A Conversation with Cleveland Browns New Chief of Staff Callie Brownson
This season, the Browns have joined an elite group of five NFL teams. These teams are among a few in the league that now have women in key positions on the coaching staff.
For the Browns, it's Callie Brownson, hired by new head coach Kevin Stefanski to be the chief of staff.
The 30-year old Brownson grew up in Virginia and blazed a trail to her current position.
Q: What was it about football that appealed to you?
A: I started loving football at a pretty young age. My dad graduated from the University of Miami and was a big football fan. So growing up, as far back as I can remember on Saturdays we were watching Miami Hurricane Football.
There was just something about the experience. Obviously being young, you don’t know too much about the game. But I felt this draw towards football unlike I felt toward any other sport.
Baseball, everything else I loved, but it was just different. The culture of football, the passion behind it. I could feel that from a really young age, and it always piqued my interest and was something that was a steady part of my life.
Q: How did you get into the NFL and why did you want to work in the league?
A: So I started to realize that I wanted to make a career out of football when the doors started to open a little bit for women, and diversity started to become a topic that the NFL was talking about as it pertained to their hires. And you can kind of see the timeline as it happens.
Jen Welter gets hired as one of the first females to actually get invited to a training camp and be on the coaching side and before her was Kathryn Smith, who was with the Buffalo Bills as well. And so those two, kind of creeping the door open, helped me kind of envision what I envisioned as a career.
At the time I was coaching high school football, thinking that was kind of the top, that was the peak for a female in this country being involved in football. And then when that kind of happened, I started to think, you know, I can make a career out of this.
And so what happened was shortly after that, the NFL really invested in this concept behind bringing females into the football side of the game and they created the NFL Women's Careers in Football Forum. The object behind it was to bring women in who are interested in pursuing careers in football, and get them in front of GMs, head coaches, directors of football operation, and get them to network and to learn, ‘All right, here's where I'm at right now and here's the things that I need to do to be a candidate worth considering.’
I attended a couple of those forums, met some really great people and got an internship with the New York Jets. From that point on, it was just extremely clear to me that I wanted to coach in the NFL. I wanted to be around football in the NFL, knowing it was going to be a bit of a long road, it was still something I was absolutely committed to.
Q: You speak about your time with the Jets and with the Bills. When you were hired from the Bills to come to Cleveland, you were given the role of chief of staff, which was the same role that Kevin Stefanski actually started out as a coach in Minnesota. Did that ever cross your mind with how important that role can be and moving up the ladder?
A: Yeah, absolutely. You know, when the opportunity was presented for me, you know, I always say it was a no brainer, and people kind of laugh at that, but it truly was.
Not only taking on an important role such as this, but doing it for a head coach who's done it before and did it in a way that made his path obviously to climb the ladder very clear and concise.
So not only am I able to do what I consider just a really phenomenal and impactful job, I'm also being trained through this job through somebody who did it, did it well and did right as it pertained to, furthering their career.
To me, that's an incredible opportunity. And, you know, you find growth in every chapter that you hit, no matter what industry you're in. And this, to me seemed like the best possible growth opportunity for myself.
Q: Compare your role as chief of staff for the Browns versus any of your previous coaching experiences. What would you say is similar and what might differ from those other roles?
A: The biggest one would be when I was an offensive assistant last year, I was very offense centric, very embedded on what we're doing on that side of the ball as it pertained to scheme, game planning, self-scout, all of those categories.
And now this is a really awesome inclusive role. My role can be as involved in the football stuff as I want. The other part of it is very operation focused.
I'm working with all the departments across the building to ensure that the head coach's vision and mission for the organization and the team is being carried out. I think the difference in it is this is a way more multifaceted role than just a specific offense, defensive, assistant quality control, positional coach role.
So that's great, but the similarities are again, going back to one of my previous points, I'm still very much so involved in the offense, being able to help with a lot of that stuff, a lot of similar tasks or responsibilities I had last year, which is great for me because that's holding me accountable to still growing as it pertains to the X's and O's.
Q: How do you feel about being one of the only females in an all-male sport right now and any of the challenges that come with that?
A: Yeah, and there's definitely challenges. I think anytime you're in a small minority of a group, there are its own challenges.
But I think attitude has a lot to do with everything. And walking into something feeling intimidated and scared, you know, is going to project to the people that you work with.
But walking in with a sense of confidence, humble confidence at that in who you are, the fact that you can add value to the fact that, you know, you're going to work your butt off to make the team and the organization more successful.
People really feed off of that. They see that, you know, ‘This is a person who wants to be a part of what we're doing. They're going to work hard to ensure that they stay a part of what we're doing.’ And that's really kind of the approach that I've taken since I've started is, I know what I bring to the table, and it's only a matter of time before everybody else is able to see my added value.
And that's just what I'm going to do. I'm going to put my head down; I'm going to work hard. I'm going to continue to prove every day that I belong here. And when you do that, at the end of the day football is a business and it's about winning, if you can help a team win, if you can help a team be more successful.
You know, nobody cares if you're a woman, a man, where you come from, whatever. You're a part of something great. And so, if you stay really focused on that, you know, there's good days and bad days. But if you stay really focused on ‘I'm going to continue to add value to this mission, I'm going to get you to help push us towards our goals,’ People tend to not care about the other stuff.
Q: That's interesting to hear, especially with people like Jen Welter, and Katie Sowers who became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl. We’re starting to see more and more women popping up in the NFL. Do you see women coaches being more common over the next couple of years?
A: That's definitely the goal. And one of the things I will say on that topic is we have a lot of forward momentum in that category.
And what's going to be the most important part are really two things: One, those of us who are currently in in the NFL right now continuing to work hard to build a good reputation, continuing to convince people that this is a good positive thing for teams and organizations to do.
And then for the other candidates who are coming up to really press themselves to work hard, build a good foundation, really invest in themselves, continue to grow so that when that time comes, when that opportunity comes, they're ready to roll. And they are, like I said previously, adding value to whatever organization brings them on board.
Q: Down the road do you think that you want to become a head coach in the NFL? Is that a goal of yours? And if so, what do you think you could take maybe from Coach Stefanski?
A: I get asked that question a lot. You know, where do you see yourself in five years? What do you want to be at the end of this and you know, in the beginning, I started to think about stuff like that. And then I saw just the many different ways that this career path ends up taking you that you don't anticipate.
And so I told myself a couple years ago, actually, when I was coaching at Dartmouth, that I was going to stop saying, ‘I'm going to be this, or this is where I'm going to end up,’ and I'm just going to continue to work hard, become as versatile and multifaceted as possible, and really see where this thing takes me on its own.
And it's funny because Coach Stefanski, same thing. When he came into this, doing this certain role, his goal was just to learn the game of football as best he could in every angle and every view. And every year because of that work ethic, because of that level of interest in becoming a student of the game, doors kept opening for him. And so that's kind of my goal.
You know, I try not to look too far ahead. You focus on what's happening right now. And I'm just making sure that between now and this time next year, I am improving myself and growing. And then you kind of see how those opportunities present themselves and then yeah, ultimately you know those opportunities open up if they do.
I think that a female head coach is for sure in the future for us. I don't know how soon. Again, it has to be done right, it has to be done the right way, has to be the right candidate who's really put the time and effort in their journey to build a good foundation so that they're ready for that role.
So that's kind of where I'm at. It’s hard to ever say ‘Yeah, I'm gonna be a head coach in X amount of years. It's really hard to say that stuff because it's really out of my hands.
All I can control is what I do every season and how much better I'm getting as a coach and as a person and as a leader.
Q: So you know Cleveland has had its struggles for years on the field. The fans want a winner. They want to have playoffs, a Super Bowl. What do you think it's going to take for the Browns to have a winning season for this year?
A: I think everything comes down to culture. Every successful team has found a way to build great culture in between our walls. And with that it translates onto the field. You know, it's the NFL, it's the highest caliber of football. There’s some amazing athletes on every single team that are capable of winning football games and being successful.
For us, our focus is on culture, and building a good culture, and building a belief system in what we're doing, and having everybody understand their role and get really, really good at that.
So I think that's where you start. That's where you start and you build a good system and a good culture, you build a tight knit building, and then you build a group of people who want to go out and play for each other, I think the rest kind of handles itself.
Q: Yeah, and you speak about culture, and then you and offensive coordinator, Alex Van Pelt, [defensive coordinator] Joe Woods, [Head Coach] Kevin [Stefanski], they've all come in from organizations that in recent years have been winning, and doing that, at least on a somewhat consistent basis. What have all of you brought to the table here in Berea so far from the cultures that you all have come from?
A: Yeah, I think it's always a good thing when you can have more multiple viewpoints, especially on something that is, you know, there's no textbook on building culture. There's no right way and wrong way to do it. It's all unique to the personalities, and the individuals that you have in your building, whether it be on the coaching staff, or who you have on the roster.
I think the best thing is we've all kind of brought our own little nuances and how we use it, it's ultimately Coach Stefanski’s vision. I think one of the great things about the staff that he's put together is, although we come from different areas, we all kind of see things in a similar way. And that helps, that helps, because then your entire coaching staff is easily bought in to the culture that you're trying to build throughout the team.
So I think that was a great aspect of the staff that was handpicked and put together was they believe in exactly what it is Coach Stefanski wants to do, and the image that he wants to make sure that our players absorb as well and then our identity as we move forward. So that's been great and it's cool to see people and coaches from different systems come in and buy in immediately.
This is what we want to do, we're on board 100% full steam ahead.
Q: You've only been here a short time and this has been a really weird offseason, not anything that we're all accustomed to. But if you've had the chance among any of the virtual workouts or anything like that, who among the players has been able to stand out to you or even when you were coaching with Buffalo, who stood out to you among the team's current players?
A: Well, I won't necessarily say anybody specifically from the Browns because I think everybody, all of our players really deserve a lot of credit for how well they did with the offseason program.
To your point, very strange, very out of the norm. They all had to do things way differently and outside of their comfort zone and what they're used to, as it pertained to still trying to get the most of it. And all of them bought in very early on. They were adaptive.
You know, they didn't complain about the terms of how things were. They just did it. They knew that we still had to find a way to get better as a team and with the odds not necessarily being in your favor with a new staff and a new head coach. Everybody seemed to buy in, you know, everybody just did what they had to do and made sure that at some point between the start in April to the end, that we were getting better as a football team. And that was really, really great to see.
It goes back to culture, building that culture where everybody's on board no matter what, you know, we really had that.
One of the people that always stands out to me when I think about my season last year in Buffalo and he retired is Lorenzo Alexander, who, you know, he's played for a bunch of teams and always been a leader everywhere he's gone.
And for me, working alongside somebody like that, who really also tries to take the identity built by the head coach and the culture in the building and make sure that it's echoed in the locker room. Those are the kinds of people that breed success, that help foster those environments, are mentors to these younger guys who have those leadership capabilities and help them and mentor them into becoming leaders.
He’s always somebody who will always stand out to me, for my time in Buffalo as the kind of guy that you want, in the locker room, as well as on the field, extremely talented. He had a long career and still somehow gave it 1,000%. He never, ever left the field with any gas left in the tank. And again, that's also being a leader.
It's more than just pep talks and all that stuff. It's what you do on the field. That’s the kind of guy that you really want on your team and you really want as a leader and I know we have a bunch of candidates this year with us who are going to be those kinds of guys. And that's really exciting.
Q: As we wind down to a close here, I have a couple of fun questions for you. You came to Cleveland probably just before the pandemic struck. Have you found any favorite places that you like to frequent?
A: You know, we went to combine, we're going to the combine for a week and then this all kind of happened. So I honestly haven't been able to really see much. Everything kind of closed down as soon as we got here.
But I have an ongoing list of places to see and venturing downtown once all this is over in a safe and healthy way. I'm looking forward [to it]. Everywhere I've been, I've been there for the season and then moved on to a new opportunity. So this I think will be the first time I actually get to enjoy a city. And I'm very, very excited.
Everything I hear about Cleveland is fantastic. There’s a ton of great stuff to do. The people already have been awesome. So once things get a little bit safer, I'm looking forward to frequenting some places and getting to tour around town and enjoy Cleveland a little bit.
Given an opportunity to ask us a question, Brownson wondered how Cleveland fans feel about this year. Ever the optimists, Sean Fitzgerald told her Browns fans just want to see a winner. We've suffered through The Drive and The Fumble in the 1980s, to the last championship for the team in 1964 before the Super Bowl era to the expansion Browns and a string of not very successful coaches. As she pointed out to us, "football is a business, and it's about winning."
Editor's note: This post has been updated to include audio from the interview.