ORLANDO, Fla. – After one year as an NFL head coach, Sean McDermott has plenty of advice for those who aspire to follow in his professional footsteps.
"It's like you're drinking at times from a big fire hose that doesn't stop," McDermott said. "I said to the guys, 'It's like I went into a battle and I came out and I survived. I got some scars, though.'"
McDermott was sitting in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Orlando, site of the league's annual meeting that began Sunday. He was relaxed and ready to head down to the pool to meet up with his wife and children.
But the Buffalo Bills' coach had more than his share of anxious moments in the rear-view mirror, starting with his interview with team owners Terry and Kim Pegula in January, 2017, all the way through the many ups and downs of his rookie season at the helm of an NFL team. The "guys" to whom McDermott referred were assistant coaches, one from each of the league's 32 teams attending the NFL's Career Development Symposium for prospective head coaches, coordinators, and general managers held in advance of the annual meeting of owners, club executives and head coaches. The league extended the invitations to prospects in each category. For the Bills, quarterbacks coach David Culley was there as a coordinator candidate, while assistant general manager Joe Schoen was selected for the GM portion.
McDermott's objective was to provide as much of an inside look of what it took for him to both land his dream job and how to go about getting off to a promising start. The Bills' 9-7 record and wild-card playoff appearance made him a natural to be one of the guest coach speakers, along with Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"It's funny now, being through it – and, listen, I don't profess to have all the answers – but to hear these (new head) coaches now going through what I went through last year, whether I see them at the Combine, whether they call on the phone, and they're saying, 'Hey, you didn't tell me about this part,'" McDermott said. "And I say, 'Well, baptism by fire. Welcome to the club, buddy.'"
'You better be prepared'
He made certain to pound home the idea that preparation was the key to both landing a head-coaching position and having the chance for any sort of immediate success.
McDermott tapped into his own experiences and from what he gleaned from conversations with other coaches and material gathered at similar symposiums he attended. He shared the advice he received years ago from Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who hired him as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, to "save everything I could, write notes, be a sponge."
The contributors to four four-inch-thick notebooks McDermott compiled during his nearly 20 years in the NFL aren't limited to discussions with other coaches or player-personnel types.
"I would go out of my way to spend time with the trainer in Philadelphia, the trainer in Carolina (where McDermott was defensive coordinator for six seasons before joining the Bills)," he said. "You better be prepared. Regardless of what situation you come into, it may not be changing a culture, but you're certainly going to have to transform a culture into the way that you want it to be."
McDermott illustrated that point by explaining why it was vital to have a plan for the first 90 days on the job before being interviewed for it.
"You can't say, 'Hey, listen, I'll handle this after I get the job,'" he said. "No, this is something that you're going to be asked (about) in the interview. So I tried to add some context to the topic and say, 'Listen, this is important as you prepare because I was asked about the first 90 days in probably half of the interviews that I had. It's not something that you just wait until you get the job and then handle.' Which some guys do, and they make a big mistake.
"And I've been asked by a couple first-year head coaches since I've become a head coach, 'Hey, tell me about your calendar for your offseason program.' So I just try to educate the (assistant) coaches who were in the room of, 'You need to do this now. (Otherwise) you're going to look like you don't know what you're doing if you get into a job. If you're, in fact, not asked about it for some reason in an interview, then you're going to have to be ready to go when you get the job. Calling other places, you can certainly do that, but that's not the best way to make a first impression.
"The general theme to my message was you only have one chance to make a first impression."
'There's no dumb questions'
McDermott understands that the NFL is an environment made up of plenty of tough guys, on and off the field.
That mentality sometimes leads to a reluctance to ask for help, for fear that it might be perceived as a sign of weakness. As far as McDermott is concerned, it is the wrong approach for coaches who want to climb higher on the career ladder.
He stressed that in his hour-long session Friday, just before the 15-minute session for questions.
"This is a macho league," McDermott said. "Even though they may put up a front like they know, they really don't know. So ask those questions, just like in class. There's no dumb questions."
Pretending to have answers they lack is one sure way for likely disaster, McDermott told the assistants.
Another is pretending to be someone they're not.
"Be yourself," McDermott said. "Because there's so much that goes into, 'I've got to have this job,' and if you're not yourself on the interview and you get the job, then what the owner or the decision-maker that made the hire, what they thought they were getting is not what they're getting. And then it's not going to mix once you're on the job. Even though you know they may be looking for something, X, just be yourself and you'll see if it's the right fit for you and for them."
He realizes that somewhere in the audience was someone who could eventually take his place.
Why provide any portion of the playbook that could help make that happen?
"To whom much is given, much will be required," McDermott said, quoting a Bible verse. "And I try and live my life that way. Not that I'm perfect, but I've been given so much by so many people, the good Lord above. So many people have helped me, even this year, so I'm just trying to pay it forward a little bit ... even though one of those guys may be trying to take my job."