Josh McDaniels credits almost all his success to his dad Thom. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Friday nights were a big deal for Canton McKinley High School, a big school in Canton, Ohio, which some called the high school capital of America.
The school was winning state and national championships left and right led by legendary head coach, Thom McDaniels.
Standing behind Thom on the sidelines every game was a 6-year-old boy.
“What’s the call?” a trainer would ask.
“Toss to the right,” the boy replied.
With no headsets back then, it was all hand signals and Josh McDaniels knew the play before it happened. After all, it was his dad leading the way for Canton McKinley and Josh was always at his father’s side at practices so he knew everything.
He watched film, he watched drills, he watched scrimmages, he watched it all — anything football related, Josh was there.
“I got to start to see that at a very early age when I started to go to two-a-day practices when I was five and really got to see that up close and personal. I was kind of a sponge at that point and I fell in love with the game of football through [my dad],” Josh said. “I knew real early in my life that this was probably something I wanted to do. I didn’t know what level, but at some point I wanted to be a coach.”
From a player at Canton McKinley himself, to playing in college at John Carroll University, to being a graduate assistant at Michigan State, to now being one of the best offensive coaches in the NFL — everything Josh did and still does now, he traces back to his dad.
STARTING HIM YOUNG
Thom is regarded as one of the best coaches in Ohio high school football history. In 1997, he was named national high school football Coach of the Year by USA Today while leading his Canton McKinley team to state and national titles.
He won 134 games at Canton McKinley from 1982-97 — the 1997 team went 14-0 and won both state and national championship titles. He then went on to coach two other high schools in the state and has since retired.
Many of his players got major Division 1 scholarship offers, so big name coaches were always getting in contact with him. Football was life in the McDaniels household and Thom’s two sons, Josh and Ben (Rutgers’ offensive coordinator), were always by his side.
“They both loved to watch film with me back then,’ Thom said. ‘It was 16 millimeter film and it was a big deal when I brought the projector home and let them run the buttons.”
Thom’s connections to college coaches are ultimately what led to Josh’s career path.
Josh played quarterback for his dad at Canton McKinley and then went on to play at John Carroll University, a Division 3 school in Ohio — “where he belonged,” according to his dad.
He didn’t play quarterback in college because a sophomore already had that position on lock down. Ironically, it was current Patriots director of player personnel, Nick Caserio, so Josh made the switch to wide receiver and it worked out as he got regular playing time.
“He’s an incredible human being,” Josh said of Caserio. “I am very fortunate he befriended me when I went to John Carroll as a freshman. We played three years together, had a lot of fun, enjoyed a lot of success and handled some adversities as well playing together and became very good friends through the whole process.”
(Josh was the one who recommended Caserio to work for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. “I knew when I recommended him to Bill that he was the kind of person that would never, ever let you down and he has definitely held his end of the bargain up,” Josh said.)
In the winter of 1998, Josh’s playing days were over, but the majority of his football journey was just beginning.
‘DAD’S INFLUENCE ENDS HERE’
With Thom coaching for so long and having a lot of contact with college coaches, he knew Josh would need to get a graduate assistant job if he wanted to go anywhere in coaching.
After sending out his resume, Josh only got one offer, but a good one at that — a graduate assistant job at Michigan State under Nick Saban.
“I knew that going and being a GA for Nick would be a great experience for him because Nick is extremely demanding and extremely tough and very detail oriented,” Thom said. “I thought it was a really good place for him to go and begin his college coaching experience and all that proved to be true. If you work for Nick you can work for anybody.”
“I remember taking him (to Michigan State) and telling him, ‘OK, you’re going to coach at Michigan State and you’re going to coach for Nick Saban. This is where your old man’s influence ends. There is nothing I can say and nothing I can do to help you after this point. Dad’s influence ends here,'” he added. “I think he knew that and I think he understood that. He worked real hard to do things whatever it was.”
After a few years at Michigan State, Josh got a job in the NFL with the Patriots in 2001 as a personnel assistant.
Josh served a number of roles in New England — personnel assistant, defensive assistant, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator before becoming a head coach in Denver for two seasons and then an offensive coordinator in St. Louis.
Then in 2012, Josh found his way back to New England where it all began as the offensive coordinator under Belichick.
COACHING LIKE HIS DAD
Even though Thom coached teenagers and Josh is coaching grown men, Josh still uses a lot of the same communication methods his dad did. Josh is a big believer in connecting with players regardless of age and stature.
“I would say most of it — the way I communicate with the players, the way I kind of interact with them, I really want them to understand what I am saying,” Josh said. “If I need to say it a different way, I will. That is an important part of coaching and he was so good at it. He obviously had a little different types of kids, different varying levels of background, communication, intelligence, age — those types of things so you have to be creative at times. You have to find a way to connect with all your players.
“He was very, very good at that. It’s one of the things I try and do the best I can because we have obviously a lot of older men, but nonetheless you still need a connection and if you can connect with these guys at this level and they know you have their best interest at heart, then they are going to give you everything they have. That is an important thing to learn early as a coach and I was fortunate to learn it from my father.”
Josh doesn’t often reach out to his father for advice, but on occasion does, usually to get his opinion on dealing with a player or other off-field situation, rarely ever X’s and O’s.
“It’s about managing people or it’s about dealing with a situation or an issue with a player just because when you coach high school football, I did all of that on a daily basis because you’re dealing with kids as they are growing up,” Thom said. “They are maturing and becoming men. Most of the time he’s already got the answer in his mind and he is just looking for affirmation from me.”
Thom still tries to remain as involved in the game as he can from the afar like when he watches a Patriots game in person, Josh gives him an idea of what the game plan is and what to watch for from the opposing defense as a way for Thom to be able to watch the game from the stands with a coaches perspective.
“I’m able to watch the game plan unfold and I am sort of able to anticipate based on what they’ve done before and what the opponent presents I get to anticipate things that they’ll do,” Thom said. “That is great for me because it allows me to be engaged in the game and not just a spectator.”
One of the most memorable moments for the two occurred during Super Bowl XLIX. The Seahawks scored with 4:54 left in the third quarter to go ahead by 10 points — 24-14, which took a lot of wind out of the Patriots’ sails, but not the McDaniels clan.
Thom and the rest of the McDaniels family was seated at the 35-yard line, just behind the Patriots bench and it was then and there Thom and his son had a moment they will never forget.
“For whatever reason I looked down to the bench and he looked up at me and I gave him a thumbs up and he smiled as big as can he could smile and he gave me a thumbs up,” Thom said. “It was never planned and not prepared for. It was like he was letting me know that he had the thing under control.”
The Patriots went onto score two fourth quarter touchdowns and held on thanks to a last second interception to beat the Seahawks 28-24 and win Super Bowl XLIX.
“I’ll never forget that and he won’t forget that either,” Thom said. “He talked to me about it after the game. It was just one of those little two seconds on your life that was very meaningful to him and very meaningful to me. We both didn’t know the outcome, but we knew what was going to happen.”
COACHING RUNS IN FAMILIES
Like Josh learned from Thom, Belichick learned from his dad Steve, which Thom said is a reason why he is always welcome at the Gillette Stadium facility.
During his first few years in New England Josh didn’t ask Belichick if his dad could come out to watch a practice, but after he became comfortable, he did and Belichick agreed with no questions asked.
Thom recalled the first practice and his first meeting with Belichick where the coach told him he was welcome whenever he wanted.
“Josh told [Bill] later that he may have created a monster. When he said he’s welcome anytime he’s going to want to do that and Bill said, ‘No, I meant it. Anytime, anywhere he’s welcome,” Thom said. “I think [Bill] sees between Josh and I what he had with his dad and he’s going to respect and honor that. I appreciate that so much.”
The bond between a coach and his son is special and Josh knows just how lucky he is to be able to have that with his father.
“I think it’s probably I would say the most important ingredient in my upbringing,” Josh said. “I got an opportunity to watch him do it. I fell in love with the game of football through him and watch him grind and coach, win and lose, and go through tough times, celebrate great victories and that type of things.
“This aside from faith and your family, this game has really become a huge part of our life. It doesn’t consume us, it certainly isn’t bigger than the two previous things I’ve mentioned, but it is an enormous part of our life. It defines a lot of our weekends. It determines a lot of our happiness and joy sometimes.
“As a son of a coach, all you want is for your dad to have success and for your dad to be happy. When you become one yourself, then you have a different understanding of the type of commitment he made his entire life to be a good teacher, good role model, to be a good coach and there is no way I could have asked for a better father.”
From the Friday nights at Canton McKinley to Super Bowl Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, the father-son bond has always been there and will never go away.
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