stefanski’s younger brother, Matt, is a senior managing director for an investment firm in Philadelphia. Perhaps that could have been Kevin’s destiny, too. Brooks certainly believes so.