MOBILE, Ala. — Before Jen Welter made NFL history, an 11-year pro gave her advice: Be yourself.
Never before had the league seen a female coach. Yet here was Welter on the verge of coaching the Arizona Cardinals' inside linebackers during training camp and the preseason. So Terry Glenn, who coached with Welter on the Texas Revolution's staff, offered his two cents.
And it's same two cents Welter would pass along to Kathryn Smith in Buffalo.
“My biggest hope for her is they let her be great where she’s great," Welter said at the Senior Bowl last week. "Don’t try to make her something that she’s not. If they made me coach a quarterback, I would suck. I would be horrible. Right? I don’t know anything about being a great quarterback. I was a linebacker. If you made me someone who yelled at players as a disciplinarian, that’s not going to work either. They would flick me aside and say, ‘What is this little woman doing?’ You have to be authentic.
"Terry said, ‘Jen, the best advice I can give you about going to the NFL is to be 100 percent authentic. If you’re the person you were here with us every single day, those guys will love you just like these guys did. But if you go in there but you’re fake in any way, they will eat you alive.’"
Last summer, Welter broke the initial barrier as an assistant coaching intern. This offseason, Kathryn Smith smashed it as the Bills' special teams' quality control coach. Welter believes her decade-plus playing the game helped her make the transition. Before this, in February 2015, she was the first woman to coach in men's pro league as the linebackers and special teams coach of the Revolution. And in January 2014, she was the first woman to play running back in a men's professional league with the Revolution.
She hasn't spoken with Smith. But she has an idea of what might be running through her mind right now.
The Cardinals players, she repeats, respected her from Day One. Welter said she had "street cred" with the players. They'd watch her film and tell her, "You were a beast off the edge!"
"They all knew it was different but they were excited it was different," Welter said. "They knew they could joke with me and be themselves. And ultimately, I wanted to be one of the guys. Just respect me."
She wasn't the disciplinarian type. As the 5-foot-2 Welter joked, she can't exactly get into Calais Campbell's face and shout "Cah-leh-is!"
She'd take what inside linebackers coach Larry Foote wanted overall to a one-on-one level.
Said Welter, "Like, ‘Hey, the next time you come in, dip and rip your shoulder a little bit more. Step your foot through and you would’ve gotten that sack.’ And it wouldn’t be like I’m calling you out. It’s ‘Hey, next time you do this, try this.’ ... Foote would have me play the rabbit in a lot of the drills and be very integrated because I was a player and that’s where we would have fun with it."
Unlike Welter, Smith didn't play. But she has been around the game for a long time. She served as the administrative assistant to head coach Rex Ryan last season. And before this, she was named a college scouting intern in 2005 and later was a full-time player personnel assistant starting in 2007.
To Welter, the fact that Smith didn't play doesn't make her any different than the men who didn't play.
"We hear that over and over and over — ‘how can he coach in the NFL? He never played the game,’" Welter said. "Look at Bill Belichick, look at some of the greatest minds in football. They didn’t play the game. But do I think that could compound it a little bit for her? Sure. Because they already have that argument for guys and use that as a sticking point whether or not it’s true. And for some, they use it as a reason why they couldn’t be successful. So they’d have two reasons to say that — she can’t know how to coach because she didn’t play in the NFL and she can’t because she’s a girl.
"I don’t think it’s any different but I think people will make it different.”
The No. 1 challenge for Welter wasn't anything on the field, rather the wardrobe. The "giant red shorts" provided by the team never fit, she laughs. The smallest size available was men's medium.
That's it. She never sensed any problems.
So it'll be important for Smith to lean on her expertise, whatever that may be. If it's poring through hours of film, then chances are she'll be poring through those hours of film. Welter found herself using her doctorate in psychology. She wanted to value players "as people" because, to her, the game is mental as well. There were awkward moments — like when one player said "Yes ma'am!" — but never any eye-rolls.
The fact that Smith has worked closely with assistant coaches is a major benefit. She's done plenty of work behind the scenes.
Now, she'll be working on the field more. And young players, Welter explained, will take the veterans' lead.
"I remember one time, Lorenzo Alexander, who I love — and he ended up in Oakland for the rest of the season — but I was teaching one of the rookies something," Welter said. "It was something on technique, coming off the edge or something for special teams. Zo’s walking by. Zo’s like a legend. So Zo’s walking by and one guy says, ‘ Zo, what do you think I should do?’ And he said, ‘I think you should listen to her right there because everything she said was on point.’ So when you have the stamp of approval from a vet like that, it’s those things that carry over. It very easily could’ve gone a different way if he said, ‘Hey, don’t listen to that. Come here, rook.’ But that’s the difference. Guys like that set the tone and everybody else falls in line.”
So Welter was in Mobile hoping to latch on with a team herself in some capacity. Senior Bowl Week is networking central for aspiring NFL coaches ... men and women now.
Smith now gets her permanent shot in Buffalo.
"If somebody was disrespectful," Welter said, "it would’ve been handled before it even got to me. I know that and I trust that. That’s why when people ask me, ‘Oh, did the guys really listen to you? Was it a publicity stunt?’ I say, ‘Why don’t you go ask my linebackers if it was a publicity stunt.’ That’d be pretty sad because they took coaching from me.’ You have to look at those situations and turn the logic on its head.”