Stump Mitchell was sitting in his office at the Seattle Seahawks facility in February when he got a call from an assistant coach at Bowie State whom he knew from back in the day.
“He wanted an internship with the Redskins and asked if I could talk to Jim Zorn about it,” Mitchell said. “I said, “Jim is not the head coach. Jim is just the offensive coordinator.’
“He said, ‘No, Coach, I just saw a report that said Jim is head coach.’”
Mitchell reacted the same way everyone else in football did when they heard the news.
Get out of town.
“I said, ‘No way, he is the offensive coordinator,’” Mitchell said. “He doesn’t have that kind of pull.”
“He said, ‘Coach, I am here in Maryland, and they are reporting that he has been announced as the head coach.’
“I went out of my office and [Seahawks pro personnel director] Will Lewis was coming down the hall and said, ‘Man, do you believe that Jim just got the head coaching job in Washington?’ It was like, ‘Wow, I couldn’t believe it.’”
Neither could anyone else. But once Lyvonia Albert “Stump” Mitchell got past the surprise of hearing that his friend and colleague had been named head coach of the Washington Redskins, his next thoughts were not about an internship. He thought about a job - for himself.
Mitchell and Zorn had talked about the possibility of Mitchell coming to Washington when they were scouting together at the Senior Bowl and Zorn was under consideration by the Redskins for their open offensive coordinator position.
Zorn and Mitchell knew that, with the decision by Mike Holmgren to step down as coach of the Seahawks after the 2008 season and Jim Mora Jr. already tabbed as his replacement, they would all be looking for jobs soon.
Turns out that Jim Zorn, head coach, did have the pull necessary to bring Mitchell to Washington as his running backs coach (his official title is assistant head coach-running backs).
“Working with Jim for seven years, it was great to have the opportunity to come here and work with him,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, 49, of Kingsland, Ga., is replacing a popular coach with an impressive resume as a player and coach in Earnest Byner, who, as a bonus, also is a former Redskins player.
But Mitchell has his own impressive bona fides. He coached the Seahawks’ running backs for nine seasons and had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his first seven seasons with the club - Ricky Watters and Shaun Alexander, who in 2005 led the NFL and set a franchise record with 1,880 yards rushing.
Mitchell has a solid playing record as well - he served as running back and return man for the Cardinals from 1981 to 1989. Mitchell rushed for 4,649 yards, with a 4.7-yard average and 32 rushing touchdowns. He also was effective catching passes out of the backfield and returning kickoffs and punts.
Mitchell ran back one punt for a touchdown in his nine-year career - the first time he ever touched the ball in a regular-season NFL game.
The team he scored on? The Redskins, in a 40-30 victory that marked the third straight defeat for Joe Gibbs, Washington’s rookie coach.
“The next time I returned a punt, Dexter Manley made the tackle and drove me into the ground,” Mitchell said. “I had to put on a neck collar because I had a stinger.”
Those were the days when the Redskins and Cardinals were division rivals.
“It’s funny, a team that I hated, now I am working for and pulling for,” he said. “When I was playing with the Cardinals, they were rivals of the Redskins. The Redskins were the team, of course, but we were rivals. And then I was competing against Mike Nelms to go to the Pro Bowl as the return guy. It was Nelms who went, and I was the alternate. It’s phenomenal to be here now.”
Being here now, though, means taking on one of the biggest challenges at Redskin Park: coaching Clinton Portis. Gibbs wasn’t crazy about Portis from Monday to Saturday because of his commitment to practice, but he sure loved him on Sunday.
Portis supposedly has a newfound commitment to practice thanks to some newfound money - he got a $9.3 million signing bonus in March and has nearly $16 million guaranteed through 2010.
Mitchell says Portis has shown him a proper level of commitment so far.
“I think Clinton will go to the Pro Bowl,” Mitchell said after the morning session of training camp Thursday at Redskin Park. “He is working hard, just like everybody else. It is Clinton, [executive vice president of football operations] Vinny Cerrato and [Dan] Snyder, but the bottom line is that it is Clinton. He is doing his part. I don’t know what happened in the past, but it doesn’t matter. We are moving forward. It’s a new day.”
You can understand his optimism - particularly after that phone call in February.
Anything, after all, is possible now.