CHARLOTTE - As a player, Rob Chudzinski had to think like a coach in order to be successful.
Yet Chudzinski never really thought about becoming a coach.
But now, 17 years after Dennis Erickson invited him to serve as a graduate assistant at the University of Miami, Chudzinski can't think of possibly doing anything else.
"I really had never thought about it before until I ran into Coach Erickson and we began talking about it," said Chudzinski, the Panthers' offensive coordinator. "I was the type of player that was always squeezing everything out of my abilities. I had to know the game and kind of think like a coach to be able to play.
"When Coach Erickson invited me to come and be a graduate assistant coach, and I thought about it and decided, 'Yeah, I'll try it.'"
Chudzinski recently made another leap of faith that he hopes is as successful as his decision to coach in the first place. He was in a good spot as assistant head coach and tight ends coach for the San Diego Chargers, but he decided to follow Ron Rivera - then the Chargers' defensive coordinator – to Carolina.
"We had never really talked about it until everything started to happen with Ron. That's when he approached me about it, and I was flattered and excited about the opportunity," Chudzinski said. "Knowing what kind of person he is and knowing what kind of head coach I feel like he's going to be, that was certainly a big attraction. Plus, it's about the kind of organization it is and the feel I got when I interviewed here."
And Chudzinski – along with Rivera - seems to have a good feel for what the Panthers need as they try to bounce back from the least productive offensive season in franchise history. He inherits an offense that struggled to score in 2010 but one that will return the majority of the pieces from a run-first unit that had been productive in previous seasons.
Chudzinski wants to return the Panthers to a physical style of offensive football, but not necessarily a conservative style.
"I've always been involved with an attacking style of offense," said Chudzinski, who helped the Chargers lead the NFL in total offense last season. "Balance is extremely important in the things you're doing – run and pass balance – and I think having guys prepared from a technique standpoint and from a fundamental standpoint is extremely important.
"Ultimately what you're looking for is execution and efficiency from the guys running the offense, but football is an aggressive, attacking, physical game. I believe strongly that guys want to play that way."
Chudzinski developed his aggressive approach as a player in high school, when he competed at linebacker and defensive end in addition to his primary role at tight end – the position that earned him a scholarship to Miami.
He was undersized by his own admission but played big, starting for three seasons while being a part of national title teams in 1987 and 1989.
"I've always taken the approach that I need to outwork people - the same approach that I had as a player," Chudzinski said. "The only thing you can control is how hard you work."
After college, Chudzinski stayed in the Miami area and applied those principles to the business world, serving as a consultant for a few years before he ran into Erickson and a coaching career was born.
After two years as a graduate assistant, he took over the tight ends for five seasons, tutoring standouts like Jeremy Shockey – a first-year Panther – Kellen Winslow and Bubba Franks. Then he ascended to offensive coordinator, helping the Hurricanes to another national title his first season in 2001 and to school records for points and total yards in 2002.
In 2004, the NFL came calling when Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis – formerly Miami's head coach – hired him.
"I was at the University of Miami for a long time, but I had always wanted at some point to have a chance to coach in the NFL," Chudzinski said. "We had been real successful at Miami, so I felt like it was time for the next challenge."
Over the next seven seasons, Chudzinski had a pair of stints with both the Browns and Chargers.
In 2007, as Cleveland's offensive coordinator, he led a lightly regarded offense headed by quarterback Derek Anderson to a 10-6 record, with Anderson and three of his offensive teammates making the Pro Bowl.
"It was a fun year in a lot of ways," Chudzinski said. "We kind of turned the whole thing around after a lot of people had counted us out."
Now, "Chud" hopes to do more of the same with the Panthers.
"I'm really anxious to get started," he said. "I'm excited about the whole thing, just champing at the bit waiting to get out there."