EAGAN, Minn. -- Kevin Stefanski can’t help but smile as he walks down memory lane, pointing out the faces of old friends, colleagues and mentors as he looks at the Minnesota Vikings' team photo from 2008.
He spots the 25-year-old version of himself, sans facial hair, on one knee in front of Vikings coach Brad Childress. He scans the faces in the photo, pointing out five current offensive and defensive coordinators -- names including Leslie Frazier (Buffalo), Eric Bieniemy (Kansas City), Darrell Bevell (Detroit), Chad O’Shea (Miami) and himself. Several who have reached the head-coaching ranks, such as Derek Mason (Vanderbilt) and Mike Tomlin (Steelers), were also part of Childress’ early staffs.
There’s something about this team that reminds Childress of the first staff he was a part of in Philadelphia. Former Eagles coach Andy Reid gave guys such as Childress, Pat Shurmur, Ron Rivera and John Harbaugh an early shot in the NFL. All went on to become head coaches.
When Childress was hired by the Vikings in 2006, he took that same approach, bringing in coaches from diverse backgrounds who are "good people and good teachers."
That included Stefanski, a recent Ivy League grad from Penn doing what he could to break into the NFL. He crossed paths with Childress when Stefanski was an operations intern with the Eagles, at training camp during Childress' final season there as offensive coordinator. Childress gave Stefanski his first full-time job in the NFL, hiring him in 2006 as the assistant to the head coach in Minnesota.
When Stefanski, 37, calls plays Sunday against the Chicago Bears as the Vikings' offensive coordinator, his former boss will be close by. Childress, 63, now works for the Bears, serving as a senior offensive assistant on Matt Nagy’s staff, a role similar to the one Gary Kubiak has on Stefanski’s offensive staff.
Childress is still an important influence in Stefanski’s life, not only as the one who helped him break into the NFL, but as a friend and mentor whose early impact allows Stefanski to live out his dream today.
An endless number of tasks fell to Stefanski as Childress’ right-hand man.
He coordinated with the video department on where it wanted the lifts from which to film practice, and might deliver a message from Childress to the defensive coaches about the two plays they were cutting out of a certain period. He put the travel itinerary together each week and organized a binder thick with names of up-and-coming college coaches, which he regularly updated should the head coach want to peruse a candidate.
"He put out fires before the fires were to ever come up," said Ryan Ficken, an assistant under Childress in 2007-10. "Thought through problems before they arise. A guy like that’s a head coach’s dream."
Stefanski was Childress’ communicator with the rest of the building, whether it be fielding a request from the public-relations staff or grabbing the head coach for an impromptu meeting with general manager Rick Spielman.
"It was a great front-row seat to a head coach’s life," Stefanski said. "I’ll never forget it was just a steady stream of people walking in and out of [Childress’] office needing an answer on this and on that. It was amazing watching Brad and how many meetings he had to take that had nothing to do with football as he started to put a program together."
The son of longtime basketball executive and current Detroit Pistons senior advisor Ed Stefanski, Kevin had been exposed to world-class athletes his entire life. It never gave Childress pause to have Stefanski deliver a letter announcing a fine to Vikings players and get them to sign it.
"He had a lot of jobs and could see over the horizon about what was next. I never had to ask," Childress said. "He’s a great gatekeeper. As a head coach, you’ve got to have somebody to do that, because everybody wants to talk to the head coach. It’s important not to get isolated in that room but by the same token, you need to know what the temperature of the team is."
"It was a great front-row seat to a head coach's life. I'll never forget it was just a steady stream of people walking in and out of [Childress'] office needing an answer on this and on that." Kevin Stefanski
Stefanski told Childress he wanted to get his start in coaching, and the head man saw it as his responsibility to get him there. Childress followed the same model as Reid with his former assistant Sean McDermott, who is now the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. After paying his dues, McDermott earned a job on the defensive staff with the Eagles.
For Stefanski, his first crack came as the assistant quarterbacks coach during one of the craziest Vikings seasons, 2009. He was thrown into a room with coach Kevin Rogers and signal-callers Brett Favre, Tavaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels.
Not a bad place to cut your teeth.
"Truth be told, I’m the fly on the wall," Stefanski said. "I’m speaking very little and listening a lot. I tried to just pick up as much as I could from Kevin Rogers and the QBs in there. Young coach, do you know a lot about football at that point in your life? Not really. So just to have all that stuff being thrown up on the board and talked about was so important and beneficial for me to get a crash course, go right to graduate school in quarterbacking."
When Stefanski was named the interim offensive coordinator in December after John DeFilippo was fired entering Week 15, Childress was one of the first to reach out via text.
His message was simple -- "Great to get a baptism by fire getting thrown in under those circumstances" -- but he knew Stefanski was more than prepared to build and coordinate his own offense. He’d coached quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends with the Vikings. Given the wealth of coaches, systems and personnel Stefanski had seen come through those doors in Minnesota since 2006, Childress had no doubt he was ready.
"With Kevin being exposed to all those guys, I always say this: Coaches are great thieves," Childress said. "They have a way of taking things that are great and making them their own and saying this is part of our offense."
That's why Childress wasn't surprised when Cleveland Browns general manager John Dorsey reached out in January to ask him about Stefanski as a potential candidate for their head-coaching job.
Childress called it a "a no-brainer."
"I said, 'You’ve got to talk to that guy,'" Childress said. "'That guy’s on the rise. It’s just a matter of not if, but when.'"
Childress’ role in Chicago appears to mirror some of what Kubiak does in Minnesota -- no longer on the field on game days but using that big-picture perspective they both honed over their years as head coaches to guide an offense.
"I told him that he needs to suck Gary Kubiak’s mind dry because I always thought he had a great feel for nakeds and movements and boots and moving the quarterback," Childress said. "I know that’s something Kevin values. One of my questions to him was, ‘Are you OK with Gary there?’ And he said, 'Oh yeah, I love [assistant QBs coach] Klint [Kubiak], I love Gary.' I said, 'That’s good, because he has a lot to offer, and it’s great that you guys are able to share.'"
While Childress himself has stepped into an advisory role, his natural instinct to teach and bring along younger coaches, just as he did with Stefanski 13 years ago, hasn’t gone away.
“He’s a good football coach, but he’s a tremendous person with a great sense of humor, which I think you have to have in this business," Childress said of Stefanski. "And I know he’s a great husband and father, too. He’s the whole package and I couldn’t be prouder of him and wish him nothing but the best -- except for twice a year [when the two divisional rivals meet].”