Coaching is his calling: Brad Salem's family vocation led to Michigan State destination

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Brad Salem has been a coach at Michigan State since 2010, where he was the running back coach.

East Lansing — As Brad Salem walks into a meeting room at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building, he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be.

It’s late May, but Michigan State’s offensive coordinator is busy, taking advantage of a break from recruiting to pore over some game film, working on breathing some life into a Spartans offense that has had little the last couple of seasons.

He’s a football coach, and there’s really nothing else he was ever going to be.

Yes, he played football growing up, and when he went to college, he majored in secondary education with the idea he’d be a high school teacher.

But really, he was always going to be a coach. From the few months he spent in Paris coaching men who took smoking breaks at halftime to now entering his 10th season on Mark Dantonio’s staff at Michigan State, Brad Salem was born to be on the sidelines.

Of course he was.

His grandfather, Nusier, was a hall of fame high school coach in South Dakota and his father, Joe, coached at nearly every level of college football, landing his dream job as the head coach at Minnesota from 1979-83.

It was during that time in Minneapolis, and before that at Northern Arizona and South Dakota, that Joe Salem was chasing his dream as a college football coach, his four boys along for the ride — Tim and Wade, and twins Brad and Brent.

“You grow up in a football family, so it’s all you know,” Brad Salem said. “With my brothers and I it’s sort of like the language you speak because you’re around the culture of it. Your family’s life is around the schedule of it. Your dad is home in the summer, he’s head coach at Minnesota, gets home about 3 and that’s his day off, and you have the boat loaded up and go out to this lake near our home in Minneapolis and go out with him for a couple hours.

“But it was a fun life growing up as a ball boy or you’re just on the sidelines. I don’t think you really ever sat in the stands for a game your whole life. You’re always down there, sort of involved.”

Coaching in the genes

The Salem boys always have been involved. Tim, the oldest, is currently the tight ends coach at Pittsburgh. His resume is the longest, starting as a graduate assistant at Arizona State before getting his first job at Phoenix College. From there his journey included Colorado State, Purdue, Ohio State, Eastern Michigan, UCF and Illinois before he joined Pat Narduzzi’s staff at Pitt.

Brent Salem coached for 12 years, too, before getting out of the profession. “He’s the smart one,” Brad said. Wade gravitated more toward basketball and founded “Character Matters,” a company that helps coaches incorporate character within their programs.

And, of course, there’s Brad Salem. He joined Dantonio’s staff in 2010 as the running backs coach, then took over quarterbacks in 2013. This offseason he was promoted to offensive coordinator as part of a staff shakeup designed by Dantonio to get the offense on track.

“I think it’s an honor to be able to do this,” Salem said. “I’m excited for the opportunity.”

The opportunity didn’t just materialize for Salem. His first coaching job was just after his playing days had ended. He started out at Northern Arizona but transferred to Division II Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, near where he finished high school after his dad was done coaching.

That first job was the one in Paris that lasted seven months, then it was back home working as a student assistant at Augustana. By 1994, he was hoping to land a spot as a graduate assistant in the family business. So was Brent, and he’d gotten a spot on George Perles’ staff at Michigan State. Joe Salem knew Perles well and Pat Morris, the MSU offensive line coach at the time, had coached with Joe at Minnesota.

As luck would have it, Tim was an assistant at Purdue under Jim Colletto and they needed a tight ends coach. Tim brought in Brent, leaving an opening at Michigan State.

“My brother calls me and says, ‘You better check and see (about the GA opening),’” Brad Salem recalled. “So that’s in 1994 when I came here.”

Here, of course, was Michigan State. The family connections paid off, and Salem spent the next two seasons coaching, first with Perles and then Nick Saban. It was under Saban that he was on staff with Dantonio, who was coaching defensive backs.

That connection would pay off years later.

After MSU, Salem’s career took a path much like his dad’s: Luther College in Iowa, South Dakota, then a year working a “real” job and then back to Augustana as an assistant. That led to his first break in 2005, when at age 34, he was named the head coach at Augustana.

Salem admits he wasn’t ready to be a head coach at that point, but he “jumped in both feet forward.” And he happened to have the perfect person to go to for advice — his dad. Joe Salem was 27 when he became the head coach at South Dakota, and as luck would have it, when Brad got his head coaching gig, dad had just retired from the business world.

“I said, ‘You’re gonna be my quarterback coach,’” Brad said with a laugh.

Just like that, it was once again a family business.

“Coaching is a crazy business and I’ve said people will work for nothing just to be around it,” Joe Salem said. “He said he wanted me to coach and I wasn’t doing anything, so I said, ‘Here I am coaching for nothing.’ I didn’t get paid for the first couple years; I just did it for the heck of it and then he got me like $1,500 my last year.”

Joe laughed as he recounted the story, but there was no putting a price on those years.

“It was a really unique experience,” Brad Salem said. “Here’s the guy that raised you, and it was neat because he had so much football knowledge to pull from. At that time, we built a stadium and built up (the program). They were a game from the national title the year after I left.”

Brad Salem, shown here with former Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, has been on Michigan State's coaching staff since 2010.

Leaving for East Lansing

Ah yes, the year he left. Brad Salem thought he’d never leave Augustana.

“I literally thought I was gonna be there for 30 years,” Salem said.

But he’d see Dantonio at coaching conventions and after 2009, Dantonio said he was going to give Salem a call. Salem wasn’t looking for a job, but he still wondered why several weeks later he hadn’t heard from Dantonio.

Then, seemingly out of the blue in the winter of 2010, the call came. Dan Enos had left MSU to become the head coach at Central Michigan, and the Spartans needed a running backs coach.

“He called at probably 5 o’clock and I was on the plane probably 6 the next morning,” Salem said. “And at 2 o’clock the next day it was, ‘Do you want it?’ ”

Just like that, Salem was headed back to East Lansing.

“You take a leap of faith, really, to go because you don’t know at this level how long things can last,” Salem said. “My friend was a Division III head coach and went to the NFL with a friend and is out of football in two years. So you don’t know the path.”

The path hasn’t always been easy, but the highs have outnumbered the lows. The Salems know what it’s like to be a football coach, from the championships to the job uncertainty.

“When your dad is a coach in college, that is in your blood, it is your life,” Tim Salem said. “Winning and losing is a big deal because when dad’s team wins, you win. When dad’s team loses, you lose. So you feel the victories and you suffer through the defeats and learn the ups and downs of the game and of playing a sport.”

And if Brad or Tim are ever unsure of themselves, they know they’ll get a full evaluation from Dad.

“When our games are over on Saturdays for the duration of our careers it’s call Dad after the game immediately,” Tim Salem said, “and right away he’s watched the Michigan State games, he’s watched the Pitt games and he’s got questions. Like, ‘What the hell were you guys thinking on that third down in the fourth quarter?’ He’s already grilling us. We kind of laugh about that. We’ve both got to answer those 50 questions postgame from dad sitting on his couch in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, watching the game on his TV. He still looks at it from a coaching eye.”

That’s how all the Salems watch football games and it hasn’t stopped with Brad and Tim’s generation. Tim’s son, Landan, is the recruiting coordinator at Syracuse and Brad said his oldest son, Elijah, is going to Hope College in the fall with thoughts of a coaching career.

“I think his boys, both Eli and Jeremiah, have a coaching gleam in their eyes,” Tim Salem said. “And Brent’s two sons want to coach.

“So it’s generations. I don’t want to say that’s what they know, but that’s what they know.”

Yes, the Salems know football. It’s been that way for more than 60 years and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

The challenges will keep coming and Brad Salem is up for the next one — getting Michigan State’s offense back to a point it was just five years ago when the Spartans were setting records for points and total yards. Salem was a part of that, and is ready to get it back.

As he does, he knows Dad will be watching closely. In fact, Joe already has looked at some practice film. Why not? His coaching tree includes the likes of Mike Shanahan and Mike Martz, a couple of guys who understood offense.

“He’s excited for me,” Brad Salem said. “He knows. He did that his whole life, too, and he grew up around it. So, I’m excited about the opportunity.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau