Behind the Browns debacle: Kokinis lost power struggle with Mangini
Sources said George Kokinis felt marginalized in Browns front office
Kokinis believed he would have final say over Browns personnel decisions
Eric Mangini dominated all issues regarding player acquisition, evaluation
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 George Kokinis -- who was literally shown the door Monday night, just eight games into his first season on the job -- may be the ultimate example of the instability and dysfunction that reigns within the Browns organization.
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 Eric Mangini, one that soured almost immediately despite the long and close friendship the men had enjoyed, and the fact Mangini had hand-picked Kokinis for the job and recommended him to Browns owner Randy Lerner.
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' Bill Belichick era of the mid-90s.
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 Ozzie Newsome has had successful, power-sharing partnerships with head coaches Brian Billick and John Harbaugh.
But it quickly became apparent to Kokinis, a source said, that Mangini intended to run things more like his former mentor, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who has final say and speaks as the only voice of the organization. In that role, the expectation for Kokinis apparently was for him to be like the seldom-seen and seldom-heard Scott Pioli in New England, the respected ex-Patriots personnel man who left this year to take the Chiefs general manager position.
The difference in management approaches led to conflict between Mangini and Kokinis when different opinions surfaced in regard to personnel matters.
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