HADDONFIELD, N.J.—The appointment was for 6 a.m. Saturday, and at 5:57, Eagles coach Nick Sirianni rolled his vehicle out of the driveway here in suburban Eagleville. I got in.
It’s Super Bowl week, and I feel like the biggest story America doesn’t know is, Who is Nick Sirianni? I don’t know him well either. In my 23 minutes with him Saturday on the way to work, and then in his parking space at the Eagles’ NovaCare training complex, I tried to find out.
You probably know him now as the hyper guy on the sidelines who looks like he’s had 5 o’clock shadow since age nine. It’s interesting that 10 years ago this winter he had his career derailed by Andy Reid bypassing him for a job on Reid’s first Kansas City staff. Interesting, too, that he’s pugnacious and private and would be fine if he never was in a headline the rest of his life—very smart in this voracious market.
In brief: Sirianni’s the son of a coach, was most influenced by his small-college coach, Larry Kehres, sounds like he majored in Coachspeak at Mount Union (Ohio), and is the perfect front man for grassroots American football. If a kid from the western New York town of Jamestown (pop: 28,712) who played Division III football and coached for five growth seasons at Mount Union and Indiana University of Pennsylvania can coach a team to the Super Bowl at age 41, you should be able to make it from anywhere.
“Are you a little surprised this has happened so fast?” I asked as Sirianni pulled onto I-295 in south Jersey, headed for the office.
“I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “I just think about one day at a time. Get a little bit better each day. I’ve been obsessed with that, even going back to when I was a high school basketball player. I’ve been obsessed with just how do I get better every day? How do I out-work guys? You never know how hard anybody else is working. That was as a player, whether it was football or basketball. That’s been as a coach. I don’t think of how fast it happened.”
Smart. How can that help Sirianni beat Andy Reid in Super Bowl LVII?
“Just try to be in the moment with everything we do,” he said.
“What’s Jalen Hurts been like this week?” I asked.
“Same. Same,” he said. “Steady. Unfazed.”
Sirianni caught himself. “And I know that’s … I know that doesn’t make for great news. Even somebody asked me last night—my wife and kids were at one of our friend’s houses in town. Friends are like, ‘You’re playing in the Super Bowl! How’s it feel?’ Same. My wife’s like, ‘You can say that to the media people and the cameras in front of you. But here?’ Well, to me, hey, it’s just another opportunity for us to play for each other, just another opportunity for us to win and get better. I know that’s Jalen’s mindset and that’s how I’ve seen him all week.”
Sirianni is fine with the fact that Andy Reid lords over this Super Bowl. Reid coached the Eagles to one 18 years ago, got fired here 10 years ago, and now has his new team in its third Super Bowl in a decade, against a coach on the 2012 KC staff who Reid decided not to keep. Sirianni, receivers coach on Romeo Crennel’s staff in 2012, was bypassed for a longtime Reid aide, David Culley.
“Ton of respect for coach Reid,” said Sirianni, meaning it. “What a great coach he is. What a great person he is.”
“Even though he didn’t hire you,” I said.
“Even though he didn’t hire me. Hey, it worked out pretty well. God always has plans. As mad as you might be—mad or upset or as crushed as you might be—I mean, think about the path it really led me on. No hard feelings there. I appreciated him taking the time to spend time with me … I can’t tell you how many times [GM] Howie Roseman talks about ‘Coach Reid would’ve done this.’ Or when I ask, sometimes, Hey what do you think coach Reid would do in this scenario? It tells you a lot about coach Reid.
“But like you said, he didn’t hire me,” said Sirianni, now on the Walt Whitman Bridge into the city. He laughed. Hey, it worked out pretty well.
Look at how many coaches with strong roots were schooled and/or played way below the Power Fives: Bill Belichick (Wesleyan), Kevin Stefanski (Penn), Josh McDaniels (John Carroll), Brandon Staley (Dayton), Mike McCarthy (Baker, Kansas), Matt LaFleur (Saginaw Valley), Brian Daboll (Rochester), John Harbaugh and Sean McVay (Miami of Ohio), Mike Tomlin and Sean McDermott (William & Mary), Mike McDaniel (Yale), Sean Payton (Eastern Illinois), Matt Eberflus (Toledo), Robert Saleh (Northern Michigan), Doug Pederson (Northeast Louisiana, now Louisiana-Monroe) and Sirianni, who played wide receiver on three NCAA Division III national championship teams at Mount Union.
Amazing: Seventeen current NFL head coaches got their starts between the Mid-American Conference, lower NCAA levels and the NAIA. (And it could increase depending on the Arizona and Indianapolis decisions.) There are many lessons in this, but my take, particularly re: Sirianni, is that excellent coaches on any level are excellent coaches. Sirianni found a lot of them, and soaked in a lot.
He played for his dad, the coach at Southwestern Central High in western New York, graduating in 1999. “A lot of the things I say to our guys are similar messages I heard when I was growing up,” Sirianni said. “The players that played for my dad always came back and visited him. I’d be working out in the driveway, and people would just stop by who used to play for my dad just to say hi to my dad. Guys with kids and grown men with jobs would come back just to see their high school coach. That made an impression on me.”
Sirianni said he went to Mount Union to get a degree in education. But along the way, he played for one of the most successful coaches in college history. Larry Kehres won 11 Division III national titles in 27 years—he lost eight games in his last 17 years as coach. “I ended up getting a master’s degree in coaching, a doctorate in coaching,” Sirianni said. “Coach Kehres was really good, obviously, coaching the team. But he was really good at coaching the coaches. I find myself saying things to our coaches that coach Kehres would say to us.”
“Give me an example,” I said.
“Always the details of everything, the fundamentals, playing smart football,” Sirianni said. “He’d say, ‘Don’t over-coach. Make sure there’s a coaching point, good or bad, after every play.’ He’d say, ‘It’s all about the players, putting them in positions to make plays. It doesn’t matter if you like a play or the other coaches like the play. Can the player do it?’”
After three seasons as the receivers coach at Indiana of Pennsylvania, Sirianni came back to Mount Union to interview for the offensive coordinator job. Kehres asked Sirianni what offense he’d run if he got the job. Sirianni mentioned a couple of things he learned about offense at IUP, and he clearly wasn’t saying what Kehres wanted to hear. “You don’t even know the players that are here anymore! It’s players, formations, then plays!” Kehres said.
That’s the year Sirianni got a quality-control job on Todd Haley’s staff in Kansas City, so he didn’t end up back at Mount Union. Ten years later, Sirianni was Frank Reich’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis when Kehres came in as Sirianni’s guest for a game.
“Lemme see that call sheet,” Kehres said, looking for the play-sheet Sirianni would use for that day’s game. “Where are the plays for number 13?”
T.Y. Hilton. Sirianni pointed out a slew of plays designed for the best receiver the Colts had. And he remembered how Kehres used to show him the play sheet before games, showing the plays he had highlighted for Sirianni. Sirianni loved it, because it gave him a mental picture of what the offense would try to do to get the ball to him. When Kehres saw the plays for Hilton, he said something like: Good. Players, players, players. Remember that.
Now we were in the city, heading to the complex in south Philly. Still dark. Lots of green lights.
“Pretty cool view of the city coming in with all the green lit up,” he said.
“You hear about the Empire State Building controversy in New York?” I asked. “You guys won, and they lit it up in bright green, and Giants fans in the city went batcrap.”
“That,” he said, “would not happen in Philadelphia. It just wouldn’t.” He smiled. “But Eagles fans are everywhere.”
When we discussed the game, he emphasized playing smart, football IQ, no turnovers—because Kansas City’s a veteran team that’s played a lot of big games and understands what it takes to win them. “And staying in the moment,” he said, because of the long delays, the long halftime, the hype, all about it that isn’t a regular game.
Then he said: “I’ve never been to this game. I said I would never go till I was in it. You get opportunities to get tickets when you’re in the NFL. My brothers might say, Hey, you wanna bring Dad to the Super Bowl this year? Nope. I’m not going till I’m a part of it.”
We were backed into his parking space now, 4 degrees wind chill outside.
“How’s Jalen Hurts handled all this so well?” I asked.
“He has a relentless work ethic,” Sirianni said. “He’s gonna outwork everybody to make sure he doesn’t leave any stone unturned. That’s evident not only by the way he studies film, but by the way he lives, by the way he leads. I think he’s just a very steady person, which is an unbelievable trait to have as a quarterback when there’s ups and downs in the season, when there’s ups and downs in the game.
“I remember last year against Washington. I’m screaming at him, yelling at him. He’s like, ‘I gotcha.’ Same look on his face as if he scored a touchdown in the game. Just so unfazed by things. As a player, he’s relentless to how he’s gonna grow every day. I mean, he really is. He deserves this moment because he just thinks about how he can get better each day.
“I think this whole team has this chip on their shoulder when they get doubted. I know, 15-3 or whatever we are right now (16-3 actually), you don’t get doubted quite as much. But there’s always somebody that’s doubting you, right? Jalen for sure I know has that. But that’s a good thing, because he uses it to drive him. He’s gonna keep growing. God willing, he’s gonna reach his ceiling because of all the intangibles that he has.”
Almost time to go. A woman appeared at his window and made a trimming motion on her head.
“You trimming me up?” he said through the window, and she nodded.
“Barber,” he said to me. “I didn’t ever know I was scheduled for a haircut. She probably wants to trim my beard.”
In the parking space in front of him, offensive line guru Jeff Stoutland parked and walked past Sirianni. They exchanged waves.
“Did you know,” I said, “that exactly five years ago, I did this with Doug Pederson, and we sat in his car, right here in this parking space, and finished talking, and Jeff Stoutland walked by?”
“Is that right?” Sirianni said. He hoped he knew what that meant: Eagles 41, Patriots 33. “Hopefully that’s good karma, a good omen, or whatever they say.”
This was my fifth ride-along with a coach the week before the Super Bowl. Check out the gallery below: Doug Pederson before Super Bowl LII (win); Sean McVay before Super Bowl LIII (loss); Andy Reid before Super Bowl LIV (win); Zac Taylor before Super Bowl LVI (loss).
Covid prevented me from doing this in person prior to Super Bowl LV two years ago. Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles agreed to do it by phone while he drove to work. Let’s count that. Win.
Three wins for coaches, two losses. And my thanks to the nifty photo-capabilities of the new iPhone 14. The Sirianni photo is the best of the bunch, and even my poor photography couldn’t mess this one up.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column