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One-on-One Coverage: Leslie Frazier on handling adversity, his playing days and coaching

Leslie Frazier owns two Super Bowl rings – one as a cornerback with the 1985 Chicago Bears and one as an assistant coach with the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.

It’s fair to say the Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator for the past two seasons knows a thing or two about gratifying moments from the game to which he has devoted most of his nearly 60 years.

And Frazier will tell you one of the biggest came on Sept. 24, 2018, the Monday after the Bills’ 27-6 upset victory against the Minnesota Vikings, for whom he had once been head coach. The dominance of the Bills’ defense in that game carried extra meaning because it came after Frazier had his play-calling duties reinstated one week after Sean McDermott suddenly yanked them away at halftime of a 31-20 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Twenty-four hours later came an unforgettable moment when some Bills defensive players approached Frazier to compliment him on maintaining his composure through such a trying experience.

“A few of our guys – I won’t mention their names – came up to me and they said, ‘Coach, we really appreciate the way you handled last week,’” Frazier recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow! I didn't think you guys were paying any attention.’ They said, ‘We were paying attention. We appreciate the way you handled it.’

"That meant a lot, because it could have gotten ugly, no doubt about it. But I just knew, for what we were trying to get accomplished as a team and as a staff, this has to be handled the right way.

“I’m not going to lie, that was not easy. That was not easy at all. But to Sean's credit, he came back the next week and throughout the rest of the season and turned it back to where I thought it should be. We were going through a difficult period there, with what happened with our right corner position (after the sudden retirement of Vontae Davis at halftime of the Chargers game) and all of the things that were going on. It happened, then it was a matter of how was I going to deal with it?”

Frazier might have temporarily lost the right to call defensive plays, but his faith and trust in his ability to do so stayed intact.

“I never lost confidence in who I am and what I'm capable of doing,” he said. “And it's important that those players see the guy who's supposed to be in that leadership role handle this the right way as opposed to creating some division between me and the head coach that could really send this ship spiraling.”

In the latest edition of “One-on-One Coverage,” Frazier sat down with The Buffalo News to discuss his coaching career, his five seasons as a player with the Bears (1981-85, during which he led them in interceptions three years in a row), his role in the infamous “Super Bowl Shuffle” video before the Bears’ 46-10 pounding of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, and the future of African-American head coaches in the NFL.

Leslie Frazier talks to the media. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Buffalo News: Your path from playing to coaching wasn’t exactly direct, and little did you know that it actually began when you suffered a knee injury in the Super Bowl. How did the injury happen?

Leslie Frazier: Just like we do in Buffalo, we practice a trick play every week. So we had this play where the punt returner would catch the ball. I'm out holding up, but I’m going to come around on a reverse, he's going to hand it off to me. We practiced that for like 17 or 18 weeks, and I was always telling our special teams coach, “If you ever call that play, I’m going to score.” I had played running back in high school.

We go through the whole season and we never called it. So when the call comes in the huddle in the second quarter of the Super Bowl, I’m saying, “I can't believe they called it! I’m going to score in the Super Bowl!” I ended up getting the ball, I planted, my foot got caught in the turf of the Super Dome, blow my knee up. Just a freak play.

BN: Even though you had torn your ACL, which at the time had a much lower rate of players returning to full capacity, you planned to continue playing.

LF: I didn’t pass the physical when I went to training camp with the Bears. After that, I went to the Eagles’ training camp. Buddy (Ryan, the former Bears defensive coordinator who became the Eagles’ head coach) had called me up and said, “Listen, do you think you can still play?” I said, “I don't know, I haven’t been on the field because I didn’t pass the physical.” So I go through maybe two or three preseason games and I never could get my range of motion back. So I was thinking if I had more time to get my range back, then I can come back and play again.

I get released from the Eagles and I fly to Seattle after the 1987 NFL season. I passed the medical part of the physical. They wanted me to come back and do football drills, some 40 times, all those things. Now this is in January. In November, Dr. Kenneth Meyer, the president of Trinity College – a small Catholic school in the suburbs of Chicago that eventually became Trinity International University – had talked to me about the school’s plans to start a football program and wanting me to be the coach. But in my mind, I was thinking, “I’m going to get healthy, I'm going to come back and play again.”

I really didn't have a great desire to coach. I saw my coaches and what they were going through, how little credit they got for preparing us and the hours they put in. I thought, “These coaches, man, that’s a tough job and they get no real respect.” But Dr. Meyer was persistent that I was the right guy for this job.

And on that plane ride back from Seattle, I kept thinking about the things that Dr. Meyer had talked to me about and I said, “This is a very unique situation, as an African-American, to go and be a head coach at a small school and an environment that I felt real comfortable in and with his support.” I just sensed that the Lord was calling me to this job at Trinity.

I called my agent and I told him what I was thinking about doing, and he thought I was crazy. “What’s the name of this school? Why are you doing this? The Seahawks have got it all set up, they want you to come back out there, blah, blah, blah.” Then I called my wife and told her what I was thinking. She was on board. I called the Trinity president said, “I think I’m going to take that job.”

BN: How challenging was it to start a football program from scratch?

LF: Dr. Meyer was getting a lot of resistance from the faculty and academic world. They were saying, “Why do we need football?” So I had to go meet with the faculty and talk with them and let them see who I was and share my vision. I talked to them about the benefits of football and what it could bring to the college and what it would mean to the students, what it could mean to the faculty as well. And what football in general could do to increase enrollment, which is a big deal at small schools because finances are always an issue.

BN: How did you sell Trinity to high school players who didn’t even know football existed at the school?

LF: You put that Super Bowl ring on and you sit there, and all the time you’re talking, this is your credibility. This is what you’re selling because there's nothing there. And most of them have never heard of Trinity.

But coaching there was a great experience for me and it has a lot to do with why we’re talking here now. It was a stepping stone for me and the fact that Dr. Meyer believed so strongly in me, that meant a lot. And then when you go to Trinity today and you see “Leslie Frazier Field” while you’re alive – usually that happens when you’re long gone – it just tells you the impact that it had on my life but also the impact that I had while I was there.

Leslie Frazier walks around talking to the players before the start of training camp at St. John Fisher College in 2017. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

BN: What was it like to play on that Bears team that was so dominant and had so many larger-than-life characters such as coach Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan, Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

LF: I was in Chicago last summer for an autograph session and just to see how the city still embraces that team after all these years. It’s just like the team won last year. It's unbelievable. It was a special, special time. We had some characters on that team and guys who had the bravado. I still get players now asking me about the “Super Bowl Shuffle” after all these years. It’s not something I’m totally proud of. But it just shows you how that team has kind of lived on beyond 1985. It still blows me away that people reflect back on that team and that some people call it arguably the greatest defensive team ever.

BN: Was it?

LF: Of course, I’m biased. I’d like to think so, yeah. I don't think many people did what we accomplished during that time. It was revolutionary in a lot of ways.

BN: What defined that D?

LF: I think the way we intimidated offenses, the way we would go into a game with a game plan, and you’d see a team that had been, say, getting five receivers out or letting their tight ends release, all of a sudden keeping everybody in. They were just showing you the ultimate respect because they knew they couldn’t protect their quarterback with that aggressive approach that Buddy brought to the table that people really didn't have an answer for at that time.

Then we had players who had that take-no-prisoners attitude. It was just, “We’re going to kick your butt, man, every single down.” Just that attitude and it permeates through the rest of the team. And then you balance that on offense with a great running game because of how aggressive we were on defense.

BN: You’re such a low-key guy. How did you fit in with all of those big personalities?

LF: You need a mix. Everybody can't be Steve McMichael and just be rowdy and crazy, or like Jim McMahon. You need some guys that kind of balance things out and you do need somebody that's like this (moving his hand horizontally in a straight line) a little bit, I believe.

But I had great teammates who I enjoyed playing with, loved being around and our friendships and relationships, to this day, are awesome. How did I fit? Just by being myself and doing your job. If you’re not doing your job, you’re probably not going to fit in very well.

BN: What was it like being in the crossfire of the almost constant and very public feuding between Ditka and Ryan?

LF: Oh, man. That was a challenging period, because if you respect authority, which I do, and then you see the D coordinator really saying, “The defense, we're here, forget the offense.” Except for Walter Payton. He always gave Walter respect. But other than that, I mean can you imagine the D coordinator standing up in front of the entire defense and just putting the head coach down, talking about offense, how bad they were, and how we were going to have to carry them again? I think about that sometimes.

BN: How much did witnessing that sort of help show you what not to do?

LF: Oh, yeah, like if we're having a good game in Buffalo and our offense is struggling, I have a good idea of what not to do when things aren't going well on the other side of the ball. Just think about the Monday night game the Bears played against Miami, the one that we did lose (to snap a 12-game win streak), and (Ditka and Ryan) are going at it and then fisticuffs at halftime.

You can't use that as an excuse to fail, but it was crazy. But the good thing is we rebounded, which tells you about the character of the guys on our team. How many teams can overcome, that late in the season, the head coach with a strong personality – as strong as you're going to get and a person I have a lot of respect for – and the D coordinator, who has the type of strong personality that Buddy had, and still keep the team together?

We had some strong leaders with Singletary, with (Dan) Hampton, with Walter and Jim McMahon. We were very talented, but we had good internal leadership as well, which convinces me the importance of leadership on a team. Not just the coaching staff, but the team has got to have it, too.

BN: How big an influence was Mike Ditka on your coaching career?

LF: There were so many things that I picked up just being around Coach Ditka and one of the things I remember is he changed the culture of our team. Neill Armstrong had been my first head coach and when Coach Ditka came along, the one thing I remember and still hold onto to this day, is he didn't care about what your name was. It was more about, could you help us win? And I had been around some coaches where there was some favoritism, like, “This is my guy and he’s going to have that spot, I don’t care how well you play.”

With Coach Ditka, it was, “I don’t care what your name is. If you’re not doing it the way we want it done, if you can’t help us win, you’re gone.” He got rid of a lot of players that first year we were together. Early on, you say, “How can we make it without this guy?” But in reality, that guy really wasn't pulling his weight, he wasn't the best player.

BN: There were players on your team who were known to have had problems with Coach Ditka’s big personality.

LF: It became a problem. I don't know if it should have been, but at some point it became almost like a competition when it came to endorsements and some of those things, which is pretty bad. But he was a big personality and he was in demand, just like a lot of our star players were, which was unusual for a coach at that time. But it did create some problems and it had a lot to do with our not winning more championships, sad to say.

BN: How did the “Super Bowl Shuffle” come together and what was your role in it?

LF: (Receiver) Willie Gault was the guy that kind of put it together. It was to raise money for charity. We did this video the day after we lost at Miami, so we get back 2, 3 in the morning and we're setting up in a studio in downtown Chicago around 7 or 8 o'clock in the morning the next day. Some guys, like Walter Payton, didn’t make it and ended up having their scenes (edited) in. None of us had any idea it would look like it did. It was unbelievable what it became. And they're playing it at halftime with a Super Bowl, which tells you how big it was.

We were there throughout the day. We spent a lot of time in rehearsal putting that together pretty much the whole day, a full day on our day off. I was one of the background dancers.

BN: Did you feel silly doing it?

LF: I didn’t at the time, but whenever I see it, I go, “I can't believe I did this.” But at the time, I was having fun. We thought we were studs.

BN: You’ve had the chance to work for some high-profile head coaches as an assistant. Let’s start with Andy Reid, who hired you as his defensive backs coach in 1999 with the Eagles.

LF: The thing that sticks out with me about Andy is how he handles the ups and downs of the NFL season and NFL games. Just being this (holding his hand steady). You need that. I remember we had some ugly losses early in the season. You would never know it by the way Andy handled those situations. He’d come back the next day and we’d move on. He'd say a couple words about the game, not raising his voice, not hollering and screaming and cursing at anybody about their performance. We’d move on to the next game and we’d go on to win our division. But you wouldn't know it if you saw how we played it against, say, Tennessee when we open the season when they blew us out.

The way Andy handled those moments when things didn't go well, I think, had a lot to do with us not having losing streaks and our being able to just bounce back. And the way he dealt with his staff, trusting guys he hired to do their jobs. Very little turnover (of the staff) with Andy, which spoke to me and that's something I’ve tried to keep in the back of my mind.

BN: What was it like working for a Hall of Famer, Tony Dungy, with the Indianapolis Colts?

LF: Similar to Andy, just his demeanor and how you handled the ups and downs of a season. But probably the most important thing is the fact that he would just be himself and not try to be anyone other than Tony Dungy. He's very cerebral, very stoic in how he handles things. His personality is very similar to mine, so when I would be around Tony and see how he was dealing with things, I was like, “Man, he never really changes. He's who he is.” And he shoots straight, he’s just to the point.

We had a ton of success and then sometimes people think that, in order to be successful, you’ve got to be emotionally driven, that circumstances dictate how you’re going to handle every situation. That wasn’t the case with Tony. I don't think our players ever wondered how he was going to deal with one situation versus another. They always could predict what Tony was going to do.

The perfect example was when we go to Jacksonville in December, we're struggling. Our best player, (safety) Bob Sanders, is injured and would still end up becoming Defensive Player of the Year. They rushed over 300 yards, just embarrassed us on defense. We end up losing the game, we come back in the staff meeting and we're thinking that Tony is going to say, “Hey, we’ve got to change this, change that, get rid of this defense, add this defense.” He brings the whole staff together and he says, “We're not going to do anything different. The only thing we're going to do different is we're going to work a little bit harder, we're going to improve our fundamentals, work on our technique. But our schemes are still the same, our message is the same. We’ve just got to get better at what we do.”

So then he goes in front of the team and he says the exact same thing in front of the team. Then I said, “OK, I'm going to see what Peyton (Manning) and Gary Brackett, who was our starting middle linebacker and one of our captains, and Jeff Saturday are going to say. Because people were beating us up, saying, “Even though they clinched the division, they’re not going to survive the first round, they’re going to get blown out.” Well, Peyton and Jeff and Gary all repeated, verbatim, what Tony said. So if guys wanted to point fingers and say, “Well, so-and-so has got to do this a so-and-so has got to do that,” they couldn't do it because the leaders just echoed the head coach. And guess what? We ended up going on to win the Super Bowl.

BN: How did your relationship with Sean McDermott, who was also a member of that Philadelphia staff, come together?

LF: Sean was in a totally different role back then (as the scouting administrative coordinator), but we always had a connection, we always talked. He was a guy that was always around us, he was in our defensive meetings, so we had a rapport. And we kept that rapport for those 20-plus years of just being around each other.

When Sean called after he got his opportunity with the Bills, I was with a good guy in Baltimore in John Harbaugh. I was coaching the secondary in a good environment with good people. But the relationship I had with the Sean made it easy to come to Buffalo, the respect that I have for him and vice versa.

Leslie Frazier while coaching the Vikings. (Getty Images)

BN: It’s rare that an interim head coach is kept on by his current team as head coach, but that happened with you when you moved into the interim job with the Vikings for the final six games of 2010.

LF: The interim route is not the best way to do it. And it was hard because the head coach, Brad Childress, is a good friend of mine. He brought me there as a defensive coordinator so that was a hard time. None of us really saw it coming. We're in the middle of the season. So, you know, we're just fighting, trying to get ready for the next game.

The hard part was knowing what statistics said about interims; their success rate was not very good. You don’t get past that first contract. You really would like to come in and have your own team. And that was going through my mind. I took the job, so you’ve got to figure out a way to get it done.

BN: Are you still looking for that second chance to be a head coach in the NFL?

LF: That’s been kind of an evolution. Things have changed from where I was in 2013 to where I am now, in 2019, a little bit different stage of my career. So my goals have shifted a little bit. There was a time it was very important to me to get back to being a head coach again. Now, if we could win a championship in Buffalo and ride off into the sunset, I'd be so, so happy, man. Because when you look at what happened when we made the playoffs and you look at the response that we got in Buffalo, can you imagine if we win a world championship in Buffalo?

I'd be thrilled if that were to happen. I could care less about being a head coach. We bring a championship to Buffalo? Wow!

BN: It’s often said coordinators working for a head coach who made his mark as a coordinator on the same side of the ball often don’t get much credit. How do you feel about that given Sean’s background as a DC?

LF: What I was saying about how things have kind of evolved for me? Maybe, when I was younger, it might have concerned me if I didn't get credit for this or credit for that. I talk to our players all the time about that Harry Truman quote: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you’re not concerned with who gets the credit.” If everybody gets the buy-in, we're all going to succeed and so the credit part for me, for where I am in my career, is not a big deal at all. You could give Sean all the credit in the world. As long as we win, that's all that really matters because we're all going to benefit.

BN: Was there any sense of vindication after that Minnesota game in Week 2?

LF: First of all, I was just so happy for our players because we had just gone through two hard weeks and then we beat a team that played in the NFC Championship Game on the road. For me, personally, to go and win that game at Minnesota, that was big.

What happens in September sometimes has no bearing on what could be happening in December. So you’ve got to try to figure some things out, especially the way the league is set up now with the offseasons. You don't always come out of training camp really knowing what you have because you can't hit as much, you can't do some of the drills you once could do, so some teams are a little bit ahead of other teams in some ways. You’re kind of figuring things out a little bit.

BN: This offseason wasn’t a good one for head-coaching diversity in the NFL, with five black coaches losing their jobs and only one black coach being hired. What’s your reaction to that?

LF: It was tough, for sure, but it's a win league. You’ve got to win and you just hope things get better. You hope there'll be more opportunities in the years to come. You look at the hiring cycle this past year, very offensive-oriented and there aren't a lot of African-American offensive coordinators or minority offensive coordinators or minority quarterback coaches.

So you hope that somehow we can figure out a way to improve that pipeline, if that's the way hiring is going to go, that we can get more minorities in that pipeline of quarterback coaches, offensive coordinators and they can become candidates and get opportunities. I just hope that it can happen.

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