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Niyo: NFL rising coaching star Robert Saleh 'the pride and joy of Dearborn'

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Dearborn -- It started with a phone call. But it’d be years before David Saleh realized it might’ve been the other call -- his call in the midst of a national tragedy -- that set his brother, Robert, on this crazy journey, from an entry-level credit analyst job at Comerica Bank to a Super Bowl title and his current status as one of the hottest head coaching candidates in the NFL.

Even now, when you ask David how his younger sibling ended up where he is, interviewing for the top job with the Cleveland Browns last weekend while preparing his dominant San Francisco defense for Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game against Minnesota, that’s where he’ll start. With that sobbing voice, gasping for air on the other end of the line on a Monday morning in February 2002, the day after Tom Brady won the first of his six championship rings at Super Bowl XXXVI.

Robert Saleh

The Dearborn native had just turned 23 and was in his first year out of Northern Michigan University, where he’d been a four-year starter at tight end for the Wildcats and earned a degree in finance. But when he called his brother that day he could hardly speak.

“He had a little bit of a breakdown -- he was really crying profusely,” David recalled this week. “I think it had hit him that usually at that time of year he was getting ready to get on the football field. And this was the first time since he was a kid that he wasn’t gonna be out there.”

The younger Saleh had opted not to pursue a pro career as a player, citing the wear and tear on his body. But Robert decided he wasn’t ready to give up the sport. Instead, he wanted to give up the good-paying job he’d landed in commercial lending, and try his hand at coaching.

“Does it surprise me that he wanted to coach? No, but it caught me off guard because it wasn’t something he’d ever spoken of,” David said. “His love and passion for football is ultimately why he wanted to get into coaching. He just didn’t want to leave the game.”

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It was a passion much of his Lebanse-American family shared, along with the Dearborn community he grew up in. Saleh’s father, Sam, played linebacker at Eastern Michigan and had his career cut short by a knee injury in training camp with the Chicago Bears. His late uncle, Ossum, played guard at Michigan State in the early 1970s. Another uncle, Joe, was a teammate of Steve Mariucci's on NMU's 1975 Division II national championship team. Robert had followed David, who is four years older, in playing for the powerhouse Fordson prep program before going on to earn all-conference honors at NMU.

And it’s that network they turned to back in 2002 after he called an audible on his career. The Salehs enlisted the help of their former coach at Fordson, Jeff Stergalas, and others, including a neighbor in Brian Mosallam, who’d played at Michigan State and now is a member of the MSU’s board of trustees. All of them made calls to lobby on Robert’s behalf, even as they privately wondered about his decision.

Saleh was giving up an $800-a-week job and a promising career to earn $5-an-hour working summer camps in the hopes of becoming a graduate assistant. Mike Vollmar, another Fordson alum who was MSU’s director of football operations at the time, was among those advising him he'd be making a mistake, jumping into a cutthroat business that promises endless hours, little pay and virtually no stability.

“I remember asking David, ‘Does Robert know what he’s getting into?’” Mosallam said. “And he told me, ‘It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s gonna stop him.’”

He was right, of course. But even then, David didn’t know everything that was driving his little brother.

Growing up, they’d listened to their father speak wistfully of his own regrets, wondering aloud what his life would’ve been like had he pursued a coaching offer at EMU after graduation instead of joining the family real estate business. And Robert had agonized along with the rest of his family as the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit home only months before.

'What am I gonna do?'

David Saleh was beginning his second day of orientation as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. He was on a break on the 61st floor of the South Tower of Two World Trade Center when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. And some 20 minutes later he was scrambling down a stairwell dozens of floors below when United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into his building.

He managed to escape the building and called home to let his father know he was OK after running several blocks amid the mayhem in lower Manhattan. But that frantic phone call from a party store came before the Twin Towers collapsed. And as the Saleh family watched the horrific events unfold on TV, they had to wait several more hours before getting another call from David letting them know he was indeed safe.

Robert Saleh and the 49ers face the Vikings in the NFC playoffs on Saturday.

“It was not an easy day,” Robert Saleh told Sports Illustrated a couple years ago, “not a great day to reflect on.”

Yet in the months that followed, with time to think and reflect, he admits that moment served as “an epiphany.”

“Where it really had an effect on him was he would hear me say, ‘I don’t like what I’m doing,’” said David, who gave up his Wall Street dreams and returned home to Detroit, where he’s now a loan officer. “And I would always tell him, ‘If you’re not doing what you love, it doesn’t matter how much money you make, you’re never going to be happy.’ So I think those things weighed on him and he realized, 'This isn’t what I want to do.'”

Coaching was, as it turned out. Even if all those warnings he’d received were right on the money, in more ways than one.

Saleh made $650-a-month working at Michigan State, living rent-free in the home of his uncle’s former MSU teammate, John Shinsky. A year later, though, Bobby Williams was fired as the Spartans’ head coach and his successor, John L. Smith, told Saleh his GA job wouldn’t be renewed at the end of the year.

David remembers several more calls then as Robert phoned him wondering, “What am I gonna do?” His advice: Be persistent, and keep thinking outside the box. So at his brother’s urging, Robert drove to Mt. Pleasant in early 2004 and waited 90 minutes outside the office of Central Michigan’s new head coach, Brian Kelly, who’d once recruited Saleh out of high school when he was the coach at Grand Valley State. Kelly offered him another grad assistant job, and a year later, one of the connections he’d made at CMU working with defensive backs coach Tony Oden landed him his first NFL job.

It was just an internship, but at $7.50-an-hour Saleh felt like he’d struck gold. That is, until Dom Capers and most of the Texans coaching staff got fired after a 2-14 season in 2005. Luckily for Saleh, his internship ran through February, so he stuck around a bit longer. And having caught the eye of then-general manager Charley Casserly, both for his work ethic and his technological savvy, he was kept on by new head coach Gary Kubiak as a defensive quality control assistant.

Robert Saleh got his start in NFL coaching with the Houston Texans.

Houston is where he stayed for the next five seasons, earning a promotion to assistant linebackers coach in 2008, bolstering his resume and even bringing aboard an old friend. When an offensive quality control job came open on Kubiak’s staff, Saleh thought about taking it for himself. Instead, he endorsed Matt LaFleur, who’d been a fellow grad assistant at CMU, for the job. Each served as best man at the other’s wedding, and thanks in part to Saleh, LaFleur is now the rookie head coach of the Green Bay Packers, having earned his coaching stripes working under Kyle Shanahan in Houston, Washington and Atlanta.

Saleh, though, found himself unemployed again when Kubiak fired his defensive staff following a disappointing 6-10 season in 2010. This was just after his wife, Sanaa, gave birth to their first child. (The Salehs now have six kids, including a 10-month-old.) And it left Saleh scrambling once more, thinking he might be headed back to that financial sector job after all, until he landed a quality control job on Pete Carroll’s staff in Seattle.

“Coaching is a funny profession,” Mosallam said. “A lot of it is timing and luck, and if you look at Robert’s path it’s pretty remarkable. He’s not a legacy coach, he didn’t play in the NFL, his dad doesn’t coach in the NFL. To chart his own path and take the route that he took is very rare.”

It’s also part of what he preaches now to his players in between practices, sprinkling in stories about his own unique journey during team meetings and film sessions.

Dramatic turnaround 

It was in Seattle that Saleh really developed as a coach, working under then-coordinator Gus Bradley, learning the finer points of the Cover-3 scheme that fueled the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” defense, and taking to heart Carroll’s advice to be true to himself.

“He’s a genuine, blue-collar guy, and people love that about him,” David Saleh said. “His players love him. His colleagues do, too. He’s done a great job at making himself indispensable in a world where everybody is dispensable.”

Robert Saleh was named 49ers defensive coordinator in 2017.

After winning a Super Bowl with Seattle in February 2014, with his father and brother in the stands celebrating that 43-8 rout of Denver at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Saleh followed Bradley to Jacksonville as the Jaguars’ linebackers coach. Three years later, he was on the move again after Bradley was fired as head coach.

But rather than join Bradley in Los Angeles, where he landed as the Chargers' defensive coordinator, Saleh took Shanahan up on an offer to join his new staff in San Francisco. Initially hired as a position coach, he quickly convinced Shanahan, who'd marveled at his preparation and organizational skills in Houston, to name him the defensive coordinator.

It was a move that Shanahan stood by in spite of the 49ers’ defensive struggles in 2017 and ’18 under Saleh, a first-time play-caller for a rebuilding team.

That patience has paid off this season, as have the offseason investments the 49ers’ front office made on that side of the ball, trading for edge rusher Dee Ford, signing linebacker Kwon Alexander in free agency and drafting end Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick. Saleh, who's an expert-level chess player in addition to his football acumen, also brought in a fiery former Lions assistant in Kris Kocurek to coach the defensive line -- “He’s probably one of the best D-line coaches in football, if not the best,” Saleh says – and the turnaround has been dramatic.

This season, San Francisco went 13-3 and ranked No. 2 in the NFL in total defense, No. 1 against the pass, No. 3 in third-down efficiency, and No. 5 in sacks, playing with what Saleh describes as an “all-gas, no-brake mentality.”

"He commands the room really well," said veteran cornerback Richard Sherman, who knew Saleh from his time in Seattle, as well. "He has a great way of relating to his players and holding them accountable."

Nick Bosa, left, Arik Armstead and the 49ers led the NFL in total defense this season.

And with players like Sherman taking command on the field, Saleh became something of a celebrity this fall, as TV cameras focused on his intense sideline celebrations and social media helped them go viral. Those sideline flexes aren't really his nature, something Shanahan knows just as well as Saleh’s family and friends back home in Dearborn.

 “I mess with him and call him Gandhi," Shanahan said. "Saleh is a peaceful giant. He’s not like that very much -- that’s rare."

And while he does wear a bracelet that reads “extreme violence” as a reminder of what it takes to succeed as a defense at this level, Shanahan is quick to add, “He just wears a bracelet. It’s not like it’s tatted on his face or anything.”

Still, with the clean-shaven head and the Dwayne Johnson physique – 240 pounds with 9 percent body fat, his brother says – Robert Saleh does strike an imposing figure. And for Mosallam, who made the trip to New Orleans for a wild 49ers win over the Saints last month, it was striking just how recognizable his neighbor has become.

“It’s the NFL, so you’re gonna get exposure when you have success, and he’s got that unique look, you know?” Mosallam said. “But I didn’t realize what a celebrity he was – I had no idea. People were stopping him in the restaurant, gawking, pictures everywhere we went. He handles it all in stride, though.”

'Talk of the town' 

Same goes for all this talk about a possible head coaching job. Saleh, who'll turn 41 later this month, is one of a several candidates to interview for the lone remaining vacancy in Cleveland, and he’s reportedly one of the finalists for the Browns job along with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, the coach he’ll be matching wits against Saturday.

Asked about that this week, David Saleh laughs, “I mean, I’m his brother, probably his best friend, and he won’t talk to me about what’s going on behind the scenes. ... But if the Browns want that team to be competitive, they need a leader. And they interviewed the best coaching candidate in my brother. They’d be crazy not to bring him in."

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Whatever happens, the crazy significance of all this isn’t lost on anyone back home in Dearborn, where the passion for football runs deep. Saleh is believed to be only the second Arab-American ever to hold a coordinator’s position in the NFL -- the Bears' Abe Gibron in the '70s was the first -- and and while he was awarded a key to the city by Dearborn mayor Jack O’Reilly after that Super Bowl triumph in 2014, “everything is ratcheted up 100 times now,” Mosallam said.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “He’s the talk of the town. The Salehs are a big family, and everywhere you go, everybody you talk to, everybody knows them.”

And this weekend, David Saleh knows everybody will be over at his parents’ house in time for kickoff. The 49ers’ games have become another reason to gather the extended family on fall Sundays, and this Saturday will be no different, though Robert’s sister will be in San Francisco for the game and David, who's holding out for another Super Bowl trip with his daughter, admits he may opt for his own living room instead. (“It’s just way too crowded, way too much yelling, at my parents',” he laughs, noting that he might be the loudest of all.)

“We’re a very tight-knit community, so it’s been great for everybody,” David said. “"Growing up, if you would’ve told anybody that one of us would be in this type of position, we would’ve never really taken it seriously. But seeing this, I know a lot of these kids are looking at it and they’re saying, I can do this, too. So that door has been opened. ...

"And the enthusiasm that you hear in people’s voices, the excitement, the pride ... right now, he’s definitely the pride and joy of Dearborn.”

Divisional playoffs

SATURDAY 

Minnesota at San Francisco, 4:35 p.m. (NBC)

Tennessee at Baltimore, 8:15 p.m (CBS)

SUNDAY 

Houston at Kansas City, 3:05 p.m. (CBS)

Seattle at Green Bay, 6:40 p.m. (Fox)