Robert Saleh wasn’t doing what he wanted with his life, and it took a traumatic event for him to make a dramatic change.
Saleh was putting his finance degree from Northern Michigan University to use, working as a credit analyst for Comerica Bank in Detroit in 2001. On Sept. 11, two commercial jetliners were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, bringing the Twin Towers crashing down. Saleh was more than 600 miles away, but it hit close to home.
His brother David was on the 61st floor of the South Tower in his second day of training at Morgan Stanley. After the North Tower was struck, David Saleh made his way down the stairs and evacuated the building unharmed.
Robert Saleh, then 22, was more than relieved that his brother was safe. But the terrorist attacks forced him to re-evaluate his life.
Saleh decided he was done working in an office building. He wanted to coach football. And now he is an NFL head coach for the first time. Late this past week, the Jets hired Saleh, a fiery and emotional leader, to help turn around their downtrodden franchise.
This opportunity would not have been possible if not for a phone call Saleh made a few months after 9/11 to his high school football coach, Jeff Stergalas.
"Robert is a very emotional man," Stergalas said by phone. "He’s calculated in the sense that he thinks things out. For a normal, average person during 9/11, it was very sad, it was terrible. The fact that his brother was within inches of death, it made him wake up and think, ‘Life’s too short. I want to do what I love to do.’ That was football."
At the time, Stergalas was coaching at Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan. Saleh called Stergalas and told him he wanted to leave the finance world and get into coaching.
"That whole incident, it kind of sums up Robert in a nutshell," Stergalas said. "You’ve watched him on TV. He’s very intense, he’s very excited and very emotional. The 9/11 thing with his brother was very emotional to him, which caused him to rethink his career path and what he wanted to do the rest of his life. That’s what started the whole coaching path."
Stergalas, now the athletic director at Riverview High School in Michigan, was surprised that Saleh went into the business world in the first place. Saleh studied football and understood the game so well that Stergalas thought he might become a high school teacher and football coach.
When he got the call, Stergalas’ first thought was that Saleh would come work with him, but Saleh said he wanted to coach in college. Stergalas made sure Saleh understood he would have to start at the bottom as a graduate assistant, making much less money than he was accustomed to making and working very long days.
Saleh didn’t blink.
"He was financially doing very well," Stergalas said. "I told him, ‘You’re going to make next to nothing. They aren’t going to pay you much at all. You better learn how to make coffee and run copies because that’s what you’ll be doing a lot of.’ He said, ‘I don’t care. I want to do it.’ "
Stergalas then made a call to another former Fordson player, Mike Vollman, who was Michigan State’s director of football operations. Vollman agreed to meet with Saleh.
Michigan State hired Saleh as a defensive assistant in 2002. He’s been coaching and climbing ever since.
"Robert was one of those guys that once he said he’s willing to stop everything he was doing — he was financially set and had a great job — when he said ‘I want to do this,’ I knew that it was real," Stergalas said.
The meteoric rise has been spectacular for Saleh. The former Div. II tight end from Northern Michigan University became the first Muslim head coach in NFL history (he is of Lebanese descent).
Saleh was in high demand this offseason after his impressive work as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator the last four seasons. Aside from the Jets, he interviewed with the Chargers twice as well as the Lions, Jaguars, Falcons and Eagles.
The Jets were thoroughly impressed with Saleh after their virtual interview on Jan. 8. He was the first coach they brought in to meet face-to-face. The other was Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who wound up becoming the head coach of the Falcons.
Saleh sold the Jets’ decision-makers with his passion, leadership and vision for the team. The Jets gave him a five-year deal, believing he’s the right man to change their culture and end their 10-year playoff drought.
"The Jets are getting a very focused, calculating, intense football coach," Stergalas said. "He’s very knowledgeable of the game, a student of the game and a great leader."
After Stergalas opened the door for Saleh, he worked as a defensive assistant in college for four years: two at Michigan State, one at Central Michigan and another at Georgia.
Saleh got his first NFL job in 2005, again starting at the bottom. The Texans brought him in as a defensive intern under coordinator Vic Fangio in 2005, and Saleh just continued to ascend. He spent six seasons with the Texans, three as the defensive quality control coach and the last two as the assistant linebackers coach.
The Seahawks hired Saleh as their defensive quality control coach in 2011. Former Texans defensive coordinator Richard Smith made a call to Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to recommend Saleh for the position. Saleh impressed Seattle immediately.
"I didn’t know anything about Robert," Bradley said. "We brought him in, and after the first visit with him, it was over. The next thing you know, he was with us. He was very organized, meticulous, very efficient. You give him work and he would get it done faster than most."
Saleh was part of a strong coaching group that included Ken Norton Jr. and Kris Richard, and they helped design a defense whose secondary became known as "The Legion of Boom." Seattle won the Super Bowl in February 2014, beating the Denver Broncos, 43-8, at MetLife Stadium — which seven years later would become Saleh’s home field.
Bradley moved on to become the head coach in Jacksonville, and Saleh joined him in 2014 as the linebackers coach. A few years later, Saleh was running his own defense in San Francisco. The 49ers were a top-five overall defense the past two seasons under Saleh and reached the Super Bowl last season.
"He’s done an outstanding job. Everywhere he’s been, they’ve been successful," Stergalas said. "I don’t doubt that that will continue to follow him. I think the Jets got a good one and hopefully it will be a nice, long career for him there."
This is the career Saleh wanted and made happen. He’s continuing to do what he loves — and now the pay isn’t too bad, either.
SALEH'S PATH TO THE JETS
- 2002-03: Michigan State ... defensive assistant
- 2004: Central Michigan ... defensive assistant
- 2005: Georgia ... defensive assistant
- 2005: Houston Texans ... defensive intern
- 2006-08: Houston Texans ... defensive quality control coach
- 2009-10: Houston Texans ... ass't. linebackers coach
- 2011-13: Seattle Seahawks ... defensive quality control coach
- 2014-16: Jacksonville Jaguars ... linebackers coach
- 2017-20: San Francisco 49ers ... defensive coordinator
- 2021-: Jets ... head coach