Bonamego returns to roots to lead CMU

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Central Michigan's new head football coach John Bonamego talks with Athletic Director Dave Heeke during a news conference Monday in Mount Pleasant.

Former Lions special-teams coach John Bonamego was considerably unknown in college coaching circles, but when Central Michigan introduced him as its 28th head football coach Monday, he did everything possible to present himself well.

Bonamego, 51, played at the university and graduated in 1987, and he made it known to everyone in Mount Pleasant this is his dream job and the place he hopes to stay for the rest of his career.

"For me, this is not, never will be and never has been a job. For me, this is the job," he told reporters. "This is the place that when I left, which was a long time ago, it never left me."

After the news conference, Bonamego jokingly asked how he did in a phone conversation with The Detroit News, and his quip that people questioning his recruiting ability need only look at his wife, Paulette, seemed well received. He also explained his emotional roller coaster during the hiring process the past two weeks.

"I bet I lost 15 pounds," he said on the phone. "My emotions were all over the place. I feel very honored. I'm humbled. I'm proud. I'm elated. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to everybody on this campus, in this community, our coaches our players, our students, our alumni. I feel a tremendous responsibility to them to prove that they made the right decision in allowing me to shepherd this program."

A Paw Paw native, Bonamego began coaching after he graduated and even had a stint coaching junior varsity at Mount Pleasant High in 1987. From there, he worked as an assistant at three colleges — Maine, Army and Lehigh — before making the jump to the NFL in 1999.

Bonamego coached special teams for the Jaguars, Packers, Saints, Dolphins and Lions and worked under coaches including Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton, Tony Sparano, Mike Sherman, Jim Schwartz and Jim Caldwell.

But when Schwartz offered him a job in his native state with the Lions in 2013, Bonamego wasn't looking ahead to a potential return to Mount Pleasant, following the message that "you can't serve two masters" passed along by former Army head coach Bob Sutton.

"Opportunities come to people who do a good job where they're at," said Bonamego, who replaces Dan Enos, the new offensive coordinator at Arkansas. "If you're chasing every job, chances are you're probably not doing a very good job for the people who are sending you a check every week."

However, Bonamego has been planning for an opportunity like this one for years. Some years ago, he began assembling different documents outlining how he would organize practices, recruiting and what he would want his staff to look like if he ever became a head coach. Every year since, he said he'd take a day each summer and update the package.

"When this job came open, I was prepared," he said.

Bonamego also had some help from Caldwell, the man who kept him on the Lions staff even after the team fired Schwartz before the 2014 season. Caldwell has often said he'd help his assistants earn promotions any way he could, and even though the more publicized example was Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Bonamego took some advice, too.

"Coach Caldwell was absolutely fantastic through every step of it," Bonamego said. "He's been much, much more than a boss to me. He's a trusted friend and a mentor and a great role model as well. He's given me advice on a lot of different things and I fully intend to stay in close contact with him and be able to lean on him as well as other people for advice in the sport."

Though he regrets not reaching out to more Lions players, Bonamego said plenty have passed along congratulatory messages via text or voicemail. Even though the Lions had some special teams issues in 2014, Bonamego helped turn around the unit in 2013 and players often praised his motivational style while coaching a unit with which many players wanted little involvement.

And even though special teams coordinators don't make the jump to head coach as often as their offensive or defensive counterparts, Bonamego thinks his work in the third phase prepared him well for his endeavor with the Chippewas. While coaching special teams, Bonamego said he had to be in tune to everything happening with the offense and defense as well as the weather and game situations, so he was truly involved with the entire team.

"I know people," he said. "I know I can organize. I know I can teach the fundamentals, I know I can motivate, I know I can evaluate, I know I can recruit, I know what it's supposed to look like. I have a clear vision in my head in terms of the type of style and effort we want to play with offensively and defensively. I feel like I'm going to be able to surround myself with great men who are great teachers of the game."

And as Bonamego heads north, the Lions reportedly will hire a fellow longtime special-teams coach to replace him, Joe Marciano.

"Joe is one of my counterparts that I have the highest regard for, not only as a teacher and coach but really as a man and a human being for what he stands for," Bonamego said. "Our players are going to love him."