The first lesson wasn't about X's and O's, necessarily, although Sean McDermott initially believed that was why Andy Reid stopped him almost immediately after sending him to the dry-erase board back in 1999, during their first season together in old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
"No, no, no," Reid told his young, naïve administrator.
McDermott's stomach dropped. He thought he had the X's and O's properly positioned and, in fact, he did. But he made a fundamental error that needed to be corrected right away for him to have any future in coaching. He used the point of the marker rather than maximize its flat edge.
It mattered, as any good teacher would attest. People in the back rows of a large room would have a difficult time seeing what McDermott wrote on the board with the pointed tip. In order for him to properly deliver his message, Reid explained, players needed to see bolder X's and O's.
Why, of course.
"When you're writing in the English language, this is how you hold the marker," McDermott said Reid told him. "It's supposed to be thin. But when you're doing X's and O's, it's different. When you get in front of the players for the first time, your credibility is on display. You have to look like you know what you're doing."
McDermott was 24 years old when the Eagles hired him with three games left in the 1998 season. Technically, he was a football scouting administrator. It was a vague title that allowed the Eagles to use him however they saw fit while also exposing McDermott to the front office.
Eighteen years after the fact, he can still remember Reid showing up for his second interview to replace head coach Ray Rhodes. Beads of perspiration had collected on Reid's forehead while he carried a bag filled with binders that covered every detail of coaching and his vision for turning around the franchise.
Right away, McDermott sensed something special about the guy. He had an intimidating presence about him during his early days with the Eagles while trying to execute his plan. He roamed through the office while getting acclimated, asking people what they did for the organization.
"You could tell he had been around winning," McDermott said Friday. "You could tell he had a vision for where he wanted to take the organization – and he had a plan. Andy was different that way. People may have a vision of where they want to go as leaders or head coaches. Andy had a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year plan that he followed."
McDermott was smart enough to follow him. He started getting to the office early and staying late, making himself available to the new head coach. He poured himself into learning everything he could under Reid, who in turn passed along his expertise while taking the aspiring coach under his wing.
Reid obviously saw something in his apprentice – "It was the red hair," McDermott said, "I had more then" – to make time for him. The more Reid talked, the more McDermott listened and took notes. He was a sponge who couldn't get enough from his mentor and his coaching staff.
McDermott put in his time, learned the craft and made a steady ascension up the ranks. He broke down video while working in quality control while dipping his toes into practices as a defensive assistant, then assistant coach of defensive backs, secondary coach, linebackers coach and defensive coordinator.
“Work ethic," Reid said this week when asked what he saw in McDermott. "I’m just going to give you the pitch here. He was an all-state wrestler, all-state football player, smart, went to William & Mary. You have to have some aptitude to go to that school. I was able to get him on board as my administrative assistant. He showed those traits there and then just kind of worked his way up through the ranks. Very hard worker.”
You can see the similarities between McDermott and Reid leading into Sunday's game between the Bills and Chiefs. McDermott blew away Terry and Kim Pegula during the interview process with his coaching binders and attention to detail, which was why they hired him to replace Rex Ryan.
McDermott has a good sense of humor behind the scenes, but he's all business in public. He often gets criticized for relying on his stream of clichés while saying little of consequence during his news conferences. He learned from Reid, whose sharp wit is disguised by his drab public persona.
For both, it's about winning.
In Reid's first season as an NFL head coach, the Eagles were 3-7 when he turned to rookie Donovan McNabb as his starting quarterback. They lost four of their final six games with McNabb and finished 5-11. The next year, Philadelphia won the NFC East with an 11-5 record.
The Eagles had a 59-21 record in a five-year stretch that included four straight visits to the NFC Championship game and a loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Reed had a 130-93 record with the Eagles. He won 10 games or more and made the playoffs three times in four years with the Chiefs.
"Andy has such a presence," McDermott said. "There were quite a few people intimidated by Andy the first few years. He came in and made some decisions that were unpopular with the masses early on because it had been a certain way for so long. But every decision he made was in the best interests of the team. He rocked the boat, but he was rocking the boat with a vision and a plan to accomplish the vision."
McDermott was skewered for torpedoing the Bills' chances to beat the Chargers last week when he benched veteran Tyrod Taylor and started Nathan Peterman. I understood the decision. The Bills were struggling with Taylor, so McDermott gave the kid a shot with the he would succeed without compromising the master plan.
If Buffalo would have lost last week with Taylor, fans would be howling for the rookie to make his first NFL start Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, with the Patriots up next. Neither situation would have been ideal. The move backfired after Peterman threw five interceptions, forcing to McDermott to return to Taylor.
Kansas City had a 14-2 record including the final 11 games last season and the first five contests this year before losing four of its last five games heading into the weekend. After falling to 6-4, calls were getting louder for first-round pick Patrick Mahomes to play quarterback over veteran Alex Smith.
It adds another layer of intrigue going into the game Sunday. McDermott is eternally grateful to Reid, but nobody should expect them to share warm-and-fuzzy feelings before the game. The best way McDermott could pay tribute to his mentor would be the Bills beating the Chiefs in an important game.
They remain close friends, but there are certain lines in sports. It was something Reid shared with McDermott years ago when he corrected his young student at the dry-erase board. His message was clear: Eve when you have the right intentions, there's far more to coaching than X's and O's.
"Andy taught me this: There's got to be a line between the head coach and the assistant coaches, and there has to be a line between the assistant coaches and the players," McDermott said. "No matter how thin that line is, it needs to be there. As close as we are, he wants to beat us bad."