There's no keeping him down: How Sean McDermott ascended to coach of the Bills - The Buffalo News

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There's no keeping him down: How Sean McDermott ascended to coach of the Bills

Sean McDermott was a coaching prospect, strolling the Philadelphia Eagles' practice facility with two wise assistants who owned whistles older than he was.

He walked alongside defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower, seven decades of NFL and college coaching experience between them.

McDermott, known for continuously sopping every ounce of insight, remembers the stark words the oracles imparted that day.

You think you're different, Sean. You'll see. You'll get fired, too.

A month ago, McDermott flashed back to those words. Seated outside the locker rooms at St. John Fisher College, where his Buffalo Bills had just completed practice, he paused a moment and squinted his eyes in the morning sun.

"In the back of my mind," McDermott said, "I was going, 'I am different.' "

He was not different, at least not when it came to avoiding the employment executioner's axe. Although it took a decade, with Dowhower long into retirement and Johnson deceased, their words came true.

McDermott had risen steadily from intern to scouting administrative assistant to head coach Andy Reid's gopher to defensive quality control guy to assistant defensive backs coach to secondary coach to linebackers coach and finally in 2009 to defensive coordinator when Johnson was diagnosed with a spinal tumor.

McDermott's trajectory ascended with persistence. He grew up an Eagles fan in suburban Philly, found a way inside his hometown organization and kept getting promoted.

Until the day his life changed forever.

"He had 12 years there," his father, Rich McDermott, said. "It was a nice, floating boat with no choppy waves.

"Then the way it slid, it became a total disaster."

Reid fired Sean McDermott after the 2010 season, the first time in Reid's dozen years as Eagles coach he'd fired a coordinator.

The Eagles' defense ranked 12th in yards, but 21st in points and dead last in the red zone. They gave up a team-record 31 touchdown passes.

"It went down the way it went down," McDermott said, concluding the anecdote about believing he was different. "That happens in coaching."

McDermott as Eagles secondary coach in 2005. (Getty Images)

Reid's reasons for dismissing McDermott were diplomatic if not sincere. Reid presented his decision as a gift, relief from the near impossibility of replacing Johnson's revered soul. Reid told him, "I don't think it's ever going to be enough," and tried to explain what a favor it was to fired.

McDermott was reduced to cinders, pulverized, for the first time in his life a failure.

He wasn't special.

But the lament was brief. McDermott quickly centered himself with his hallmark, an attribute those closest to him say is otherworldly willpower.

They insist he's different, and not slightly. He isn't hardwired anything like the average human, a disparity he says he's known since he was 5 years old.

"That setback was a setup, really, for a comeback for myself and the mental toughness part of life," McDermott said.

A day after being fired, McDermott dashed to an interview with the Denver Broncos and was offered their coordinator job. But he previously phoned Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, a former Eagles assistant, who told him not to sign anything. The Panthers dispatched a plane to pick up McDermott in Denver.

McDermott agreed to be Carolina's coordinator. While walking through Charlotte's airport to board a flight back home to his family, a Philadelphia sportscaster called him for a comment about the job switch.

"Of course, all these thoughts run through your mind," McDermott said of his chance to rip the Eagles. "But I think that was one of those swing moments.

"I could have very easily [unloaded]. But what good comes from that? So from that moment on it was, 'Where am I going?'"

Impressions made

McDermott strung together six impressive seasons in Carolina, winning three straight NFC South crowns and reaching the Super Bowl two seasons ago.

Nobody can guarantee McDermott will win here. He is Buffalo's 20th head coach. Only two have been successful enough to make the Wall of Fame, back-to-back AFL champ Lou Saban and four-time Super Bowl participant Marv Levy.

The rest are a collection of former players, retreads, a lone college promotion and plenty of accomplished NFL coordinators on the rise who couldn't make a lasting, positive impact on a franchise with a .465 winning percentage and 17 postseason appearances through 57 seasons.

Some made stronger first impressions than others, but those who've worked with McDermott note his striking personality and circuitry that sounds aberrant.

Reid, now coach of the Kansas City Chiefs: "You could just tell by how he handled himself that he was destined for great things. I love the kid. I love him to death. He's a great person. I care for him a lot."

Jon Gruden, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders coach: "He is special. I know it all comes down to winning and losing, but if you can find a better leader, a better coach/teacher, hire him because I haven't seen many guys come down the pike like McDermott."

McDermott draws rave reviews for his ability to teach. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers coach and McDermott's teammate at William and Mary: "I've really gotten to appreciate his approach, his commitment to improvement, the professionalism in which he's gone about honing his skills for the opportunity that he has. ... The journey that he’s walked is not an easy one."

Joe Banner, former Eagles President and Cleveland Browns CEO: "I don't think anybody to this day can meet Sean and not see the presence."

Dick Vermeil, former Eagles and St. Louis Rams coach, who met McDermott last summer: "I saw a demeanor about him and a passion in him that would be easily respected by players. I thought I read in him the ability to communicate and connect with people. If you can't do those things, then you can't lead and you can't coach."

Vicky Johnson, Jim Johnson's widow: "Sean is a man of his word. He has very strong convictions. I don't think you ever have to wonder where you stand with him."

Quintin Mikell, retired safety who played eight years with McDermott in Philadelphia and one in Carolina: "He got scapegoated in Philly for some things not in his control. The way things went down when he got fired, I disagreed with it. He deserved better. The NFL is not fair sometimes, but just look at him now. He took it on the chin. He went back to work. Now he's a head coach."

Banner: "I've worked with some really successful people, and there are some I'd put equal. But I can't point to somebody and say I think they know the game or know what leads to winning or know how to evaluate a player or any elements of strategy better than Sean. He's as compelling in those ways as much as anybody I can name."

Gruden: "Give him a chance. They have some issues. They've got to find out where they're going on offense and make some transitions on defense. It's not going to happen overnight. But for crying out loud he's going to work like hell to get it done."

Vermeil: "Just sit back and watch him grow. I think the seeds have been planted by the right people in the right soil."

Something to prove

Much has been made of Sean McDermott's prep wrestling exploits.

We'll probably come to groan at the mention.

Were you aware Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard? How about Chris Drury pitching in the Little League World Series? Did you know Nick O'Leary's grandfather is Jack Nicklaus?

Along those lines, prepare to hear broadcasters repetitively mention how much of a bastard McDermott was on the mats for La Salle High in suburban Philadelphia.

But what teaches us more about McDermott isn't how phenomenal he was at wrestling, but why he stopped.

Avis McDermott saw a flyer posted at Greentree Elementary and signed up her sons, 4-year-old Sean and 6-year-old Tim, for the Great Valley Wrestling Association. Had the flyer advertised a soccer or basketball league, then that's probably the sport her household terrors would've begun with.

Rich McDermott, a college football coach and teacher, wasn't bullish on the idea. He didn't wrestle and was apprehensive about his boys being introduced to competition in such a physical way.

"I thought this was a first big step," Rich McDermott said. "You'd think T-ball, but wrestling? Are you kidding me?

"But we tried Tonka trucks and all that, and that just wasn't the answer."

Tim is 20 months older, but Sean always practiced with him, a routine that would hold throughout much of their youth sports.

Sean needed to work harder to keep up, and he did, and he did.

"The very first time they wrestled, I cried," said Avis, who works in the financial industry. "I didn't know what to expect. I'd never seen any wrestling.

Avis McDermott hopes Buffalo sports fans warm to her son. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

"My baby! And everybody is yelling and screaming, and I'm crying. I'm thinking, 'What have I done?!' And a man came over and asked, 'Would you like me to tell you what's going on?' "

While Tim wrestled, Sean would sit in his anxious mother's lap. She would pump Sean's spirits and alleviate any nervousness – likely more for her than for him – with superhuman imagery.

"I didn't want my kid hurt," Avis said. "I would say, 'Today, you're going to be Spider-Man,' or, 'Today, you're Incredible Hulk.' Every other Saturday we picked a new monster.

"I wanted him to be the toughest."

Mom needn't worry.

Little Sean was dominant from the hop. His opponents required the pep talks.

"His ability to withstand pain is incredible," said Tim McDermott, who played football at Cornell and is chief business officer for the Philadelphia Union soccer club. Tim also has been a marketing executive with the Eagles and Washington Capitals.

"If you would watch his workouts, he would push himself beyond the point you'd think he could go. They were extraordinary. As a little kid, 6 years old, there was a toughness to him and a fierceness that was just steel and iron."

No, not 6 years old. Earlier than that, Sean estimated.

When did McDermott realize he was unusual?

"I don't want to paint a picture I'm not human," McDermott said. "But I don't know, I just ...

"You hear about guys who are obsessive. It's more an internal drive to be the best."

He explained when he was 4 years old and weighed 38 pounds, he went to a state tournament to watch Tim compete. Sean said to himself, "This is what I want. I can do this."

A year later, Sean won his first state tournament. He remembered thinking one championship wasn't enough. He burned to do it again.

To repeat: He was 5.

"That's when I look back," McDermott said, "at the first moment I thought, 'Hey, something's different.' I wanted it.

"Sounds intense, I guess. But that's just how I was born. That's just the way I'm made."

McDermott won state titles at 5, 7 and 9 years old. He matured into a multi-positional football star at La Salle High, indelibly on the field. He was the quarterback, safety, kicker, punter and returner.

And he remained staggeringly great at wrestling.

To meet McDermott's competitive desires, his dad would drive him from their home in Lansdale, Pa., 30 miles north to sling weights at Eskimo's Gym in Allentown and 30 miles south to train at the world-renowned – now notorious – Foxcatcher Farm wrestling camp in Newtown Square, Pa.

Eskimo's Gym was where metro Philly's top football players and wrestlers gathered for spartan, two-hour weight-lifting sessions. College football coaches such as Pitt and Texas A&M head coach Jackie Sherrill, Pitt and Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Moore and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz would drop in to scope recruits.

"You want to work? Let's go," George "Eskimo" Joseph said of his gym's mentality. "You don't want to work? Get the hell out.

"Sean was willing to do anything you told him to do. He consumed everything you could tell him and was eager to learn. He wanted to succeed no matter how much work it took."

Foxcatcher Farm was depicted in the 2014 film "Foxcatcher," which received five Academy Award nominations and starred Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo.

The facility was run by John E. du Pont, who sponsored and housed many Olympic wrestlers on his family's 800-acre estate.

In 1996, when McDermott was in college, du Pont shot and killed Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz on the Foxcatcher grounds. Du Pont was found guilty but deemed mentally ill and died in prison in 2010.

Before Foxcatcher Farm lost its international glory, invitations for prep wrestlers to train there were prestigious.

Says Jon Gruden of McDermott: "A lot of guys can do the preparation, but they can't present it to the players. This guy has great work ethic and very good presentation skills."

"I'll never forget," Rich McDermott said. "They give you the singlet with the Foxcatcher logo on it, and it's, like, 'Whoa!'

"But it's freestyle wrestling, so you would take a hanky and stick it in your singlet because there were no timeouts for blood. If you got hurt out there, you just wiped it off. That's how intense it was. Wow, it was brutal."

Over Sean McDermott's junior and senior seasons at La Salle, he went 61-0, winning two state and two national championships at 171 pounds.

An undefeated record, however, wasn't perfect enough.

Within those 61 matches, he was taken down once. Semifinals of his senior year, McDermott was way ahead at the end of the match and headed toward another title defense.

"I let up," McDermott said. "He didn't do anything fancy. As soon as he took me down, it hit me: That was the first time.

"You have these markers through life where you say, 'I want that one back.' "

He was an unstoppable wrestler, but after the referee raised McDermott's arm for the second national title, that phase of his life was over. Colleges surely wanted him to wrestle for them. He wasn't afraid of testing himself against the next level of competition.

His fearlessness, in fact, is what led him to abandon wrestling and focus on becoming the best college football player he could.

McDermott didn't generate as much football praise as he believed he should've. Division I-A schools flirted with him as a junior, but scholarship offers didn't come after his senior season.

McDermott chose to join the Division I-AA football program at William and Mary sans scholarship.

Without hesitation, McDermott said he "100 percent" would have dropped football and pursued college wrestling had his success in those sports been switched.

"I embrace that underdog role," McDermott said, "and proving people wrong motivates the crap out of me."

Before his college football career was over, McDermott earned a scholarship, became a captain, was an all-conference safety and twice was selected Atlantic 10 all-academic.

In his sights

Anyone who listens to McDermott speak knows how much he stresses "the process." He said "process" eight times in his introductory news conference. He said it to reporters nine times on the final day of minicamp before breaking for the summer.

Part of McDermott's personal process apparently is the vision quest.

"As a little kid if you walked into our rooms," Tim McDermott said, "they were decorated in Sports Illustrated photos. Sean would rip out football picture after football picture and tape them up on his wall.

"It was part of his passion to compete, the passion to be the best."

Rich and Avis McDermott agree motivation was an issue for Tim McDermott. Big bro wasn't a slacker, a 5-foot-9 prep quarterback, recruited to play baseball at Duke but a letterman at kicker and punter for Cornell.

Even so, their dad said, "Sean was more determined."

Avis one day made a sign for Tim's bedroom, to remind him every day what his priorities should be:

1. God
2. Family
3. Education
4. Sports

Sean didn't require nudging, but the sixth-grader was angry he didn't get marching orders, too. So Avis listed the same priorities for him.

Mom's precepts certainly carried more gravitas than the poster of Sean's favorite player, linebacker and pop-culture flicker Brian Bosworth.

Sean, a voracious reader of leadership books, constantly is on the lookout for any morsel of insight that extracts the maximum from the people around him and builds organizational unity.

But posters, even as an adult, have been kindling for McDermott's fiery ambition.

McDermott once tacked onto the back of his Eagles office door Sports Business Journal's annual list of the top 40 sports leaders under 40 years old. The reason? He wanted to crack the list with his brother because it would be a rare accomplishment.

They didn't pull it off, but you can bet McDermott expected to.

Before that, McDermott stared at another image on the back of his door. Unseen when the door was open, visible only to him in private, was a newspaper centerfold.

"I slept in my office quite a bit, so the first person I saw when I woke up was Jon Gruden," McDermott said with a laugh. "It forced me to get up early."

McDermott emulated Gruden since 1995, when Gruden was the Eagles' hotshot offensive coordinator and McDermott was a security guard at the team's West Chester University training camp.

Gruden took over the Raiders before winning a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers, the youngest head coach to do so.

"I made it a goal of mine," McDermott said, "when I first saw Jon Gruden at training camp. I said, 'I'm going to be that.' "

Gruden doesn't remember McDermott from West Chester but has met him since.

Known for heaping praise -- sometimes hyperbolically -- in his role as ESPN's "Monday Night Football" analyst, Gruden didn't hold back when asked about McDermott and the Bills.

"When you look at the great coaches, No. 1, they're highly motivated people," Gruden said. "They love what they do. He's a grinder. He puts the time in, researches, studies.

"No. 2, he's a great teacher. A lot of guys can do the preparation, but they can't present it to the players. This guy has great work ethic and very good presentation skills.

"The players appreciate that great combination because everything he says and everything they do from the way they travel to the way they practice to the way they meet, he has a lot of charisma and intelligence and showcases his preparation."

Tomlin first witnessed McDermott's doggedness on William and Mary's practice field. Tomlin, an upperclassman receiver, went against McDermott in practice for a couple years and then got a head start in coaching.

One of Tomlin's favorite memories, and an example of McDermott's resolve to be a complete coach, was when McDermott turned up at a couples retreat/coaching clinic presented by Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

McDermott went stag, nevertheless eager to learn how the coaching lifestyle would affect his future family along with whatever strategic tips he could glean.

"My wife always laughs about that," Tomlin said. "My wife was really impressed by his commitment to being prepared even for that element of his life.

"I think that's just a cute Sean story that shows his commitment to improvement on a daily basis in all areas of his life."

A heavy shadow

Jim Johnson was a revered assistant coach. He played quarterback at Missouri, but the Bills signed him to play tight end in 1963. A knee injury ended any chance of making an NFL roster, but he would make a mark on the sport.

He was Notre Dame's defensive coordinator when it won the 1977 national championship and spent 22 years in the NFL.

Johnson was known for his aggressive schemes that gambled more than most and confused opponents into mistakes.

"He helped revolutionize the game," said Mikell, the ex-Eagles safety. "There are plenty of teams in the NFL that use his blitzes and emulate his schemes."

Over Johnson's 10 years with the Eagles, they went to the NFC title game five times and produced 27 defensive Pro Bowl selections.

McDermott's career took off during those years, handling defensive backs and linebackers with increasing responsibilities. Johnson played a much deeper role to him than mere mentor.

"Sean has a lot of fathers," his real dad, Rich McDermott, said. "Jim Johnson was a father."

Johnson coached some 2009 offseason workouts from a scooter, but couldn't continue. McDermott was named interim coordinator that spring. The switch became permanent in July.

Johnson died six months after a spirited and unexpected run to another NFL title game.

"I sat at Jim's funeral almost feeling guilty because I'm taking over for him and knowing that everyone is missing him," McDermott said. "Man, the lessons you learn through that process ... I promise you I wouldn't be here if I didn't go through it."

McDermott replaced Johnson while still enveloped by his presence at the Eagles' facility, in the meeting rooms, on the sideline.

"He didn't flinch on that at all," Reid said of McDermott. "I thought he was just was rock solid."

Eagles fans also adored Johnson and constantly compared McDermott to him. Reid regretted McDermott never could measure up in their eyes.

"We knew it would be difficult because of who Jim Johnson was and his legacy," Avis McDermott said. "Sean shed a lot of tears over Jim's passing."

Carolina contacted McDermott shortly after he was let go by the Eagles. (Getty Images)

Reid admitted the transition probably was flimsier than what he should've overseen. Because of Johnson's effective system, many of his top assistants over the years had left to be head coaches.

When Reid became Eagles coach in 1999, his defensive staff featured three future head coaches (Rivera, Jim Harbaugh and Steve Spagnuolo) in addition to respected defensive line coach Tommy Brasher and the veteran Johnson as coordinator.

When McDermott became Eagles coordinator at 36 years old, five of his defensive assistants were in their first year in that job. Only one, quality-control assistant Mike Caldwell, remains in the NFL.

"There were a lot of moments alone," McDermott said. "That comes with leadership. It's a lonely task sometimes."

Philadelphia reached the playoffs each of McDermott's two seasons as coordinator, but was bounced in the first round.

Rich McDermott, normally a listener of Philly talk radio, couldn't anymore. Fans skewered his son.

Too young, not ready yet, in over his head ... Johnson's defenses, after all, took the Eagles to the conference championship game every other year on average. Now this?

Reid called McDermott into his office and informed his protégé the run was over.

"It made me sad," Johnson's widow, Vicky Johnson, said. "Sean had a tough job.

"It was hard for me to judge from the outside, but I know Jim was very, very fond of Sean. He felt Sean was an extremely bright and dedicated young man and would be successful."

McDermott had experienced the first takedown of his coaching career.

McDermott was unsure of what to say to Reid except to ask how soon he should box up his office and clear out. But Reid helped him refocus and prepare for the next job. Reid knew it would materialize soon.

"He needed to get out of Philadelphia," Reid said. "We all need to do that at times. That was his time."

McDermott easily could have rationalized the defense's woes away, kicked accountability up the chain, faulted a unit that started three undrafted players and three seventh-round picks in a 21-16 playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, who went on to win the Super Bowl.

McDermott also could have schlepped his disillusionment to Carolina and let it fester.

"It crushed me early on," McDermott said. "But I looked introspectively. I didn’t place any blame. No, it was, 'What did I do wrong?'

"I feel like that period of my career, that period of my life, had I not gone through that, I don’t know if I would be here now."

McDermott still sees symbols of Johnson.

In June outside One Bills Drive, a seagull dropped out of the sky -- "on puppet strings," McDermott said -- and hovered to look into McDermott's office window. He took comfort in imagining that was Johnson checking on Buffalo's rookie head coach.

A dream fulfilled

Sean McDermott hasn't forgotten what falling in love with football smells like.

His father, a part-time assistant coach at Division III Ursinus College, once brought home a chinstrap with more snaps than Sean's North Penn Squires youth helmet could handle. Sean still found a way to affix his prize.

"Just the smell of the chinstrap was, like, 'This is it, man,' " he said. "I can't explain it. I loved the smell of the locker room."

McDermott took some time at the end of Bills minicamp to reflect on how far he'd come.

Rich and Avis McDermott pushed their sons toward quality educations while encouraging them to pursue their sports ambitions in earnest.

Avis was the stickler for academics and winces to think sweat and equipment could be considered intoxicating.

That's where Rich came in.

He brought Sean and Tim to practices at Ursinus and West Chester University and invited his players to hang out at their house.

"I loved listening to the stories until they were too mature for my young ears to hear, and then my dad would kick me out," Sean said. "I loved the camaraderie.

"Man, I loved walking through stretching lines when my dad was in summer camp."

Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula introduced Sean McDermott as the Bills new head coach on Jan. 13. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Now Rich's little boy, having completed that Grudenesque vision quest of becoming a young NFL head coach, walks the lines every day at One Bills Drive.

McDermott became emotional when asked what the phone call to his parents was like when the Pegulas offered him the job.

"You work hard for it," McDermott said. He paused eight seconds to collect himself. "The sacrifices they made? I could never repay them."

Rich and Avis choked back tears when faced with the same question a few days later in Orchard Park on Spot Coffee's patio.

Avis intermittently giggled and cried when recounting how Sean asked for her permission to take the Bills job.

She expressed a mother's angst Bills fans might not like her son, her Eagles scars not completely healed. She knows he must win.

Rich contemplated the turnaround that's taken place in six years, his son having been turned away by their hometown team, resurrecting his career in Carolina and emerging in Buffalo to run the show.

Rich broke down at the end of the following quote.

"It is something," Rich said, "to think about where he is now.

"I had someone tell me recently, 'You know, I can't tell you who the senators are from New York, but I sure as heck can tell you who's the head coach of the Buffalo Bills.' "

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