Mike Priefer did something Sunday night that no other person has done since Jan. 1, 1995.
With Cleveland Browns’ head coach Kevin Stefanski quarantined at home due to him contracting COVID-19, Priefer — the team’s special teams coordinator — was inserted as acting head coach for the Browns’ first round playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, their AFC North rival.
And the Browns capitalized on the Steelers’ early mistakes, ran the ball well and stormed their way to an improbable 48-37 victory with Priefer, a 1989 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, calling the shots from the sidelines.
Stefanski wasn’t the only person absent for Cleveland. The club was also without four other assistant coaches, both of its starting corners and a Pro Bowl guard due to COVID-19 protocols.
None of the absences seemed to matter. The Browns jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead, recovering a botched Steelers snap in the end-zone on the first play from scrimmage. Moments later, after an interception thrown by Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield hit Jarvis Landry for a 40-yard touchdown. The Browns led 28-0 at the end of the first quarter and 35-10 at halftime.
The win makes Priefer 1-1 as a head coach. He previously filled in for the Minnesota Vikings in 2016 when Mike Zimmer had eye surgery.
Hahaha Ha. Put Mike Priefer in the Hall of Fame— Scott Strasemeier (@ScottStras) January 11, 2021
Just how the Browns drew it up. Mike Priefer: Coach of the Year.— Adam Hirshfield (@ahirshfield) January 11, 2021
Any of the #NFL teams with HC vacancies put in a request yet to interview Mike Priefer?— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) January 11, 2021
It’s been a long journey for Priefer, who came to Annapolis as a quarterback in the late 80s. He switched positions to wide receiver and played on Navy’s scout team for a few seasons before moving to Navy’s lightweight team.
Priefer was a helicopter pilot during the Gulf War, “specializing in anti-submarine warfare along with search-and-rescue missions,” according to Bill Wagner’s story on him at the Capital Gazette. Priefer’s football-coaching career began in 1994 when he returned Annapolis and joined the Navy staff as a graduate assistant under Charlie Weatherbie. Ken Niumatalolo was the running backs coach at Navy around that time.
“He’s one of the most respected special teams coaches in the NFL,” Niumatalolo told the Capital. “I’m not at all surprised because Prief is really smart and a hard worker. You don’t stay in the league as long as he has unless you’re a great coach.”
After Navy, Priefer worked under Jim Tressel at Youngstown State, coaching offensive line, tight ends and special teams. The Penguins won a Division I-AA (now FCS) championship in 1997, Priefer’s first year on staff. Priefer then had stints at VMI and Northern Illinois before jumping to the NFL in 2002 as an assistant special teams coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Since then, he’s worked for the Kansas City Chiefs, the Denver Broncos, the Vikings and the Browns, holding the title of special teams coordinator at every stop. Priefer and his father were once special teams coaches in the NFL at the same time; Chuck Priefer last worked for the Detroit Lions from 1997 to 2006.
Priefer’s career hasn’t been without controversy though. In 2014, he was suspended from the Vikings for two games after an investigation confirmed there was credibility to former punter Chris Kluwe’s claim that Priefer had said, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.” Priefer initially denied Kluwe’s claims, but then expressed regret and apologized. Priefer later said, “What I learned is that you can’t say hurtful things about people, period. No matter where you are or who you are talking to.”
Born in Cleveland, Priefer grew up as a fan of the Browns. Now, he’s the first since Bill Belichick to lead the team to a playoff victory.
Heading into the game vs. the Steelers, Priefer said, “I will do whatever is asked of me to help the Cleveland Browns get a win on Sunday night. I do love this city, I think you guys know that, and our fans deserve our best effort.”
It’s unclear if Priefer will be acting as the head coach next weekend, when the Browns visit the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round.