ATLANTA — John Fassel has plenty of cherished memories from growing up as the son of a football coach. They range from being on the sideline with his father, Jim, then the Giants’ coach, at Super Bowl XXXV, to being kicked out of the Giants’ locker room after he fell asleep under one of the players’ stations.
Those seem like they ought to be pretty unique moments. But on the Rams’ staff, they are fairly commonplace.
There are eight coaches on the team whose fathers also were coaches at a high level before them, including two who are part of families with three generations in the NFL. Two of the Rams’ coaches have sons who are in the league. And across the field in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, there will be at least four coaches on the Patriots’ staff who were raised in coaching families. Both head coaches and four of the coordinators are part of some coaching legacy.
And all of them have stories similar to the ones Fassel told this past week regarding his time at the knee of his dad with the Giants and at other stops on his career path. In fact, it’s one of the things that has helped the Rams’ staff become so cohesive in such a short amount of time. Sean McVay took over the team two seasons ago and they’re already here playing for a championship.
While this NFL hiring period was marked by teams looking to find the next McVay and giving the 33-year-old a head-coaching tree, there seems to be another arborative attribute that he and the Rams kept an eye out for when assembling their own staff: the family tree.
“They are guys I can identify with,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said of dealing with other scions of the sideline. In his case, that meant growing up the son of NFL head coach Bum Phillips (something he is very proud of, having worn his late father’s hat and coat when arriving in Atlanta) and now the father of Redskins tight ends coach Wes Phillips.
“You have the same kind of background,” Phillips said. “They know about hard work because their dads worked long hours. They know it was fun for their dads. They loved it and that’s why their dads did it. And that’s why they’re in it.”
For John Fassel, it is comforting to deal with men who, like himself, have inherited the whistle.
“Growing up in the same business where you start out on the practice field as a ballboy running around, you come back and share a lot of the same stories,” he said.
In fact, sometimes they overlap. In 1992, John Fassel and Wes Phillips were ballboys together for the Broncos.
“There’s about one degree of separation in coaching,” Fassel said. “If you know one, you know everybody. But it is cool to have the connections and the stories to tell of everybody’s childhood growing up under a football coach.”
That dynamic reaches all levels for the Rams from the top to the bottom. McVay’s father wasn’t a coach, but his grandfather, John, was one for the Giants before he became better known — and much more successful — as the GM and architect of the 49ers dynasty in the 1980s. Zak Kromer is the offensive quality control coach, one of the lowest rungs in the league, and the son of Aaron Kromer, the Rams’ current run game coordinator.
It runs that gamut of successes, too, although it’s hard to top one in particular. Assistant linebackers coach Chris Shula is the grandson of Don Shula, the winningest head coach in NFL history. His father, David Shula, was head coach of the Bengals and his uncle, Mike Shula, is the Giants’ offensive coordinator.
Chris Shula and McVay played on the same college football team at Miami of Ohio, but it was their shared experiences as pro football prodigies that helped make them friends.
“I think being someone who has grown up in it, whose family has a coaching background, when you meet another guy like that, you have a connection,” Chris Shula said. “You feel a bond. I’m not sure what it is. I think it’s just a natural part of being part of the coaching fraternity.”
It also gave them a jump-start in the process of becoming coaches.
Rams assistant head coach and linebackers coach Joe Barry is the son of Mike Barry, who coached offensive linemen for two NCAA champions and, at the end of his career, the Lions.
“I was in locker rooms and on sidelines from the time I was 10 years old,” he said. “Before I even started playing football in high school, when my dad went to two-a-days, I went with him in the summertime. I got to experience every aspect of football and be around it my whole life. I don’t know how specifically that formed me, but it definitely did form me into the coach I am today.”
“It was really a lot of benefits and experiences being around it so much,” Fassel said. “Almost by osmosis, you kind of learn without even thinking. You’re learning while you are in it.”
Just because your father coached doesn’t mean you can have a job with the Rams, or any NFL team, for that matter. Other qualifications are necessary. And seeing how the profession can affect a family — the moving around, the roasting in the media, the getting fired — does scare a lot of people away from the profession.
“Coaching isn’t for everybody, and just because you grew up in a football family doesn’t mean you instantly go into the family business,” Barry said. “But I knew at an early age that whenever I can’t play the game anymore, I was pretty much set on what I wanted to do. Growing up as the son of a coach and being around football my whole life, I didn’t think there was any other profession. Of course when I got done playing I was going to go coach football. That was all I knew.”
With the Rams, he is surrounded by others just like him.