Brian Daboll was affable, funny and cooperative during his first press conference as head coach of the New York Giants. He even suggested, jokingly, at one point that we all bail on the festivities and go grab a beer. In short, he was a nice guy.
Co-owner John Mara noticed Daboll’s personality right away when Daboll interviewed for the job.
“It certainly made him likable right from the beginning,” Mara said at that introductory press conference. “I don’t know that I’d say we’ve never had a coach with that type of personality, but he seems like somebody that will be very easy to work with in the building, that people will respond to and want to work with. That was certainly something we took notice of right away.”
Is he too nice to be a head coach? Too nice to command the respect of a locker room? Of an entire organization?
Jerry Smith, Daboll’s football coach at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo, chuckled when asked about that idea.
“I wouldn’t want to test that, quite honestly,” Smith told Big Blue View.
Smith, who is still the head coach at St. Francis, was at the beginning of his tenure when Daboll was a student there in the early 1990s. “Intense” is the word Smith thinks of when asked to describe the Daboll he knew as a teenage running back/defensive back.
“He was a very intense young man. Very polite. Well-mannered. Determined. Extremely hard worker,” Smith said. “He was always doing everything in the weight room and in 7 on 7s, practices, offseason stuff. He was intense.”
Smith has remained in close contact with Daboll over the years, and says the Giants’ new coach understands “when it’s business, it’s business.”
“I don’t think anybody’s going to be walking over him. There’s a standard he has, and he’ll hold people to that,” Smith said.
“Who says that you have to be mean to run it? You don’t have to. There’s many different ways to skin a cat, but the bottom line is you better believe in yourself and what you’re doing. He does.
“Obviously at the pro level the No. 1 job is to win, that’s it, and there’s many ways to do it.
“He is a nice guy, but don’t take niceness for meekness.”
It’s been a long road for Daboll from St. Francis to East Rutherford, N.J.
Smith remembers him as a key player on Smith’s first two league championship teams in 1992 and 1993, a hard-nosed running back and defensive back.
Smith says that “back then you could hit receivers,” and he remembers hits by Daboll knocking two players out of games during that time. He blames the team’s only loss during a two-year period where it went 16-1-1 with two league titles on Daboll missing a game with a broken thumb.
“To this day I still believe that if he played we win that game,” Smith said.
At the time, Smith did not know Daboll’s journey would lead him to coach and ultimately to the Giants. He did, however, know one thing about the Giants’ new head coach.
“You could tell he was going to be successful in whatever he did. He had that demeanor about him,” Smith said.
Daboll’s football journey took him to the nearby University of Rochester. He was a starting safety at Rochester for two seasons before being forced to stop playing at the end of the 1995 season when a helmet-to-helmet hit left him with a neck injury.
His playing career was over. His life’s work in football, though, was just beginning.
Daboll finished his time at Rochester as a student assistant and then went to William & Mary as a volunteer assistant. Coincidentally, Bills’ head coach Sean McDermott was on that staff. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and former Atlanta Falcons coach and current Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn also coached at William & Mary.
Jimmye Laycock was the head coach at William & Mary from 1980 until retiring in 2018. He told a Virginia TV station this about Daboll after he was hired by the Giants:
“He paid the price. He’s come up the hard way. He started right here from the very, very bottom and he’s worked his way up and steadily gotten better, improved his situation,” said Laycock. “He’s done a good job everywhere he’s been. He deserves an opportunity.”
Laycock described Daboll this way:
“Very intelligent. A guy that really, really wanted to coach football.”
Laycock said he was “very proud” of all the NFL coaches who once worked under him.
“They’re good guys. They’ve paid the price. They’ve worked hard. They haven’t had anything given to ‘em, they’ve earned it.”
Daboll has now been a coach for 25 years, counting his time as a student assistant at Rochester. The last 21 of those have been in the NFL.
Remember that “very intense young man” Smith knew at St. Francis? Well, after William & Mary, that young man moved on to be a graduate assistant for Nick Saban at Michigan State. Working for Saban, he did not exactly learn to tone it down.
That began to happen when he reached the New England Patriots in 2000.
“I think you learn the older you get. I was a son of a gun when I was younger, particularly when I started out,” Daboll said at his introductory press conference. “I learned from a lot of guys that I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect and love for, but when you learn one way and you’ve seen it be successful I think that’s natural. And I understand it, I own it.
“In my early career I was really tough. I remember one of my first days at New England and I’m helping run the scout team. I forgot who it was, but they do something and I go off. I was a GA for Nick (Saban). I start ‘mother...’ I’m ripping him and [Patriots linebacker] Willie McGinest is like, ‘hey little guy, relax right now.’ God Bless Willie Mac. I love him.”
When Daboll arrived in Cleveland in 2009 for his first stint as an offensive coordinator, he still had yet to master the ability to be completely authentic, to be himself and be comfortable with it.
His first press conference with the Browns was an illustration.
“It stunk. I was trying to do something that I really wasn’t,” Daboll said. “I do it and I get up to the office and there’s a blinking light on one of those old office phones. I pick it up and I hear my wife’s message. She’s like ‘what the hell was that?’”
Daboll, 46, now understands that “you have to be authentic” to succeed as an NFL coach.
“Joe [Schoen] spoke to the mentors that I’ve had, and I have, and I owe those guys a lot. But I’ve learned is you have to be yourself in this business. That’s what I aim to do. I’m a people person. I think I’m a good leader and that’s the first thing, to be authentic,” Daboll said. “I’m a big relationship guy. I love my players and I want to get to know them off the field. I think that’s where it starts.”
Smith said he has watched Daboll grow more comfortable over the years.
“The longer you do something and if you’re intelligent about it and if you analyze yourself because you always want to be better the next year and find out ways to make things better for everybody you look back says ‘OK, what can I do better?,’” Smith said.
“The one thing you have to be is authentic. That’s what I think you’re getting is that he’s becoming more of who he really is.”
Mary Kay Cabot is a veteran Cleveland Browns beat writer for Cleveland.com and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Even back in 2009, before NFL owners started the ongoing trend of hiring young offensive coordinators as head coaches, Cabot saw head coaching potential in Daboll.
“You can see certain traits in guys that you kind of identify early on in their careers and you peg them as having head coach ability and I would absolutely 100 percent put him in that category,” she said. “I think he’s got a really, really brilliant offensive mind. I think he’s been underrated all these years. I think it took him really kind of too long to become a head coach.”
Daboll might agree, having told New York media that it feels like he has been coaching for “50 years.”
Daboll has a lengthy background with Saban and Belichick, but he has also been other places. Cabot believes Daboll’s ability to separate himself from the Saban-Belichick school of coaching is one of his best qualities.
“Here’s a thing that I like about Brian Daboll. He didn’t try to be Bill Belichick. Some of those guys leave New England and some of them almost adopt too much of the Bill Belichick persona thinking that they can do it like he does it. Brian never did that. Brian always maintained who he is,” Cabot said.
“There’s so much you learn in New England – the New England way of doing things. It’s so sound, it’s so structured, it’s so successful, but then you have to put your own stamp on it. I really think that Brian will be able to do that as a head coach.
“I think he’s watched a lot of really good head coaches do things the right way and maybe in some cases the wrong way. He’s really his own person. I just think his people skills are so strong that I think he’ll be able to manage all of the aspects of a head coach’s job.”
“It really comes down to trust. Even though it’s professional football and everybody gets paid millions of dollars and stuff like that, they still gotta trust that you have their best interest in mind in the concept of the team,” Smith said. “That’s I think what you’ll see is we all have to change. It’s one of those things, if you don’t change with the times the times are going to change you and usually if time changes you it’s not good.”
“You can tell he’s adapted. The good thing is he’s not trying to copy anybody, including myself. He’s become his own man. You’re starting to see who he really is.”
Daboll has worked with Saban, Belichick, Sean McDermott, Tony Sparano, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and others.
“You take a lot of stuff, right? You would be unwise if you didn’t do that. You sit there and you watch, you learn, you ask questions, not just on scheme but how they’re doing with problem players, what are issues in the building, all these different things. I think the older you get, the wider scope you have. When you’re younger, you’re just trying to survive a little bit,” Daboll said. “Again, all those guys – Nick at Alabama, two years at Michigan State, but the thing that I’ve learned in my 21 years, and I’d say more these past four or five years is just be true to yourself and be true to the players and the people that you work with because they’ll see right through you if you’re not. I think that’s critical, is to be yourself.”
The Giants, and Daboll, are about to begin a journey to find out if that will be good enough.