Robert Saleh hopes the Jets make history in his time as the team's 20th head coach. Then again, Saleh has already made history -- as the first Muslim head coach in the history of the NFL.
Working for an organization that has put its commitment to diversity into action in myriad ways, the hiring of Saleh is not a novelty for the Jets. The team has had two Black coaches -- Herm Edwards and Todd Bowles -- and casted a wide net of diverse coaching candidates to interview, and ultimately work for the team.
At present, there are four minority head coaches in the NFL (Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Brian Flores in Miami, and Ron Rivera in Washington are the others) and Saleh, appearing on the Huddle and Flow podcast with Steve Wyche and Jim Trotter, said: "I know the results are not what everyone is looking for. But I do know, and you're seeing it, the league office and the owners know it is important."
The diversity question is one that Saleh has been dealing with candidly since he was hired by the Jets in January. And while he's been gracious and informative, it is also evident that Saleh would much prefer talking about his team and about the next game. That time will certainly come soon enough, but for now he is a de facto spokesman.
"It's about creating ways to get minorities face time with owners," he said. "A big part is getting good quality face time. The league is relentlessly working. I know talking through interviews and having conversations, for each owner it [diversity] was in forefront of their minds, along with social justice. It's important to them and it's important for candidates to see that it's important to the league office to get it right. It might not be happening as fast as they want, but we can see the people putting in the work."
As Saleh began his climb up the coaching ladder from defensive assistant at three colleges (Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia) before landing in the NFL as an intern with Houston in 2005, he acknowledged the progression. He said he believes that one of the best routes to a top job is via the quality-control coaching route. That person's main job is preparing the team for a game, beginning sometimes weeks ahead of the actual contest. Their primary duties include preparing for the opponent by analyzing game film for statistical analysis.
"The biggest thing when you talk pipeline and about the quality control level, it's the most intimate relationship between coordinator and coach," Saleh said. "They talk with coaches the most. Look at a guy like DeMeco Ryans in San Francisco. He came in as the quality control coach, we had a good relationship. Then he gets bumped to linebackers coach and the relationships get stronger. I get this opportunity here, a blessing, and he slides right in [to defensive coordinator]. Talking pipeline, quality control might take two or three years, but it's about getting minorities into spots to build relationships. That's where rapid growth happens. From the ground up where you're able to build a résumé."
Ulbrich for the Defense
Jeff Ulbrich, the Jets' new defensive coordinator, grew up in Northern California and went to Live Oak High School. The sports teams at the school are nicknamed the Acorns and, of course, the ubiquitous school cheer is "Let's Go Nuts."
Ulbrich, who joined the Jets after working for the Falcons in Atlanta since 2015, has already been charged with calling plays by HC Robert Saleh. No one is going nuts, just yet, but D. Orlando Ledbetter, the Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution told Ethan Greenberg and Eric Allen on The Official Jets Podcast that Ulbrich "brings the juice" on and off the field.
"He's a great communicator, a good teacher," Ledbetter said. "He's specific and clear how he wants players to play. He's truthful with them. Deion Jones is one of prize products. They [Atlanta] got him to be a cover linebacker, drafted to cover running backs and tight ends, to get better and tougher against the run. He's smallish [6-1, 227], but he [Ulbrich] was always truthful about that, pressing him to get better. He's definitely a teacher, a builder of men. He preaches character and honesty to his players."
After Atlanta dismissed Dan Quinn as head coach, a guy who Ulbrich has had a long professional relationship with, Ulbrich was elevated to defensive coordinator, working with interim coach Raheem Morris. They conceived a defensive plan that stymied the Chiefs until a late spurt carried KC to a 17-14 victory on a late score.
"He's a composed teacher, not a wild-and-crazy guy," Ledbetter said. "He's a tactician, quiet, he's not going to get up in your face, but will forcefully demand what wants from players. But he's a linebacker [in college at Hawaii, and with the 49ers in the NFL] and we know all linebackers are crazy."