This week, as I interviewed former Giants scout Steve Devine for our weekly Catching Up feature in tomorrow’s Friday Wrap (register here so you don’t miss our feature on Steve), our conversation drifted beyond the interview, as so often happens. One story, in particular, was appropriate for this space, where I try to encourage and enlighten young people interested in getting in the game.
Steve made several stops along a lengthy coaching career that pre-dated his time scouting for the Giants, and late in 1988, he found himself at San Diego State as offensive line coach under Al Luginbill. That year, as one of his collateral duties, he was in charge of hiring the grad assistants. He had just about filled all his spots when he found one last candidate that fit the bill perfectly, but who hedged before accepting the position. Steve was a bit frustrated, but willing to wait. That’s when his phone rang.
The call was International, and it came from the obscure coach of an English pub team. The coach called because he’d heard the Aztecs had an opening and he wanted badly to be considered for the job. He explained that he’d played at Eastern Illinois, then bounced around indoor football leagues (even getting a cup of coffee during the strike year in 1987 with the Bears) before finding himself coaching and playing in an overseas league. Though Steve liked the young man’s initiative, drive and attitude, he didn’t have any openings.
“Thanks for your interest, Sean, but I think we’re full,” Steve said, politely dismissing the enthusiastic young coach.
The next day came and went with no word from the coach Steve was hoping to hire. It wasn’t late yet, but it was getting late. Still no call . . . from the coach he hoped to hire, anyway. There was a call, though. It was from his new friend, Sean.
“Hey Coach Devine,” said the overseas caller. “Just wanted to check and see if anything had opened up.”
Steve told him, no, still nothing, but thanks for the call, anyway. After a bit more friendly small talk, they hung up.
On Day 3, Steve was starting to get antsy and eager to fill all his openings. That’s why, when the young coach called again, it gave him pause. Still, when the caller expressed his interest in the position — and guaranteed that he would be there when needed, no questions asked — Steve could offer encouragement but no interview.
On Day 4, Steve could wait no longer. The coach he wanted still wasn’t calling, and it was time to move forward. Surprisingly, he didn’t hear from his friend Sean. That is, not until 11 p.m. PST.
“Hey Coach Devine,” said the young coach. “I’m still really interested in that job. Has anything opened up?”
Yes, there’s an opening, Steve finally told him. But there were caveats. No. 1, he could give him no more than an interview, with no guarantees. No. 2, the interview would take place in 24 hours. No exceptions. No. 3, San Diego State had no travel budget for its interviewees. Basically, the young coach would have to drop what he was doing, pay his own way to fly and drive thousands of miles, and be fresh and ready enough to interview immediately. Done, said Sean. Naturally, it wasn’t that easy.
For whatever reason, he didn’t fly directly into San Diego. Instead, he flew into Chicago and rented a car, then drove the 2,000-plus miles to Southern California . . . barely. The day of the interview, Steve got a distress call from the coach. “My car is smoking,” he said. “I think it’s the radiator.” Somehow, he made it to Steve’s house, where he stayed for a few days, as he had no money for a hotel.
When he arrived at the coaches offices to interview, he looked just like someone who had only found out a day-plus before that he’d be interviewing for a Division I football coaching position, then flew and drove across an ocean and a continent to get there. Still dressed like he’d just walked off the practice field, his clothes were rumpled and wrinkled, and he’d brought nothing to change into. Steve scrambled for something to make him look presentable, but all he could find was his own sweat-stained San Diego State coaches shirt. Luckily, it fit Sean.
Though the interviewee was arriving from Great Britain, he didn’t look like he’d just walked over from Savile Row. Still, it was good enough, and he won Steve and Luginbill over with his fresh offensive ideas, his energy and his drive to succeed. He got the job, and launched a career that would include a Super Bowl XLIV victory, NFL Coach of the Year honors in 2006, and 139 NFL wins (regular season and postseason) — but not before pissing off some of the team’s offensive coaches in his first team meetings with his ideas (which Steve said were correct, by the way). By now you’ve figured out that we’re speaking of Sean Payton.
If you’re someone who aspires to be the next Sean Payton — or Drew Rosenhaus, or Chris Ballard, or Bill Belichick or whoever — you’re going to have to humble yourself, you’re going to have to ask for things (nicely) that have already been promised to others, and you’re going to have to dig into your own pockets for a Hail Mary chance at a great opportunity that could lead to something more. It’s called paying your dues, and it’s as true today as it was in 1988 (or 1888, for that matter). I think almost anyone who’s at the top of the business would agree with me.
Good luck, and keep working hard.