NEW YORK — New Jets coach Robert Saleh learned how to lead by example at home.
It’s how the NFL’s first Muslim head coach, a Lebanese-American, was raised in Dearborn, Mich.
Eric Holm saw it first-hand.
Saleh’s college coach at Division II Northern Michigan will never forget what one Wildcats trip to the Detroit area revealed about his tight end’s roots.
“We once went downstate to play Wayne State in Detroit. Robert was from there, had played at Fordson (High School). And his parents insisted we come to their house after the game for dinner. Not just the coaches. The whole team,” Holm, 61, told the New York Daily News in a phone call on Thursday.
“I remember being reluctant at first because that is a big undertaking,” he said. “We’re in Division II so you have about 50 players, you’re traveling with about 65 or 70 people after a game. But his parents, and his dad in particular, insisted. I remember how happy they were and gracious they were. They set up tables, and his parents, the family, everybody, they were so happy to have us.
“So he comes by his servant leadership and his graciousness naturally,” Holm said.
The home of Sam and Fatin Saleh also was the setting of the seminal moment that jarred Robert Saleh, 41, into reconsidering his path and choosing coaching as a career.
Saleh was 22 years old and had just been hired at Comerica Bank in Detroit when the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook New York, the world and, more personally, his own family.
Saleh’s older brother, David, was a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley, working on the 61st floor of 2 World Trade Center. David was still in the stairwell of his building when the second plane hit.
David got out, but spending that day bracing for news, watching his parents in tears, Robert Saleh was jarred into reevaluating what he really wanted out of life.
“For a good portion of the day, I’d say eight or nine hours, we didn’t know whether or not (David) was alive,” Robert Saleh told KPIX5 San Francisco in 2018. “And once he was home and safe and you get a chance to reflect, you just look at what if he didn’t come back?”
“Here’s my brother who’s only a couple years older than I am, and was he actually pursuing the job he loves and that he wants to do? Or was he just being satisfied with chasing money?” Saleh continued. “And I kinda looked at myself and whether or not I was actually doing what I wanted to do. And I wasn’t.”
Months later, after the Patriots defeated the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, Robert Saleh called his brother David crying, saying he couldn’t take it anymore, per Sports Illustrated. He had to go back to football.
The irony and history of this Jets head coaching hire is unmistakably powerful: that the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which engendered so much Islamophobia and vitriol toward Arab-Americans, would also be the impetus for the eventual hiring of the NFL’s first Muslim head coach.
Saleh, the third of four children, is the third Arab-American head coach in NFL history, joining Abe Gibron (Chicago Bears) and Rich Kotite (Jets, Philadelphia Eagles), according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. But Saleh is the first Muslim-American head coach in the NFL.
Saleh’s father, Sam, was born in Michigan but spent some of his childhood in Lebanon. His mother, Fatin, was born abroad and emigrated as a teenager.
Saleh’s parents are now retired from running a furniture store in Dearborn, but Saleh says his father regretted not getting into coaching as a career when his playing days were done, also.
Sam had played linebacker at Eastern Michigan, and had his first and only NFL training camp with the Chicago Bears cut short by a knee injury.
So Robert reached out to his Fordson coach, Jeff Stergalas, for help. Stergalas warned Saleh, who was already doing well financially in the business world, that “you’re gonna get paid peanuts.”
“But he said, ‘I don’t care. I want to do it,’” Stergalas, 62, now the athletic director at Riverview High School (Mich.), recalled on Saturday. “I know Robert well enough, I knew there was no way he was going to be talked out of the decision he was making right then.”
Stergalas understands the public perception of Saleh is that he’s a “very emotional, intense and excited” coach because of how fiery he is on the sidelines during games. And Saleh is that person, too. But outside the lines, the substance of his passion shows through.
“If you met him on a golf course or at a restaurant, he’s 100% different than he is on a football field,” Stergalas said. “He’s very reserved and calculated in everything he does. But once he has something in his mind that he wants, he’s going 100% after that.”
So Stergalas put Saleh in touch with Mike Vollmar, whom Stergalas had coached as a freshman quarterback at Riverview.
Vollmar was Michigan State’s assistant athletic director for football operations. He also tried to explain to Saleh the risk he’d be taking leaving finance for a graduate assistant job.
“Robert came up and met with me at Michigan State and actually had a pretty darn good job in banking,” Vollmar said Saturday. “I probably tried to talk him out of it more than anything else, and I joke now I sure as hell won’t talk him out of this one (with the Jets).”
“I was like, ‘Hey, do you know what you’re getting into here?’” he remembered. “You’re going to be making copies, making coffee. If coach asks you to wash his clothes or pick up his dry cleaning. … But he was very passionate about wanting to coach.”
“I could tell by the look in his eyes he was going to coach,” Vollmar, 55, now a senior associate AD for football administration at Kansas, recalled. “Period. That’s what he wanted to do, it was that simple, and that’s obviously what he’s done and been very successful. And it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
So from Bobby Williams’ Spartans staff in 2002, Saleh embarked on a winding road of coaching stops, that also included grad assistant stints at Central Michigan and Georgia.
At Central Michigan in 2004, on the staff of Brian Kelly, now Notre Dame’s head coach, Saleh worked with a fellow grad assistant named Matt LaFleur. And the two became inseparable.
Saleh would bring LaFleur along with him to the Houston Texans’ coaching staff in 2008. LaFleur became the best man at Saleh’s wedding. And now they are both NFL head coaches. LaFleur, 41, has been the Green Bay Packers head coach since 2019.
Saleh then worked his way up through the NFL coaching ranks on the staffs of Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks (2011-13) as a defensive quality control coach and Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville Jaguars (2014-16) as linebackers coach.
He even won a Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, which he now will call home with the Jets. He was on the Seahawks’ staff for their 43-8 blowout win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, 2014.
But still, he had to take a leap of faith to secure the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator job that would elevate his profile and status to being a head coaching candidate years later.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan was turned down by Bradley and Vic Fangio to be his defensive coordinator in 2017. Saleh agreed to leave Jacksonville to become Shanahan’s linebackers coach provided that Shanahan promised to interview him for the coordinator vacancy.
“He kept his word, gave me the interview and the rest is history,” Saleh told KPIX5.
Fast forward to 2019, and Holm, a 17-year Kansas City Chiefs season ticket holder, was watching his former D-II tight end coaching against the Chiefs for the Niners in the Super Bowl.
Holm says Saleh exudes more confidence and is more “demonstrative” now than when he was younger, but he remembers Saleh was “extremely coachable” and “clearly a leader” who “understood the game.”
“He was a good player. He was a classic tight end, an every down player,” said Holm, who retired in 2019 as the athletic director of Truman High School in Independence, Mo. “Good enough and tough enough to block. Really good hands, understood the game. Wasn’t fleet of foot, but of course if he was a bit more fleet of foot, he might not have been at Northern Michigan (laughs).”
Still, Holm believes that what “has helped shape” Saleh is that “he has a really strong, tight-knit family,” with the gregarious “Big Sam,” as Stergalas called Saleh’s dad, at the head.
Robert Saleh and his wife, Sanaa, now have six children of their own — four sons and two daughters — and a seventh child on the way. And now they’re all on their way to the Jets, welcoming all of New York and New Jersey to the Saleh table.
“I feel really full and happy for him to have this opportunity,” Holm said. “It’s an American story.”