Made in Michigan: Roots helped shape first-year Packers coach Matt LaFleur
For football fans in Michigan to see their NFL team in the unfamiliar perch at the top of the NFC North, they’ll have to go through one of their own.
First-year Packers coach Matt LaFleur is one of us.
The Mount Pleasant native embodies the marriage of opportunity and hard work, topped off with coaching genes and superior football acumen. His climb to the top of the football world began with stops throughout the Great Lakes State before his relationship with a powerful football family took him to heights that still stun those who knew him when.
“It’s amazing how things have worked out for him,” said Dave Schwartz, who was LaFleur’s position coach when he was a standout quarterback at Mount Pleasant High School. “It’s a cutthroat business and he’s been able to survive it, and I’m so proud of him and pleased for him.”
LaFleur and the Packers play host to the Lions on Monday night at Lambeau Field with first place on the line. If his really is the regime to turn around the Lions, coach Matt Patricia will need to design a way to slow down Aaron Rodgers, who engineers LaFleur’s attack.
The 39-year-old coach has been tasked with getting the most out of the twilight of the 35-year-old quarterback’s career, and figuring out a way to add another Super Bowl trophy — which is named after one of his predecessors, of course — to one of sport’s most storied franchises.
At 4-1, the early returns in Green Bay are good.
“I have to give credit to our players,” LaFleur said. “We have some really good players on both sides of the ball. Our team has really come together and are battling for each other. I just can’t say enough about the guys in that locker room.”
A coach’s kid following in his father’s footsteps to the sideline is a pretty well-worn story that plays out constantly in communities across the land.
That’s part of the story for Matt and his younger brother Mike, now the passing game coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. Their father, Denny, was a standout nose guard on Central Michigan’s 1974 Division II national championship team. He then coached on the defensive staff at his alma mater for two decades.
But Jason McIntyre, now head football coach at Mount Pleasant - following his father Ted’s lead into the profession - said LaFleur doesn’t just honor and embody his father’s toughness and teaching, but his mother's too.
“Kristi was a competitive coach,” McIntyre said. “A lot of their feistiness that they have in coaching comes from their mom. Kristi was an incredible cheerleading coach here and track coach, and a lot of those things you see in Mike and Matt, you see in her as well.”
Kristi was a cheerleader at CMU, and friend Plas Presnell joked that Denny was “Mr. CMU” back then.
But Denny’s Central Michigan connections were also essential to LaFleur’s upbringing. The Chippewas, not the Lions or Wolverines or Spartans, were the most important thing going in the LaFleur household. Matt dreamed of playing at Kelly/Shorts Stadium someday.
Matt’s baby-sitters were guys like John Bonamego, then the junior varsity coach at Mount Pleasant High School after finishing up his playing career at CMU.
“His dad actually recruited me. So, when he was little, I babysat him and his brother,” Bonamego said. “We’d play ‘Horse,’ I had to keep the score close because he’d get pretty pissed off.
“I’d let him win.”
Like LaFleur, Bonamego would eventually hit the college coaching ranks and move on to the pros. His four-year run as Central Michigan’s head coach ended last season, and he’s back in the pros guiding the Lions special teams.
“He was very competitive, always a good kid,” Bonamego said. “They’re a football family. Coaches kid, grew up around it. So a very disciplined family and a very close-knit family.”
LaFleur waited his turn to take over the Oilers varsity team for coach Don Peddie, as would-be CMU quarterback Pete Shepherd relegated him to the junior varsity team through his sophomore year.
When he went under center as a junior in 1996, LaFleur was as prepared as any new starter could be.
“He was electric. He was magnificent,” said Schwartz, now the athletic director at Essexville Garber High School. “He was so far ahead of everybody mentally with his anticipation skills and his vision. He could see things before they happened. He could anticipate, he could adjust.”
Schwartz said plays for LaFleur had two or three options, a higher level of freedom than is typically given to high school quarterbacks.
“And if you took his initial options away, he would kill you ad-libbing,” Schwartz said. “That’s why he was an all-state quarterback.”
Schwartz recalls a comeback at Cadillac during his junior season, making improvised plays late in a come-from-behind 23-22 victory.
There also were glimpses of a coaching future, as Schwartz said LaFleur’s self-evaluation was key to his preparation.
“He was hard on himself, he asked a lot of himself, but he had no problem looking in the mirror either and saying these are things I need to correct,” Schwartz said. “He would hang with the guys as well. He wasn’t just totally absorbed in being a quarterback, but when it was football time, and preparation time, he was front and center.”
Off the field, the family suffered a blow when Matt was in high school, as Denny was fired by CMU coach Dick Flynn as the reeling maroon and gold program hit a lull in the late 1990s.
Driven in part because of his dad’s dismissal, LaFleur decided to walk-on at Western Michigan, CMU’s chief rival.
Playing for Gary Darnell, LaFleur was again stuck behind an entrenched starter in Tim Lester. Lester was drawn to the younger quarterback though.
“He’s an extremely hard-worker, extremely intelligent, we became friends quickly,” Lester said. “He was sharp, could really throw it.”
But he never got a chance in Kalamazoo, didn’t throw a pass for the Broncos, and was asked to switch to wide receiver after two seasons.
LaFleur looked elsewhere, and found coach Randy Awrey building a new program at Saginaw Valley State, and needing quarterback help after Jerry Kill ran the triple option for a few years.
“We knew we had a good athlete who could throw the ball, and high school film looked good,” said Jim Kiernan, LaFleur’s offensive coordinator at Saginaw Valley State. “We were happy to take him.”
Lester, now the head coach at Western Michigan, coached Mike LaFleur at Division III Elmhurst College near Chicago and stays in close touch with the LaFleurs.
“Obviously Matt’s killing it in Green Bay. We still talk every now and then,” Lester said. “I’m happy for him. I’m a Bears fan, and now I’m actually rooting for the Packers for the first time in my life because of him.
Starting quarterback Garrett Small suffered a career-ending head injury in Saginaw Valley’s 2000 opener, a loss to Hillsdale.
In stepped LaFleur for game two against powerhouse Grand Valley State, where he beat the Lakers, throwing two touchdowns to beat the Lakers 28-21.
“Nothing fazed him, he just kind of had that even keel,” said Brian Dolph, a senior All-American wide receiver during LaFleur’s first season, and now an assistant principal at his alma mater Galesburg-Augusta High School. “I joked around and I remember calling him Matty Ice a bunch of times when we were playing. He stepped in and always rose to the pressure. Never showed his nerves.”
SVSU wasn’t picked to finish near the top of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, but finished 9-3 and made the Division II playoffs.
That era’s Cardinals would become known as the “Cardiac Cards” with their penchant for great escapes and come-from-behind performances directed by LaFleur. The crescendo came in 2001, as Indiana (Pa.) took a 32-7 halftime lead over SVSU in a playoff game.
LaFleur and the ‘Cardiac Cards’ went to work in the second half, and the comeback was punctuated by LaFleur’s 7-yard touchdown run to close a 98-yard, game-winning drive.
“When the game was on the line, there was 2 minutes to go, give him the ball, he’ll find a way,” Kiernan said.
While LaFleur dazzled on Saturdays, Kiernan said the glimpse of his future would come on Sunday nights, when he bothered the graduate assistants for his game film.
“Bugging would be the light word,” said Kiernan, now the offensive coordinator at Lake Forest College. “He needed his film.”
Connecting with wide receivers Ruvell Martin, who would play for the Packers, and Glenn Martinez, who started his four-year NFL career with the Lions, Saginaw Valley made the playoffs in each of LaFleur’s three seasons at the helm.
“He might be the most competitive guy I’ve ever coached,” Kiernan said. “I’m stealing from him now. Hopefully you watch Lake Forest film and see something that Matt’s been running from the Packers, Rams and the Falcons.
“He’s the one who has been to the Super Bowl.”
LaFleur began his coaching career while finishing his degree at Saginaw Valley, helping as a graduate assistant and pitching in for Schwartz to train his high school quarterbacks in Essexville.
His next stop was home, as he joined Brian Kelly’s new staff at Central Michigan for two seasons as a graduate assistant.
Kelly was coming to Mount Pleasant from Grand Valley, and hired LaFleur after exacting revenge on the quarterback twice in the meetings following the quarterback’s upset in his debut.
Under Kelly’s direction, LaFleur was your typical go-getter, and Kelly would hire LaFleur again at quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame in 2014 after he was part of Mike Shanahan’s dismissed staff with the Washington Redskins.
“He had his nose to the grindstone,” said Presnell, who coached more than three decades at Central under six head coaches. “There’s the coaches that spend a lot of time, but those guys spend more time. He was on task with all that stuff.”
LaFleur also met his wife, BreAnne, during his homecoming in Mount Pleasant. A Central student at the time, BreAnne and Matt now have two sons, Ty and Luke. BreAnne has held down home life during LaFleur's 10 coaching stops in 15 years.
Presnell shared an office with Denny LaFleur at CMU and saw Matt when he came home from the hospital shortly after he was born.
“It’s a fantastic story,” Presnell said, noting only that he wishes LaFleur’s grandfather, a longtime Kalamazoo area coach known as “Bullet Bob,” was around to see it. Kristi’s father, Bob Barringer, passed away in 2010.
“He was quite a guy,” Presnell said. “I told him, ‘Denny, I know that Bullet Bob would be out of his mind with pride.’”
At Central, LaFleur also coached with Robert Saleh, a Dearborn native who played tight end at Northern Michigan.
LaFleur himself would next go to the Upper Peninsula, although the bond created with Saleh would pay big dividends down the road.
Bernie Anderson was then the head coach at Northern Michigan, and he knew Denny from Central Michigan when Anderson was at Michigan Tech.
Anderson also knew Matt as a player at Saginaw Valley State, knew he was working with Kelly’s Chippewas, and had an open position for a quarterbacks coach.
“I thought he’d be a great fit for it and he was,” Anderson said of LaFleur’s first full-time coaching stop. “Usually a first-year coach, you deal with some growing pains. But because he played the position and been around his father that had coached, he just fit in as a natural.
“He just picked up like he’d been coaching for 10 years and was very effective.”
Anderson said LaFleur did everything right, had excellent people skills, kept his ego in check and knew the game.
“Those are four pretty big qualities for a quarterback or a coach,” Anderson said.
LaFleur’s quarterback Buddy Rivera threw 20 touchdowns and five interceptions that year, but the Wildcats stumbled to a 3-7 season.
With Ford Field the longest drive of any NFC North stadium from Marquette, LaFleur said he was surprised to see so much Green Bay gear in Marquette.
“I couldn’t believe how many Packers fans were in the U.P., but we’ve definitely been able to convert a few in the Lower Peninsula,” LaFleur said of his friends and family. “They’re all on board with the Packers.”
Anderson said Marquette is divided about 50/50 of Lions and Packers fans — those who grew up in the 1960s, 70s or 80s are usually Packers fans, with younger fans gravitating toward Barry Sanders and the Lions.
“I thought, not only from a football perspective, but in all of sports, he was one of the most electric athletes in all of sports,” LaFleur said. “I always enjoyed watching him every Sunday during the fall.”
After just one season at Northern Michigan, LaFleur moved on to become the offensive coordinator at Ashland, spending one season there before Saleh called him about a quality control position with the Houston Texans.
There, he met Kyle Shanahan, striking up a friendship with another coach's son over pickup basketball.
LaFleur followed Shanahan and his father, Mike Shanahan, to Washington and later Atlanta, where Saginaw's Matty Ice met Atlanta's Matty Ice. LaFleur was Matt Ryan’s quarterbacks coach during his MVP season that ended in the Super Bowl, with his brother Mike on staff too. After two more seasons with offensive coordinator stops with the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans, LaFleur was hired in January by the Packers.
Now retired in Marquette, Anderson said he remembers LaFleur telling him many times on the sideline that “we’ll get it fixed” during tough GLIAC battles, and lived Anderson’s three main rules: Do what’s right, do it the best you can, and treat others the way you want to be treated.
“It’s not surprising, it’s not surprising a bit,” said Anderson, a lifelong Packers fan. “When he got the head job at Green Bay, I thought it was a perfect fit for this reason: He’s honest and ethical, a great work ethic obviously. It just fits the Green Bay community. His personality, his style, he’s neat, clean-cut, honest, high ethics, hard-working. That’s the type of program Green Bay is, so it doesn’t surprise me.”
After the hire, a handful of television news crews from Wisconsin made their way to Isabella County to learn more about Mount Pleasant, where the new coach of their beloved Packers was raised.
McIntyre, the head varsity football coach, found himself fielding questions about the young man who was a freshman when McIntyre was a senior for the Oilers.
“I had one reporter ask me, ‘You’ve had success as a coach, what advice would you give Matt LaFleur in coaching?’” McIntyre said. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me right now? I think Matt’s got it under control.’
"I think what Matt’s done for people in Mount Pleasant and myself is to provide an example that - we tell kids, you can accomplish whatever you want if you work hard, you do these things. But he’s kind of the true living story of it.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
Lions at Packers
►Kickoff: 8:15 Monday, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.
►Records: Lions 2-1-1, Packers 4-1
►Line: Packers by 3