Jets Defensive Coordinator, Mike Pettine Interview
Mike Pettine played safety at the University of Virginia in the 1980s. He then decided that he wanted to coach football. He coached high school football from 1996 through 2001. He then joined the Ravens Coaching staff with Rex Ryan and they became instant friends as they both worked together on the defensive line. He was a member of the Ravens’ staff from 2002 through 2008. He left to become the Defensive Coordinator of the New York Jets when Rex Ryan (the Ravens’ DC) left to become the Head Coach of the New York Jets. This interview was conducted with MP before the 2010 NFL season.
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Announcement : My name is Max Strauss and with me today is Mike Pettine, the defensive coordinator of the New York Jets. Make sure you stop by my website, http://prointerviews.org. Anyways, let’s get started on the interview.
Strauss : Alright, so when did you start playing football? Where did you play? What positions? How natural did it come for you? What was your dad’s reaction to playing football?
Pettine : Well, it was funny, because my dad was a coach. So, I tried to play when I was eight and didn’t like it. I played offensive line on the 65-pound team in this little town called Warrington, just outside of the town where I grew up which is Doylestown, Pennsylvania and I didn’t like it at all, a bad experience, and I guess when the year was over, he was fine, I didn’t want to, you know, I just didn’t like it. So, It was one of those things where it took me a couple of years and I started to play again, I want to say two or three years later. And, then it was much more natural for me then, and much more enjoyable and I just took off with it. Yeah, ever since I ended up playing for my dad, then I went to Virginia, played there, and then when I finished school, it was just a natural transition for me to get into coaching. I never realized when I was going to school, you know I wish I had that I was going to get into coaching and it was far from, it was the last thing I wanted to do. And, sure enough, my last season ended at Virginia and it wasn’t until the next fall came, something was missing, so I naturally got into it. In high school, I played quarterback and I played safety. And then, when I went to college, I actually started off as a quarterback and was a back-up for two years, then got switched over and started at safety for two years. So, those were pretty much my main positions throughout my career.
Strauss : What was it like to have your dad coach the football team? Did you get made fun of at all because your dad was coaching the high school team?
Pettine : Well it’s great now, because it’s everything I absorbed while I was growing up. But I’m not going to lie, when I was playing for him, I don’t want to say, it probably wasn’t the most pleasant experience in the world. I mean, he was a very tough coach, very strict, real hard on the team. A lot of the guys when they got mad at him, I was their only outlet to take it out on especially when I was a sophomore. So, I had my share of getting baby powder being dumped on me, equipment going missing, and that type of stuff, you know just like regular hazing type stuff when I was a tenth grader. That obviously didn’t happen later on. It was tough, but at the same time, it was a typical thing when you coach your kid, you want to make sure that people understand that you are not showing favoritism or anything like that. That’s what made it hard. He was so tough on me.
Strauss : So, did you get a nickname in high school?
Pettine : Everyone called me junior, just because we had the same first name. So, he was always Mike Pettine Sr., I was Mike Pettine Jr., for a while it was Big Mike, Little Mike, and then I got bigger then him. So everyone ended up calling me Junior or JR.
Strauss : Uh, What was like your best experience from playing high school football?
Pettine : Let’s see, best experience. I want to say, we played a team from the Philadelphia Catholic League, Archbishop Ryan, it was kinda of a unique, non-league matchup. I don’t think we have played them before in anything other than a scrimmage and I just think there were a lot of bragging rights, kind of like the suburbs versus the inner-city catholic kids and we ended up beating them. It was a very physical game. And, it was very, very rewarding to come out on top.
Strauss : We’ll talk about college at UVA. How hard was it to choose UVA to go play football there?
Pettine : You know it really wasn’t. I mean the one thing that I think that my parents wanted to make sure was that I went to a good school. My dad always used the phrase with his players, ‘It’s not a four-year decision, it’s a forty-year decision. You have to go make the decision based on never playing a down of football. You have to make the assumption that something could happen, so you got to make sure you that you’re making a choice for school not for football.’ So, my final two choices were actually Duke and Virginia and I chose Virginia just because of the geography, it was just closer to home. It was one of things where I enjoyed my time there and got a good education and I look back very fondly on my time there.
Strauss : What was it like to play football under George Welsh?
Pettine : George Welsh, George was, It’s funny because he had just come from the naval academy, I think 1982 was his last year there. It was funny even at ’84, he was still slipping up, he’d call it the ‘mess hall.’ He wouldn’t say, ‘wake up’, he would say, ‘Reveille’. You know we’ll be at ‘0.6 , whatever, we had to laugh. He had a hard time letting us military, naval stuff go. But, George was good, he was very meticulous, very organized. And as a coach, it helped me out down the road having played for him to see his degree of organization and how he interacted with the staff and how he interacted with the team. That’s the one thing that I’ve been very fortunate, that I’ve been around a lot of great coaches and I’ve had a lot of different methods and I feel like I’ve been able to draw the positives from all of them.
Strauss : So, how’d you really get started in coaching though?
Pettine : Well, I finished in college, and I knew I wasn’t going to play professionally. I just started to work. I took a job, just a normal job, I was working at Prudential Life Insurance. You know, in their home office. And, something was missing. That fall rolled around. Whatever it was, whether it was the smell of the cut grass, whatever it was, but something was just missing and I quickly realized that it was football. So fortunately, where it was located, there was a big business park, a lot of businesses there, so they had encouraged all the companies to kind of flex their hours so there would not be as much traffic heading in and out of that one area, twice a day. So, I had the option to work from 7 to 3, which was great for me, because I could go to work at 7, be off at 3, be at the high school at 3:30, so I just started to help my dad out, kind of part time. Videos and scouting for him. Going out and helping out his young kids, his young quarterbacks, and his young defensive backs. And, I just took to it right away, it was really a natural thing for me.
Strauss : When you coached your own football team, what was that whole experience like?
Pettine : Yeah, that was actually ten years ago. I was at North Penn High School. I was High School Head Coach at two different places. The first one was called William Tennent in Warminster, Pennsylvania and second place was North Penn High School. I had a great experience at both schools. I really enjoyed working with the kids. It’s the one thing about, since I’ve coached all three levels, high school, college, and professionally. High school is where you feel you have the most impact, you have the most influence on a player. Sometimes you get them in college or obviously you get them in the NFL, they have been around for a long time where coaching is less of an impact, where as high school, it’s much more coaching than anywhere else. It’s very rewarding.
Strauss : What was it like to be a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh when you coached there?
Pettine : To me, it was a real positive thing as well. Results wise, we weren’t very good, I think we were 3-8, both of the years that I was there. But it was a good coaching staff, I was surrounded by some really good coaches. Johnny Majors, the obvious one being the Head Coach. I was just fortunate to get the graduate assistant job through Chuck Driesbach. He’s at Rice now. He’s been many places. He actually played for my dad, and that was the connection there, in the late sixties early seventies. He gave me a break there. I worked with Jack Henry, one of the long-time very successful line coaches in the NFL, Tim Lewis, who’s still in the league with Atlanta, but he was a defensive coordinator with the Steelers, he was a secondary coach for the Steelers, he was with the Seahawks, Giants, as a coordinator. Tim was very successful, I learned a lot about football from Tim. Then actually there, I was fortunate enough to meet Matt Cavanaugh who ironically later on gave me my first break into the NFL after my high school coaching career was done. He was the one that was in with the Ravens that I contacted that got me in the door. It was at Pittsburgh when I made the contact that got me into the NFL.
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Strauss : And now, let’s get back to the interview with Mike Pettine Jr., so, speaking of when you first got into the NFL though, what was that all like?
Pettine : It was definitely an eye-opening experience. But, my first year I was not an on-the-field coach, and as I said I got my foot in the door through Matt Cavanaugh who was the offensive coordinator at the time. But the position that I got was more of a technical one, I was off the field, I was the third person in the video department. So, I was in charge of all the special teams video. Then, at the time, Brian Billick came from Minnesota, he had used Macintosh computers there, and Baltimore was transitioning, they wanted all of it on an IBM platform. So, Brian had about six thousand playbook drawings that he needed converted from this Mac format, Mac drawing program to this IBM based program that the Ravens decided to use that they wanted to still maintain the ability to edit them. So, they needed someone to come in, because basically the IT department basically had their own workload, it was just a one-time thing. They wanted to bring somebody in to do that project as well. That was one in addition to my video department, I worked and did that project for the playbook drawings as well. Then, at night, it helped me, just to be around at night, because once all my other work was done. I would help out the coaching staff if they had any kind of overflow, quality control-type work. And, it was great for me, from a career standpoint, when I walked in the door, there were three guys, mostly, the closest, end up all being future Head Coaches in the NFL. Mike Nolan was Defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, now head coach of Falcons, was the linebackers coach, and Rex was the defensive line coach. Those were the three guys that I really worked with the closest. Then, I was just kind of thrown with Rex. He really didn’t have someone working with him. He and I were just thrown in a room together and there was just instant chemistry there. That’s funny when I look back on that, because it was almost by default that I ended up working with him.
Strauss : What was it like to work with Rex with the D-line and everything? And, when you were promoted to Linebackers coach, what was the transition like?
Pettine : From ’03 to ’04, I worked and was the defensive line assistant, so Rex and I were around the D-Line, getting stuff together. I assisted him with all the drill work, everything in the meetings, and all that stuff. Then, in 2005 when he got promoted to coordinator. In a way, what I did for Rex was a lot of the computer stuff, a lot of the organizational stuff. I had the title of Outside Linebackers, but I was still really working as his assistant as well. So, I did a lot of the organizational stuff for the defense which I did that from ’05 to when I left Baltimore after the 2008 season, and it was a great working experience for me, to work hand in hand with the coordinator. And, it made it such an easy transition when Rex became the Head Coach here, that I stepped into the Coordinator’s role. Like I said, I was very well prepared for it because I had been doing those similar jobs for years.
Strauss : So, how much of your success do you give to Rex Ryan?
Pettine : I mean, I just… Can’t say enough, about what a positive effect he’s had on me as a person and as a coach. Like I said, when I looked at all the great coaches that I had been around, I would say my dad has had the biggest influence on me, but I would have to put Rex up there as a close second. It’s funny because those two personality-wise are like opposite ends of the spectrum. My dad is your traditional and old school. My dad never believed in the ‘I don’t get anyone to give me more bulletin material.’ Man, he was straight. No nonsense. Almost a military type approach. And then there’s Rex, on the other end of it, where it’s more easy-going, fun-loving, shoot from the hip, go ahead and put the bullseye on your chest, high expectations, all that stuff. It’s funny that I’ve learned the most from two guys that have such contrasting styles. But like I said, Rex was just such a huge part. As I tell people, I hitched my wagon to the right guy because I knew right away when I met him that he was special and it was only a matter of time before he got his break, and I felt like I wanted to be there with him when it happened.
Strauss : What’s been the best part of your relationship with Rex Ryan?
Pettine : I think, running a defense together, the interactions, the sharing of ideas, getting on the white board and hashing out a defense, what works good, and what doesn’t, how do we want to rule it out, just that whole implementation of a plan, and then, seeing it work, and just being there together, and having the ability. The one thing I think that is unique about our relationship and that people laugh about it when they come see us, it’s like we’re almost like brothers. I’m not afraid. He’s not afraid. He’ll say anything to me. I’ll say anything to him. I mean, we’re both competitive, both prideful guys. So, if there’s something wrong, I’m not afraid to say something to him and if there’s I did something wrong, then Rex certainly is not afraid to let me know. And, sometimes, we get after each other pretty good, and people ask us after a game, ‘Hey, you guys okay?’ and we laugh. Something we hardly even remember will be said to each other, but it’s just unique that way. Some guys get very guarded and sometimes during a year, you take something sensitively or you take things too personal. Rex and I are all about one thing and that’s one of the reasons why we work well together is that we’re both very passionate about football, and we both ultimately know that it all comes down to one thing, and that’s winning the ring.
Strauss : What were some of the toughest and easiest challenges when you had to implement the new defense in New York? And, what was it like to bring Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard, and Marques Douglas to New York to help you with the system?
Pettine : Well, I think the biggest challenge last year was just to implement a new system, adjust the system, a group of players that really had no idea what their style of defense was here. There are a lot of different ways and a lot of different styles and what was best for whatever Eric Mangini felt was best for them, they ran to what he was familiar with. Rex and I have a certain philosophy and how we do things was very different. It was not just putting in a new playbook, but I think it was also a different mentality as well, not be so much read and react, and we wanted to be much more aggressive and pressure and give our guys a little bit more freedom as far as some of the things they can do within the structure of the defense. I think it was difficult from a teaching standpoint to kind of change the culture, change the mentality, but the one thing that I can say and it’s to credit to Eric Mangini and credit to Mike Tannenbaum is that the group of players that were here, we weren’t that far away. We knew it when we first got here. It was like, ‘Hey, coverage is not bare, they have pretty good football players.’ And, we talk about a set of attributes that we want all our players to have, we call it, ‘Play Like a Jet’. It’s being passionate, tough, productive, relentless, play like your hair is on fire, that type of mentality, and most of our guys had that. It was a very, very smart group so they picked up the system right away, so we were fortunate that we got a bunch of meeting time in the spring with our camps. And then we were enabled to install it again in training camp, but this was a group that picked it up very quickly. We also had the advantage too, as you already talked about to bring in three players who played for us in Baltimore. One that people really don’t remember or don’t think about is Marques Douglas, who just ironically signed with the Dolphins, who was there with the defensive line. We had Bart Scott at the linebackers, and Jim Leonhard with the defensive backs. I think that was real big for us, not just for an X’s and O’s thing, but more for, ‘Hey, this is how we practice, this is how we prepare, and this is our mentality.’ We had a guy in each area of the defense that could kind of set that tone for us. And, I think that was a key part of our success was having those three guys that the rest of the guys on defense could lean to as an example
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Strauss : And now, let’s get back to the interview with Mike Pettine Jr. … The Jets have made a lot of offseason moves on both sides of the ball. The D-Line added Vernon Gholston so he is now on the defensive line. The Linebackers now have Jason Taylor. The Secondary got rid of Kerry Rhodes, but also added Kyle Wilson, Antonio Cromartie, and Brodney Pool. And, I think Brodney Pool was actually one of the most underrated pickups since I saw what he did in Cleveland and he…
Pettine : Yeah, that’s right, that’s very perceptive. We’re very excited about Brodney. I don’t know if he’ll be a spectacular guy for us, but he’ll make some plays, he’ll do his job, and I think he’s going to be, what a lot of people don’t realize, is a big part of our success this year.
Strauss : Which group, like line, linebackers, and secondary do you think has improved the most this offseason?
Pettine : Well, I just think, I’d probably have to say defensive backs because of the upgrade in personnel. We feel that Brodney is going to do a great job for us, he stepped right in, in the spring, and picked things up right away. Then, Antonio Cromartie just has the ability to have a guy who’s been to the Pro Bowl, had 12 interceptions in a year, and his type of man cover skills which is just a tremendous thing for us to add that we have a guy that plays, you know there are different styles of defense, and he’s not well-suited to be an off the ball, zone corner, and in our style, it’s get up in your face, take advantage of that first five yard contact rule we have, and let’s lock guys down. We’re fortunate that we have guys that can play man coverage and we drafted one also in Kyle Wilson. We think he has a chance to be a real good player as well. So I just think the backend has not only, we’ve upgraded personnel-wise, but just a good spring too, just as far as the communication back there. That was one of our issues last year when we gave up some negative plays, a lot of times it wasn’t necessarily what our opponent did, it was a mistake that we made. That was a big part of our offseason, was addressing those issues, and look at it, hey, we’ve given up plays. There are times in this league, where you’ll say listen, ‘That was a good throw, good catch, nothing you can do.’ But, there were a lot of times where the wounds that we had were self-inflicted. That’s one of our big goals this year is to get a lot of those things cleaned up because a lot of them are in it. It’s only natural in the first year of a defense, a lot of them ended up being communication things and that’s where I think where our guys have taken the next step. We preached to them in the spring, we know the basics of the defense and we had the success that we had, but we can be so much better, let’s take it more to a graduate level to understand where the ins and outs and the intricacies of it. I think our guys have bought into that and it really showed up during our spring workouts. It was one of those things where our guys understand, but it was more like last year was an introductory course versus this year we can build into some deeper things and key concepts that we weren’t able to get taught the first year because a lot of our stuff too was just learning, ‘Hey let’s just get lined up, how do I get lined up, what technique am I playing?’ where as now, our defensive linemen line up in a certain front, they understand, okay, this is how teams are going to block, and these are the types of blocks I can expect. Where as before, it was let’s just get lined up and go. And now, our guys understand better how teams are going to attack us.
Strauss : So, how does reuniting with Mark Carrier help the defense? What does he bring to the Jets?
Pettine : Well, he brings that mentality that we talked about. He’s proof of the whole, ‘Play Like a Jet’ mentality. He’s passionate, he’s a tough guy. I think one time he led the league in fine money for illegal hits when he was playing in Chicago, he jokes, ‘I think if he came out of retirement, he would still owe two game checks to the commissioner.’ He brings an attitude, a toughness, and a great example of a guy that’s done it. It’s great to have one of your staff guys, that played in the league that can relate to the players, that they know what the players’ going through. Whereas somebody like myself, or some of our other coaches that never played, we just don’t have that insight. So, it’s great to have somebody like Mark. Plus, since he came from Baltimore, he was with us for a bunch of years there, and he understands how we do things, the daily routine stuff, how things get taught, certain drills that are universal throughout the defense. He understands all those things, so while people looked at it well it’s a strange move to take a guy who’s a career defensive back as a player, a career defensive back coach. In my opinion, a good coach can coach any position. I think it was a good move for Mark, he was excited about it, and obviously a win for us as well to get somebody that’s one of our kind of guys up here in New York.
Strauss : Alright, just a couple more questions.
Pettine : Sure.
Strauss : For the people that want to go into coaching, or even playing football, what’s the best advice you can give them?
Pettine : Well, the one thing about it is the advice I have given young coaches. Some guys get too tied up looking for that next job, they’re always looking, people think okay, you’ll progress. I’m going to go from high school position coach to coordinator, from this high school to that high school, from high school to college. So, there’s a lot of information out there, okay, what jobs are going to open, sometimes guys get to revved up in that. And the phrase that I always use was just, “Don’t look for a better job, do a better job.” In a lot of times in this business, if you do good work, the jobs will find you, you won’t necessarily have to seek them out, it’s a very low percentage that you’re just going to randomly send out a resume and get a job. It’s going to be, as you already talked about, it’s going to be through contacts, through people you know, through networking, but the best networking isn’t the people that you just kind of meet. The best networking is the people that you have worked with, that see your work ethic, that see you produce and see how passionate you are about football, that’s how you move up. To me, football is a tough job because it’s a lot of hours, but I think the computer can help you as far as making it more efficient, something that we have found here is that we’re not going to put in a million hours and then at the end of the week, going into game-day, when you’re supposed to be fresh, and your head is supposed to be clear, so you can make logical decisions at the right time. You can’t be sleep deprived when you do that. There are so many coaches that want to work all these hours just to say they worked all the hours, just grind away, there’s so much information out there, that you can have. At some point, you have to sit back and say, ‘You know what, I need sleep.’ So, I think working hard is important, but working efficiently is just as important, knowing there’s going to be times when you are going to need to step away. I think there are guys that make that mistake of overdoing it, just to say that they did it, and at the end of the week, their mind is not as sharp as it could be, heading into a game situation.
Strauss : I like the quote though, “Don’t look for a better job, do a better job.” I’ve never heard that before.
Pettine : Welcome. It’s appropriate. I’ve seen a lot of guys fall victim to that.
Strauss : Is there anything you want to tell Jets fans that we have not discussed or talked about?
Pettine : I just think that Jets fans have been great. They have embraced us. We’re going to have our ups, we’re going to have our downs, and I think they will be there with us. I have a very big Jets fan in my family. My brother-in-law who lives just outside of Tampa, is a life-long Jets fan. He grew up here in Jersey. When I called him and told him, ‘I got the job,’ he got very emotional on the phone, it meant that it was so important to him. He couldn’t believe it that of all the teams, I ended up the defensive coordinator of his team he followed for thirty-some years. It’s a passionate group. They have been through a lot, you hear the phrase, ‘Same Old Jets.’ But, the number one thing I think we can safely say, we look at last year, and we changed the culture here. And, ‘Same Old Jets’ is a thing of the past.
Strauss : Alright, I think that’s all, that’s everything.
Pettine : Sure.
Strauss : So, thank you so much, I really appreciate this.
Pettine : Your welcome, take care.
Announcement : Thank you for listening to the exclusive interview I had with Mike Pettine, Jr., the defensive coordinator of the New York Jets. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you tune in next time.Follow @ProInterviews