Brains, relentless work ethic made Matt Patricia rising star
Minneapolis – Matt Patricia is defined by his dedication – both to his craft and to those who have helped him climb through the coaching ranks. The New England Patriots defensive coordinator, who led his unit a final time on Sunday in Super Bowl LII, a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, is expected to be named the Detroit Lions coach as early as Monday.
But who is Patricia? What makes him tick? And how did the aerospace engineering graduate from one of the country’s elite universities end up the NFL’s most sought-after coaching candidate?
Those who have worked with Patricia describe him as hard-working and intelligent. Or, as Patriots linebacker and former Lion Kyle Van Noy puts it, “Matt’s a nerd.”
“Here’s what’s unique about Matt, that’s similar to (Patriots coach Bill) Belichick. Oftentimes when people are described as intelligent, people think they’re smarter than they are hard-working,” longtime Patriots executive and current Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli said. “And when people are characterized as hard-working, people believe they’re more hard-working than smart. Matt, similar to Bill, is both brilliant and hard-working at similarly high levels.”
When Patricia, 43, decided he wanted to abandon his engineering career two years after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his college offensive coordinator, Don Faulstick, then working in the same role at Amherst, thought Patricia was out of his mind.
“At the time, I was like, ‘What are you doing? Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” Faulstick said. “He was recently married, had a good career, both his parents were school teachers and hard-working folks. I told him his dad would kill him if he did this.”
But once it was clear Patricia was set on following his heart into coaching, Faulstick happily recommended him for a job on Amherst’s staff.
After two years coaching the defensive line, Patricia caught wind of an opening for a low-level position at Syracuse, a 40-minute drive outside his hometown, Sherrill, N.Y. He shared his interest with Faulstick and the two drove two hours through a snowstorm to pitch Syracuse’s offensive line coach George DeLeone, who was speaking at a clinic.
“We needed a guy who could come in, work and grind it out,” DeLeone said. “Just talking to him, I felt he was a guy who could handle that.”
At Syracuse, Patricia’s work ethic meshed well with DeLeone’s demanding style. The pair worked together for three years until Josh McDaniels, then a low-level assistant, called DeLeone seeking recommendations for an opening with the Patriots. The coach didn’t hesitate to recommend Patricia.
“The one thing I sold Josh on is, look, this guy will work,” DeLeone said. “This guy will grind it out. You can count on that. I’ll put my name on the line there. Josh set up the interview with Coach Belichick and it worked out.”
Patricia has taken his commitment to his job to another level in New England. During the season, he said he’s lucky to get four hours of sleep on a given night. He was spending so many nights at the team’s practice facility, his wife bought him a Tempur-Pedic mattress so he’d stop sleeping on the floor.
Patricia’s obsession with crafting the best game plan, one that will put his players in the best position to have success, keeps him up night after night.
Teaching and coaching
Patricia left engineering to try his hand at coaching because it combined his two passions: football and teaching. He got his master’s degree in education, and his two degrees remain relevant to his current career.
The engineering background has made him a skillful problem solver, and his affinity for teaching allows him to convey his expectations to his assistant coaches and an ever-changing roster of players.
“I think he’s an outstanding teacher,” Patricia’s college coach Joe King said. “I’m not sure all coaches are, but that’s what coaching is. It’s getting people from point A to point B, and I think is Matt is very good at that.”
To Patricia, teaching and coaching are one and the same.
“As a coach, you’re a teacher,” he said. “You’re trying to teach in all different avenues, from the game plan, technique, life, whatever it may be. Teacher, mentor, whatever it may be. I think when you’re in front of the group, and you’re presenting, you’re very much, at that point, teaching. I think you want to hit, whatever it is, the seven (styles) of learning. You want to make sure you’re hitting all those when you’re going through.”
Van Noy highlighted a time earlier this season when Patricia brought a small group players up to his office when the team was making some schematic changes, specifically to those players’ roles. Patricia spent two hours explaining and answering questions to make sure everyone understood their new responsibilities within the defense.
As for his ability to solve problems, it’s been evident throughout Patricia’s six-year run as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. It shows up annually with his ability to take a bargain-priced unit, consisting of a number of younger players and castoffs from other rosters, and consistently molding them into a formidable group.
While some of the stats may not be pretty, Patricia’s defenses get the job done where it matters most, keeping opponents off the scoreboard. They’ve averaged fewer than 20 points allowed each of the past four seasons, something no other team can claim.
And what are adjustments if not the result of problem solving? Patricia is quick to credit his players for executing, but it’s a coach’s job to teach players what to do and put them in good position to do it. His ability to adjust was on full display in 2017, when the Patriots gave up 128 points in the first four games, but only 168 the final 12.
“The first four games, they played like crap,” former Patriots safety and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said. “They made some adjustments and end up being one of the best defenses in the league. That should tell you about Matt Patricia and what he’s capable of doing.”
He’s just as sharp within individual games, especially down the stretch. Look at the way New England locked down Tennessee and Jacksonville after falling behind early in those playoff games. Those opponents combined for just 13 second-half points.
It doesn’t hurt that Patricia is a lifelong learner, always open to new ideas or different ways of thinking.
Unlike many coaches, he’s had extensive experience working on both sides of the ball, both in the college ranks and with the Patriots. He played offensive line at RPI, coached defensive line at Amherst, before working with the offensive lines at Syracuse and early on with the Patriots.
He moved back to the defensive side in 2006, first working with New England’s linebackers, then safeties, before being promoted to coordinator in 2012. Each role has given him added perspective and expanded his football IQ.
“All that helps,” DeLeone said. “You really can’t, even though he’s been on defense all these years, you can’t substitute spending time on offense, sitting in the meetings, understanding the problems. He’s been blessed that way, to have that background.”
In his early years with the Patriots, Patricia attended a career symposium hosted by the NFL. Speakers included former Colts general manager Bill Polian and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
“I think anybody that wants to improve themselves, whatever it is, are going to go to avenues like going to football clinics to listen to other coaches, go to listen to CEOs talk and listen to other organizations and see what you can learn,” Patricia said.
In defensive meetings, the floor is always open. Patricia never assumes he has all the answers and works collaboratively with his assistants to devise each week’s game plan.
“Everyone has a voice, no one is shut out, no one feels like no one is listening to me,” Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores said. “We talk though it. Those meetings are long sometimes. You’re sitting there like, ugh, going to be here all night. Again. But we do it and everyone knows it’s for the best interest of the team. You just try to get it right every week.”
And tucked behind Patricia’s ear, at all times, is a finely sharpened No. 2 pencil. It’s as much a part of his identity as his beard. The dependence on having a writing utensil at the ready started his first year with the Patriots, when he had to draw out each play when breaking down film. Now, it’s there for whenever inspiration might hit.
‘What it’s all about’
A final marker of Patricia’s character is how much he values the relationships he’s made through life and continues to make in football. It’s a personal point of emphasis to make sure his players know he cares about them.
“For me, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s about really trying to help everybody that I can, reach as many guys as I can, not only to help them as a player, which is first and foremost, but really as a person. If they need anything, I’d do anything I could to help them.”
Patricia liberally throws around the word love when talking about colleagues such as McDaniels and quarterback Tom Brady. When asked about former Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork, Patricia called him family.
And everyone who knows Patricia seems to have a personal story.
As a young position coach, Patricia surprised Harrison by pulling him aside and offering words of encouragement when the veteran leader was going through a tough stretch and struggling with his confidence. Defensive end Trey Flowers said Patricia often sits with guys just to catch up on what’s going on in their lives, with their families. Cornerback Malcolm Butler said Patricia recently came up to him and said, “You know I love you, right?”
“I said, ‘Yep.’ I believed it because I love him, too,” Butler said. “He’s just a great coach. Without football, he’s just a great dude.”
As he mentioned, Patricia also does his best to stay connected to his past. He regularly texts with Coach King, who retired from RPI in 2011. Last spring, Patricia accepted Faulstick’s invitation to speak at a leadership event at Amherst for the captains of the school’s various athletic programs and called Faulstick’s son to offer words of encouragement after he tore his ACL in preseason camp.
Even Patricia’s beard has significance.
“The quick story on the beard is, honestly, 2011 I believe it was, I have a lot of buddies who are in the military, that have gone overseas, were overseas that year,” Patricia said. “I got to see a couple of them before they left and they were usually in full beard, obviously doing great things to protect our country and just great Americans. It’s kind of just one of those deals where I said, ‘Well, I’m not shaving until you get back. So when you get to see us on TV, or see me on TV, know that I’m thinking about you.’ ”
Beating the odds
None of these traits guarantee Patricia will be successful with the Lions, but at the very least, he checks off many of the boxes desired in a leader.
And, of course, there will be natural skepticism after other assistants have left New England and struggled as head coaches. But Patricia has the benefit of a general manager, Bob Quinn, coming in from New England two years earlier and laying the groundwork of cultural expectations.
Probably the most popular piece of advice from those who know Patricia and the challenge he faces in Detroit is he can’t try to be Belichick. That doesn’t seem like it will be an issue.
“In regard to any kind of coaching that I do, I always think it’s great just to be who I am, because I am my own person,” Patricia said. “If I try to be anything other who I am, that doesn’t really work.”
He’s been an understudy of some highly successful coaches at various levels and, as Patricia sees it, he’s a combination of all of them. Among other pieces, he’s tried to pluck King’s passion, Paul Pasqualoni’s ability to organize, DeLeone’s work ethic and Belichick’s attention to detail.
Patricia already has defied the odds. Nineteen years ago he left a good, stable career to purse happiness. He’s risen through the ranks like he’s had a rocket he might have designed in his former life strapped to his back. It’s led him to Detroit, where he’d be the franchise’s 27th head coach and 17th of the Super Bowl era. Time will tell if he can beat the odds again and make the Lions into a winner those who came before him couldn’t.