The Lions have lost three straight and just traded starting safety Quandre Diggs. Lose another and the wheels might come off the bus. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
When John Filiatraut took over the reins of the Dearborn Divine Child football team before the 2014 season, he reached out to the most accomplished coach from his alma mater with a long and winding text message.
What Pat Shurmur texted in response was immensely reassuring, yet extremely simple.
“I just kind of asked him what do you think or whatever. 'I got this job and blah, blah, blah, I’m going to try to take care of the place,'” Filiatraut recalled this week. “He just texted back two words, just, ‘Be you.’”
That clearly communicated message is one Filiatraut still passes on to his players, including this week in preparation for a do-or-die showdown Saturday with U-D Jesuit for a playoff spot. And it’s a message that has served Shurmur well in his coaching career, especially in the bright lights of New York.
Shurmur of Dearborn Heights is in his second year under the microscope as head coach of the Giants (2-5), who are visiting the Lions on Sunday in Shurmur’s first regular-season game as a head coach in his home state.
It’s also the second game in three weeks where the Lions (2-3-1) are opposing a homegrown coach. New York is one of three states with more current NFL head coaches born there, but two of Michigan’s own are coaching the Big Apple’s two high-profile teams: Shurmur with the Giants and Ypsilanti’s Adam Gase of the Jets.
Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur also is from Mount Pleasant, leaving Michigan to only trail California, Ohio and New York, which have four apiece — including New York’s own Matt Patricia of the Lions.
For Shurmur, like in his two year stint as Cleveland’s head coach in 2011-12, things haven’t gone well in New York: He’s 7-16 with the Giants and 17-39 in his career, which also included a 2015 win as interim coach in Philadelphia after Chip Kelly was fired.
In the midst of a three-game losing streak, Shurmur was not in a reflective mood when asked about returning home to Michigan this week.
“I guess there will be some people from my family that will be there,” said Shurmur, a captain and All-Big Ten center at Michigan State. “I obviously coached against the Lions in Detroit many times (as an assistant). But we’re looking forward to the opportunity, and we’re a team that needs to play consistently better than we have at times this year.”
Shurmur has an undermanned defense and made the move to bench two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning at quarterback early this year in favor of rookie Daniel Jones.
The sixth overall pick has had to deal with injuries to top weapons Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard, and the four-game suspension for ex-Lion Golden Tate to start the season.
It’s a far cry from Shurmur's playing days, where he led Divine Child to the Class B state finals in 1982, and then closed his playing career for Michigan State coach George Perles with a Rose Bowl victory over USC on New Year’s Day in 1988.
Filiatraut said he remembers as a teenager watching a dominant Shurmur patrol the middle of the Divine Child field at linebacker for coach Wes Wishart.
“I’m just not sure there’s too many high school players that are as good as he was. He was really a great high school football player,” Filiatraut said. “Big and tough.”
He transitioned to being an undersized three-year starter at center, helping to clear the way for a pair of Top-5 Heisman Trophy finishes for running back Lorenzo White.
“He made the calls and all that type of stuff,” White said this week in a phone call from Florida. “He was almost like the quarterback, looking around at the blockers and everything. Right there alone, that showed me he had the chance of being a good football coach.”
Shurmur also showed his leadership qualities off the field.
Former Lions safety John Miller recalled an outing at a bar during his junior year at Michigan State where Shurmur, the senior captain, called him out for a character issue in the midst of a strong season.
“You can’t be everyone’s best friend all the time, and you’ve got to stand up for what’s right for the rest of the team,” said Miller, who said he tried to emulate Shurmur the following season when he became a captain. “If you’re not doing that, I’m going to have to call you out as a captain.
“That went a long way with me.”
Still, Shurmur was one of the guys.
A running joke on the late 1980s MSU teams included imitating legendary offensive line coach Buck Nystrom.
“We always make fun of the things he did,” White said. “We’d even make fun of him in the middle of the huddle.”
Shurmur was the first graduate student to play for Michigan State and worked a desk job for nearly a year after his playing career ended.
He went back to coaching though, joining Perles to become a graduate assistant.
“That showed me where his passion stood, and I really admire that,” said Miller, who works in the automotive industry. “I’m almost 30 years into a profession that I have almost zero passion for, and I didn’t have the guts that he did to stand back and say, 'This isn’t what I want, I’m going to go after what I want.'
“He did that and I was always very impressed with that.”
Shurmur, whose wife Jennifer is a New Yorker who swam at Michigan State, has three daughters.
His only son, Kyle, is a rookie quarterback for Kansas City. After three years as a starter at Vanderbilt, Kyle Shurmur is No. 2 for the Chiefs under Matt Moore while reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes recovers from injury.
A highly successful offensive assistant in stints with Philadelphia, St. Louis and Minnesota, Pat Shurmur hasn’t made it work yet as a head coach. But, as an embodiment of the Perles era, at least one ally believes that it’ll work out for him someday, maybe even at a familiar place.
“That’s one thing I can definitely say about Pat is there’s a character line there with him that sets him apart,” Miller said. “He was a great embodiment of Michigan State football. To be honest with you, I hope he’s the next MSU coach, to be truthful.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.