Vikings’ Kevin Stefanski gave up basketball early, made a name for himself in football
EAGAN, Minn. -- For much of his life, Kevin Stefanski was best known for being Ed Stefanski’s son.
The elder Stefanski was a basketball star at the University of Pennsylvania and a 10th-round draft pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976. He later became a longtime NBA general manager and is now a Detroit Pistons executive.
So did his son dabble much in basketball while growing up?
“In his mind, he was a poor man’s Jason Kidd,” Ed Stefanski said with a laugh while referring to the hall of fame point guard. “Kevin had a very high basketball I.Q. and that was it. He wasn’t Jason Kidd, I’ll tell you that.”
Stefanski didn’t make it past the high school junior varsity in hoops, but that was no big deal. He turned to football and is now making a name for himself in the NFL as interim offensive coordinator for the Vikings.
Stefanski, the longest-tenured member of the Vikings’ coaching staff at 13 years, was promoted Dec. 11 by head coach Mike Zimmer from quarterbacks coach to replace John DeFillippo, who was fired in his first season on the job that day. In his debut last Sunday, the Vikings defeated Miami 41-17, rolling up their most points in three years and 418 yards of total offense.
Stefanski’s second game at the controls will be at noon Sunday, Dec. 23, against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. That’s a half mile from Little Caesars Arena, where the Pistons play and Ed Stefanski serves as senior adviser to owner Tom Gores. Stefanski’s father and mother, Karen, both will be at Sunday’s game.
“My (three) brothers and I played basketball growing up, but at least for me, football became something I was much better at than I was at basketball,” Stefanski said of not following in his father’s footsteps. “So I fell in love with the game way back when.”
Stefanski, 36, was a very good football player. He starred at quarterback and safety in high school at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia. He then became a two-time honorable mention All-Ivy League safety and the team captain as a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.
So Stefanski did follow his father when it came to his college choice. And he said his dad has been instrumental in providing him advice even if he is in another sport.
“Having him in this profession, albeit basketball, is helpful because the pressures of winning and losing and the beauty of our sport and (his father’s) sport is that you get charged every week with a win or a loss and he’s somebody that will commiserate with a loss and understand how it goes with a win,” Stefanski said.
Throughout his life, Stefanski has been doing a lot of winning. St. Joseph’s won the Philadelphia Catholic League championship when he was a sophomore in 1997 and made it the title game in 1999 before losing when Stefanski was sidelined with a broken ankle.
At Penn, Stefanski was on teams that won Ivy League titles in 2000, 2002 and 2003. And with the Vikings, Stefanski has helped coach teams that have won four NFC North titles and earned five playoff berths. They could clinch a wild-card spot as soon as Sunday.
“Everybody back here in his community in Philly is excited for him,” said Gil Brooks, who was Stefanski’s high school coach and now practices law in the area. “We had a boring Giants game on TV here last Sunday (a 17-0 loss to Tennessee), so we couldn’t see the game against Miami, but thank goodness for (the) Red Zone (TV package). A lot of us, even rival coaches from back when he played, were watching what we could see and texting back and forth.”
Brooks remains grateful he was able to get Stefanski to attend St. Joseph’s rather than rival Archbishop Carroll, where his older brother, Ed Stefanski Jr., was a star linebacker. Stefanski was good friends with Sean Killeen, then a St. Joseph’s linebacker. So Brooks and Killeen worked over Stefanski and landed him.
Stefanski played mostly on special teams as a sophomore in 1997 when St. Joseph’s beat Archbishop Carroll for the championship when Stefanski Jr. was a senior.
For the next two seasons, Stefanski took over as a starter at quarterback and safety. He was the Catholic League MVP in 1999, and Brooks is certain St. Joseph’s wouldn’t have lost 10-7 to Roman Catholic in the championship game had Stefanski not been injured.
“I always kid him that he played like Harrison Smith,” Brooks said, comparing him to the hard-hitting Vikings safety. “You never met a nicer person off the football field, but on the field he was an utter assassin. He would rip your heart out as soon as he said hello to you. He had more big hits than any other defensive back I ever coached.”
Told what Brooks said, Smith was flattered.
“I take that as a compliment,” Smith said. “I’ve always liked how (Stefanski) operates. You can just tell how much he loves the game. I’m sure he was out there banging people.”
Because of his ability as a defensive back, Stefanski played only that position at Penn. He moved into the starting lineup as a freshman and was the Quaker’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“At that time, we were more settled at quarterback than we were in the secondary,” said Al Bagnoli, who was then head coach at Penn and is now at Columbia. “He turned out to be a very good player and he was a very good leader. The other kids on the team just gravitated toward him.”
It wasn’t long before Bagnoli realized Stefanski had the makeup to be a coach. After five seasons with the Quakers, which included one redshirt year after after suffering an early-season injury one fall, Bagnoli named him a football operations assistant in 2005.
“He was a bright, hard-working, loyal and creative guy,” Bagnoli said. “He had a unique skill set relating to people and getting along with people. We figured he was going to be heading for bigger and better things.”
It didn’t take long for Stefanski to get a full-time job in the NFL. During Philadelphia Eagles training camp in 2005, Stefanski had worked as an intern.
Brad Childress, then the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, took notice of his smarts and work ethic. And when Childress took over the Vikings in 2006, he brought Stefanski along as assistant to the head coach.
“He grew up around athletics with his father, and that wasn’t daunting to him,” said Childress, who coached the Vikings from 2006-10 and is now head coach of the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football, a league that beings play in February. “He was a good communicator. He listened. He understood what he was supposed to do, so I kind of earmarked him to come join me in Minnesota.”
As Childress’ assistant, Stefanski handled scheduling details. He served as a liaison between Childress and the players.
“You’ve got to present yourself in the right way because if you show any weakness, those guys will climb all over you,” Childress said. “But he was always good in front of the crowd.”
In 2009, Childress considered Stefanski ready to coach on the field, and made him assistant quarterbacks coach. He was 27, and a primary pupil was Brett Favre, the eventual hall of famer who turned 40 that season.
The backup quarterback then was Tarvaris Jackson, who was 26. He said Stefanski wasn’t at all in awe working with the legendary Favre.
“I really like Kevin,” Favre said recently on the SiriusXM NFL Radio show he hosts. “I thought he was one of those young, really bright minds. The players really loved him.”
Childress said the fun-loving Favre used to joke around plenty with Stefanski, and the young assistant often dished it back.
“We don’t have enough time for Favre stories,” Stefanski said. “Brett was a great player here (from 2009-10). Was great for me as a young coach being in that room.”
Stefanski served as assistant quarterbacks coach through the 2013 season. For the first two years, he also worked closely with Jackson, who played for the Vikings from 2006-10.
“He did a great job,” said Jackson, now an assistant at Alabama State. “He was always a very knowledgeable guy for being such a young guy. He was always prepared. It’s great to see the road that he’s been on.”
Stefanski stayed on with the Vikings after Childress was fired midway through the 2010 season and served on coach Leslie Frazier’s staff until Frazier was fired after the 2013 season. When Zimmer took over in 2014, he retained Stefanski.
“People told me he’s smart, was a good guy and a hard worker,” Zimmer said of his decision to keep him.
Until being named interim offensive coordinator, Stefanski served under Zimmer as tight ends coach from 2014-15, running backs coach in 2016 and quarterbacks coach last year and the first 13 games of this season. Zimmer said having coached so many positions helps Stefanski greatly in his new role.
Stefanski helped quarterback Case Keenum have a career year last season after he took over for the injured Sam Bradford in the second game. Keenum threw for 3,547 yards with 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in helping Minnesota reach the NFC Championship Game.
This season, Stefanski has worked closely with Kirk Cousins, who signed a three-year, $84 million contact int March to come over from the Washington Redskins and take over at quarterback. Zimmer has expected Cousins to regularly offer suggestions to Stefanski considering the rapport they have developed.
“He’s very calm, very cool and collected,” Cousins said. “I think that’s one trait for me that stands out when working with him. I think it serves him well.”
Entering the Miami game, one of Stefanski’s strengths wasn’t experience. He had never called plays in a football game, and had moved down from the booth, where he watched games as quarterbacks coach, to the field.
In the days leading up to the game, Zimmer helped Stefanski prepare by having game situations pop up on a screen and Stefanski would then call a play.
“Coach Zimmer had a good tip, something that he does and has done for a long time, basically you run the play and you say what you may have called there,” Stefanski said. “Then you watch the play and you say, ‘Would that play have been good or not.’”
The exercise worked. With Zimmer stressing the need to run more, the Vikings rolled up 220 yards, their highest total on the ground since 263 on Nov. 15, 2015 at Oakland. They scored their most points since a 49-17 drubbing of the New York Giants on Dec. 27, 2015.
“I had a lot of confidence because of the players and the coaches that were helping me,” Stefanski said of calling plays. “It was different, but once I got through that first series and figured out you press a button to talk to the quarterback, it was, I don’t want to say easy … I told Zimmer, if I can’t figure that out, we have some problems.”
After the game, Stefanski was pressing buttons of another kind. He received a large number of text messages offering congratulations.
Among those firing off texts to him were Brooks, Bagnoli and Childress.
“I said, ‘Quite a debut, 40-plus points for the first time in three years,’” Childress said. “I said, ‘Pretty darn good.’ … I wasn’t surprised. He’s a smart, articulate guy who can teach football forward and backward.”