Romeo Crennel Biography
Military Dreams Dashed, Coached Under Parcells and Belichick
Professional football coach
With a lifetime of football experience and a spirit of persistence forged during a pioneering coaching career in the Deep South, Romeo Crennel seemed a promising choice to lead the faltering Cleveland Browns National Football League franchise when he was named head coach in 2005. Crennel had already been part of two successful turnarounds, serving as defensive line coach for the consistently championship-level New York Giants of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and for the New England Patriots in the early 2000s. Among his mentors were two of the NFL's top coaches, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, and over his long career he amassed a long list of other supporters and well-wishers.
Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, on June 18, 1947, Crennel grew up in military towns around the country as his United States Army sergeant father moved every three years. Joseph Crennel was an admirer of playwright William Shakespeare and named his oldest son after the lead character in one of the Bard's best-known plays; one of Crennel's sisters was named Juliet. At home, though, the atmosphere was not artistic but military. Crennel grew up in a household where his father gave the orders and the kids obeyed them. A hard worker on the athletic field, Crennel excelled in both football and baseball as a high school player in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Amherst, Virginia. Crennel's brother Carl was a gifted football player who later joined the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Edmonton Oilers of the Canadian Football League.
Crennel himself entered an Army ROTC program at Western Kentucky University, but his dreams of following his father into the officer corps were terminated for medical reasons–he had flat feet. Crennel applied himself on the field as a defensive lineman at Western Kentucky, and in his senior year he impressed his coaches and teammates by switching to the offensive line without complaint. At the time—Crennel graduated from Western Kentucky with a physical education major in 1969—black representation on southern college football teams was still sparse. But when Western Kentucky won six straight games after Crennel's midseason position switch, he was voted team captain and the team's most valuable player.
He had also laid the groundwork for his future coaching career. Hired as a graduate assistant in 1970, he became the team's defensive line coach the following year. As an African-American recruiter in Kentucky's Appalachian mountain regions, Crennel was a novelty but was well liked. He moved to a larger school, Texas Tech, as a defensive assistant in 1975. It was there that he first met Parcells, Texas Tech's defensive coordinator at the time; the two became lifelong friends. He also impressed head coach Steve Sloan, who brought Crennel along when he was hired at the University of Mississippi in 1978.
In Mississippi, the racism that Crennel had mostly avoided as an Army brat confronted him face to face. At one high school, he had to claim to be an Italian named Romano Crennelli. The worst of several incidents came when a semi truck crashed into the Crennel family car. Crennel's wife Rosemary was hospitalized for several weeks and, as he recalled to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, told him, "I don't mind dying, but I'm not dying in Mississippi." Crennel, his wife, and their three daughters fled Mississippi for Georgia Tech in 1980 and the following year he was hired as a special teams assistant by the New York Giants. His first boss in New York was Giants assistant coach, and future New England head coach, Bill Belichick.
Coached Under Parcells
Crennel was promoted to special teams coach in 1983. In the late 1980s, with Parcells as head coach and Belichick as defensive coordinator, the Giants were perennial championship threats, and Crennel absorbed motivational tricks from Parcells and on-field smarts from Belichick. In 1986 he participated in the first of what by 2005 were six Super Bowl games as the Giants won Super Bowl XXI by a score of 39-20 over the Denver Broncos. Moving to the position of defensive line coach in 1990, Crennel once again traveled to the Super Bowl with the victorious Giants squad.
After Parcells became head coach at New England, Crennel moved there as defensive line coach in 1993. The following year, the Patriots won their last seven regular-season games and earned their first playoff berth in eight years. Crennel's skills were apparent as the Patriots held their opponents to an average of 13.3 points per game over that stretch. Crennel and the Patriots made it to Super Bowl XXXI but lost to the Green Bay Packers, 35-21. From 1997 through 1999, Crennel served as defensive line coach for the New York Jets.
In 2000 Crennel spent a year as defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, a step up from his previous positions. He returned to New England as defensive coordinator in 2001, just as the Patriots under Belichick were showing signs of becoming a dynasty. He added Super Bowl rings to his collection in 2001, 2003, and 2004, winning a citation from the Pro Football Writers of America as assistant coach of the year in 2003. The Patriots' defensive statistics were impressive through this entire period, but especially so in 2003, as the defensive squad allowed a league-leading and franchise-record 14.9 points per game.
Went for-in Interviews (0-) (5 )
By 2003, Crennel was recognized as one of the top coaches in the game, and discussion swirled among sportswriters as to his chances of filling one of various open head coach slots. During one grueling 36-hour stretch just before the 2003-04 playoffs, Crennel was interviewed by the New York Giants, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, and Atlanta Falcons teams, coming away empty-handed in all five cases. The even-keeled Crennel took the frustration in stride, telling the New York Daily News that "I didn't go jump off a bridge because it didn't happen.… There are too many good coaches in the NFL that never get an opportunity. I don't see why I should be bitter about that."
Crennel did get his opportunity on February 8, 2005, however, when he was named head coach of the Browns to succeed the fired Butch Davis. He was the Browns' first African-American head coach and just the ninth in NFL history. His father had died just the previous November. Crennel saw himself as a role model, telling Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon-Journal that "In many cases I've been the only African American on a staff or in the neighborhood. The way I carry and conduct myself, I know it carries an impact on the rest of America and African Americans in particular. The best thing I can do for minorities trying to work themselves up the ladder is to be successful."
One sportswriter asked Crennel at his inaugural Browns press conference whether he might face pressure from a different direction: at 57, he was old for a first-time coach and might feel the need to succeed quickly. But the unflappable Crennel took a realistic view of the rebuilding job he faced with the hapless Browns, who were predicted to finish with a 2-14 record in one 2005 poll. Another issue facing Crennel as he began his head coaching career was that new Browns general manager Phil Savage, 18 years Crennel's junior, retained final say over roster decisions. The consensus, though, was that working with Crennel would prove a rewarding experience for all concerned. "I can't ever remember a moment I didn't enjoy working with him," Sloan told Marla Ridenour, and he had other friends and associates around the NFL who would say the same.
Akron Beacon Journal, February 1, 2005; February 15, 2005.
Columbus (OH) Dispatch, February 9, 2005, p. D5.
Daily News (New York), February 3, 2005.
Dayton (OH) Daily News, June 16, 2005, p. C3.
Jet, February 28, 2005, p. 47.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), February 13, 2005, p. C1; March 27, 2005, p. C13.
Sports Illustrated, December 29, 2003, p. 136.
"Romeo Crennel," Cleveland Browns, www.clevelandbrowns.com/team/coaches (August 1, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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