By now, I imagine your typical Cleveland Browns fan has started to look back on 1996-98, the three seasons they had no NFL team to follow, with a mixture of nostalgia and fondness. Given the almost constant state of despair Browns fans have resided in since the franchise was re-born as an expansion entry in 1999, who could blame them for remembering those days as relatively pain-free compared to the misery to come?
This week's surprisingly sudden departure/dismissal of general manager
Multiple NFL sources I spoke to this week about Kokinis's brief and tumultuous tenure painted a portrait of a deeply flawed working relationship between Kokinis and first-year Browns head coach
League sources with direct knowledge of the situation say Kokinis quickly found himself caught in an inner-organizational power struggle with Mangini that he was both ill-equipped to fight in terms of having established allies in the building, and temperamentally disinclined to wage. Sources said Kokinis felt marginalized within the Browns front office, lacked anything close to the personnel decision-making authority his contract called for, and was ultimately scape-goated by Mangini when the repeated failures by the Browns (1-7) this season intensified the heat on the new coach.
"He thought he was getting the job of a lifetime working with one of his best friends, but it wasn't that at all,'' said a league source who is familiar with both Kokinis and the Browns organization. "It was working for Eric Mangini, not with him. Eric was in charge of everything, and George resented that. It wasn't the job he thought he'd taken. It wasn't the partnership as he thought it would be. And he would have never taken it if he thought it was going to go that way.
"Ultimately what happened was he started to question his own existence in the organization. He was very unhappy. He takes the job, and from day one it was like they both had recipes for chicken soup, but they ended up trying to combine the recipes and all they did was ruin the dish.''
When the Browns, at Mangini's behest, hired Kokinis away from Baltimore, where he was the Ravens pro personnel director, Cleveland had to grant him final authority over personnel decision-making for the job to qualify as a promotion instead of a lateral move. That decision-making power was a sticking point early in negotiations between the Browns and Kokinis, a source said, but the Ravens demanded it be part of the deal in exchange for releasing Kokinis from his contract.
Multiple sources said Kokinis had some misgivings about leaving Baltimore, because he enjoyed his job in the Ravens' well-respected personnel department and his wife loved living in the area. But he was persuaded to take the job by Mangini, with whom he once roomed with in Cleveland when both were low-level employees in the Browns'
Mangini and Kokinis had remained close, and Mangini, as the Jets new head coach in 2006, had tried unsuccessfully to hire his old friend away from the Ravens personnel department. Baltimore blocked the move that time, but each summer Kokinis continued to deliver the keynote address at Mangini's Connecticut-based charitable foundation, and even had the role of awarding a new computer to one lucky student each year.
But the final personnel authority that Kokinis thought he had secured upon taking the Browns job is said to have wound up being a reality on paper only, as Mangini dominated all issues regarding player acquisition and evaluation.
"Two weeks into it, George is sitting there saying, 'Why am I here?' '' said another league source. "George gets there and finds out he's a glorified personnel director. He gets out-voted on every front, and he doesn't really have the personality to fight that. He went along with it and hoped it worked out, but it didn't.''
According to a league source, the two men came into their working relationship with different ideas of how their partnership would work in the Browns front office. Kokinis thought it would be modeled after Baltimore, where longtime general manager
But it quickly became apparent to Kokinis, a source said, that Mangini intended to run things more like his former mentor, Patriots head coach
The difference in management approaches led to conflict between Mangini and Kokinis when different opinions surfaced in regard to personnel matters.
"Mangini thought he needed him, and wanted him there, but he thought George would be compliant once he got the job,'' a league source said. "George is a huge believer in going young and building through the draft, and Eric is too, to a degree. But he's influenced by Belichick and
"So they sign a bunch of old Jets that Mangini had in New York. And they trade
The different approaches to personnel led to different evaluations of the direction the Browns should go at the game's most crucial position, quarterback. Mangini benched
"I'm sure that was the first real red flag for George, with Mangini naming Quinn the starter and then pulling him after 10 quarters this season,'' a league source said. "George couldn't have been comfortable with that. I've even heard that George didn't know that Braylon Edwards was being traded until it happened.
"He just got caught in a power struggle, and he had no allies there. It was a stacked deck against him when he got there, and then it completely went against him as things evolved. George is a loyalist if there's ever been one, but he was in a very tough spot. George is a victim right now. But there have been other victims in Cleveland along the way. Some of them just survived longer than he did.''
In a session with the Cleveland-area media Tuesday, Mangini deflected most questions about Kokinis's abrupt departure, saying "I can tell you that for a variety of reasons things didn't work out. You never go into a situation like this with the intention of it not working out. We felt that, organizationally, this was the best decision in order to move forward."
In recent weeks, Kokinis knew his influence had diminished so dramatically within the organization in relation to Mangini's that sources said he was not surprised by his removal Monday. Browns president
"As Eric started taking on more and more power, [Kokinis] kind of saw what was happening and really kind of withdrew,'' a league source said. "George has a great work ethic, and he'd rather sit and watch tape in his office than anything else. He figured out where things were headed. The owner hired Eric Mangini. George was basically hired by Mangini. So if you're in that front office, who are you going to side with? It's not that tough to figure out. I think he's known for about two months now what was coming.''
According to sources, Lerner asked Kokinis to resign, and when Kokinis refused, made it clear to Kokinis the club would seek a dismissal "for cause,'' citing a lack of performance of his duties as GM. That would allow the Browns to contend they have no obligation to pay the balance of the five-year contract (at about $1 million per year) it gave Kokinis in January.
"They're going to look at his phone records and try to make some case that says he was trying to give away trade secrets to other teams or something,'' a league source said. "But it's not going to stick. It won't work. They're just trying to find something to prove a lack of performance.''
A league source said Kokinis has retained a "high-profile" attorney with experience arguing against the NFL to represent him in the event the Browns continue to contest his contract. "I think George is going to kick ass, and the Browns will end up caving in,'' a league source said. "I don't think they have a leg to stand on.''
While Mangini, by all accounts, won his power struggle with his longtime friend and former roommate and consolidated his own power, multiple sources say he is far from safe as the Browns head coach beyond the second half of this season. Lerner, sources said, is dissatisfied with Mangini's performance as well, and will likely bow to the public pressure calling for a new Browns head coach in 2010.
"So this week they sacrificed George Kokinis,'' a league source said. "They stuck his head on a stick, stuck it out the window and the fans cheered. For all of about 20 minutes. But then it's, 'Wait a minute. This isn't really the guy who was responsible.' This is Randy Lerner being under the spell of Eric Mangini. To a degree. [Mangini's] done at the end of the year. And a lot of it is deserved. He's got no chance at this point. The fans are never going to accept the guy. It just wasn't his turn [to go] yet.''