Sir Charles, Canelo and Sean McDermott? Bills coach stays himself even amid spotlight | Buffalo Bills News | NFL

by | Sep 8, 2021 | Driving Ranges

LAKE TAHOE, Nev. – This is about the last place one might expect to find Sean McDermott.

It’s a Thursday afternoon in early July and some of the biggest names in the sports and entertainment worlds have descended on the Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. They’ve come to enjoy the amenities of a five-star resort that promises “luxury beyond limits” while also participating in the American Century Championship  a celebrity golf tournament in one of the world’s more idyllic settings.

Amid a sea of A-list stars who command attention based on their mere presence, the Buffalo Bills’ head coach struck a more understated tone – in both dress and demeanor. Wearing a grey Travis Matthew golf polo, khaki shorts and black golf spikes, McDermott’s wardrobe matches his modest personality. His only distinguishing article of clothing was the white Bills bucket hat – one worn as a precaution against skin cancer – that has become ubiquitous to the coach.

McDermott is on the far right of the driving range, grinding away. On his right is Charles Barkley, the larger-than-life Basketball Hall of Famer. On his left is Canelo, the Mexican professional boxer who is pound-for-pound the best in the world – and famous enough to go by just one name.

The night before, McDermott walked into a welcome reception a few minutes after his wife, Jamie, and their three children arrived. As soon as his kids saw him, they came running up with an urgent update.

“They’re all going, ‘Steph Curry’s here, Steph Curry’s here!” McDermott said. “They don’t look at dad that way. I don’t expect them to. Steph’s at a different level, but I just don’t see myself like that. No matter how many games we win, no matter how much success we have, I don’t think I’ll ever see myself that way. Maybe that’s to my detriment, I don’t know, but that’s just who I am.”

McDermott might never be entirely comfortable with the idea of celebrity, but it’s something he should get used to. The Buffalo Bills are back in the Super Bowl conversation, and he’s the man largely responsible for getting them there. In four seasons, McDermott has overseen turnaround that started by ending a 17-year playoff drought and has changed the course of a franchise that had lost its way.

“I remember starting on the show in 2016, and there just wasn’t much Bills talk, and if there was, you were doing it to satisfy an East Coast time zone or because you were doing it out of nostalgia because we grew up Bills fans,” Kyle Brandt, one of the hosts of NFL Network’s Good Morning Football, said this week. “Now, it’s like we lead the show with the Bills. Half the national media members are picking the Bills to go to the Super Bowl. It’s crazy. Personally, I just like to think we as a show were just slightly early to the party, because they’re blowing up now. They’re not the club band anymore. Now they’re playing arenas.”

The Buffalo News made the trip west to Lake Tahoe to spend some time with McDermott away from One Bills Drive, to learn more about how the coach has evolved entering his fifth year on the job – both on the field and off.

In McDermott’s mind, being the best coach he can be means reinventing himself every offseason.

For all the Bills’ accomplishments in 2020 – their first AFC East championship since the 1995 season, first playoff victory since that same year, and a franchise single-season record in points scored, just to name a few – McDermott knows none of that matters now.

An appearance in the AFC championship game means the Bills can no longer play the underdog card. Teams will be gunning for them.

“He’s done an absolutely great job,” Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “Every year is different, but I know Sean will do everything he can to have them ready.”

On Monday’s episode of Good Morning Football, Brandt predicted McDermott would be named the 2021 NFL Coach of the Year.

“It’s ridiculous that he hasn’t won it,” Brandt said. “This guy brought the Bills to the playoffs, and not like, on the Josh Allen rocket. He brought them with Tyrod Taylor.”

In Peter King’s Football Morning in America column, he predicted the Bills will earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC and reach the Super Bowl, while also selecting McDermott as his coach of the year. That’s just a small sampling of the lofty preseason projections for the Bills from pundits and fans alike.

“If being on the map was the goal, then yeah, we’ve accomplished that,” McDermott said. “But that’s never been the goal. It should never be the goal.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to get across to our team. I don’t go to work early in the morning or get home late, nor do any of our coaches, to just be in the conversation.”

In McDermott’s mind, being the best coach he can be means reinventing himself every offseason.

“Not change who you are, your core values, but just asking yourself, how can I become a better coach?” he said. “I’ve got to be better than I was the year before. If not, I didn’t put my time in.”

During that introductory reception, the resumes of those playing scrolled on projector screens set up throughout the room. As he read the bios of gold medalists, Hall of Famers, Emmy winners and champions in every major sport, McDermott reflected on his upbringing in Lansdale, Pa., just outside Philadelphia.

The dream then was one shared by so many kids – to star in the NFL as a player. McDermott’s playing career didn’t quite make it that far. He walked onto the football team at the College of William and Mary, where he became a three-year starter at free safety through sheer determination and a willingness to outwork anyone and everyone.

A coaching career didn’t become a consideration until the spring of 1998, when William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock offered McDermott a graduate assistant role. In just more than 20 years, McDermott has risen to a level in which he’s rightfully earned a seat at the table in the company of true powerhouses – unsettled as that may make him.

“I’m looking around the room, Vince Carter is three seats down from me. Justin Timberlake is in the room. Aaron Rodgers is there,” McDermott said. “And then you’ve got the older guys, legends, Joe Theismann. It’s humbling, and then I also try to keep perspective, because you can’t chase that. Even if it’s not a sport that we all play, just being around people that are either at the level of being the best or they’re chasing that level, I think is really just cool to be in that environment.”

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“You’ve got to build it,” McDermott said. “It doesn’t just show up. And so, where do I spend my time? How much do I need to be around the defense? What’s the right gas-to-brake type of approach there? That’s what I’m learning – where the team does need me. If they’re going, it’s like, ‘All right, let them go. If they’re rolling, let them roll.’ ”

James P. McCoy

It’s just after 11 a.m. the day before the tournament starts. Barkley and Canelo are just getting ready to go out for a casual practice round. McDermott, however, has already gotten in his work for the day. He teed off for his practice round at 7:30 a.m., before even the most ambitious autograph hunters had gotten out of bed.

He’s supposed to be relaxing before another long season starts, but for McDermott, old habits die hard. During the season, the coach’s alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. This week, he’s sleeping in … until 6:15 a.m.

“Unplugging for me has always been hard,” he said.

Football coaches are famous – or maybe infamous – for their 18-hour workdays. Stories are endless of coaches sleeping on couches in their offices. As his in-season wake-up time would indicate, McDermott is no stranger to those long days. He’s learning, however, that he needs to create a mental space for himself away from football, so that he can plug in even stronger when he gets back.

That’s part of what coming here is about.

“People who have gotten really good at what they do, they’ve said, ‘You’ve got to get away, you’ve got to get away, you’ve got to get away,’” McDermott said.

One of those people is Jim Boeheim. One Friday afternoon during the spring, the legendary Syracuse basketball coach returned a call from McDermott, who eagerly pulled his truck into the parking lot of his kids’ elementary school to talk.

McDermott takes every opportunity he can to chat with people who are experts in their field. He specifically wanted to know from Boeheim how he’s been able to sustain success in one place for so long.

“I was surprised. I didn’t know Sean,” Boeheim said. “The Bills happen to be my oldest son’s favorite team, so he was excited that I got to talk to his favorite coach. … It was an interesting call. He was asking about, ‘How can you be 76 and still coaching?’ I said, ‘It will be a lot harder for a football coach because they work a lot harder than we do.’ ”

Boeheim follows the NFL closely and had been impressed from afar by the job McDermott has done in Buffalo. When the two talked, Boeheim reiterated the importance of getting away during the season – be it something as simple as going to see a movie or taking his wife out to dinner.

“The thing I’ve always stressed is to make sure you get enough sleep,” Boeheim said. “Sometimes as coaches, we overdo it. We get caught up in the day-to-day stuff, and before you know it you’re putting in these 18-hour days. I don’t think that’s good for your ability to coach or your mental health. I know I don’t make really good decisions when I get tired.”

Boeheim also stressed the importance of entrusting others to do their jobs. When he took over as Syracuse’s head coach in 1976, Boeheim wanted to oversee everything that happened within his program. During the offseason, he would go to Puerto Rico to coach in the professional league there for a month at a time. When he returned to Syracuse, he often found that … everything was good.

“We were running our camps, getting ready to recruit,” he said. “Everything was fine. It might have even been better, but it was fine at the very least. I realized, ‘Maybe I don’t have to be here every day.’ If you coach over the years, I think you do delegate a little bit more.”

McDermott is a defensive coach by trade and believes wholeheartedly in the importance of that side of the ball, but he’s been consistent about not wanting to win games 10-9  knowing that’s hard on the heart and hairline. If he doesn’t do his job as head coach overseeing the whole operation, the whole ship could sink.

The Bills have enjoyed remarkable continuity on their coaching staff, which allows McDermott to pick his spots as to where he spends his time, knowing he can trust his assistants to have their players ready.

“You’ve got to build it,” McDermott said. “It doesn’t just show up. And so, where do I spend my time? How much do I need to be around the defense? What’s the right gas-to-brake type of approach there? That’s what I’m learning – where the team does need me. If they’re going, it’s like, ‘All right, let them go. If they’re rolling, let them roll.’ ”

A compulsive notes taker, McDermott jotted down as much as he could from his 30-minute conversation with Boeheim. By the end of the call, the respect and admiration was mutual.

“I was hugely impressed with the overall conversation and the fact that he reached out to me,” Boeheim said. “Coaches that win over a long period of time are constantly changing. There are constant adaptations from what they were 10 years ago or five years ago or maybe even last year. It shows me that that’s what he wants to do  that he’s going to do that. I think he looked at it as, ‘That guy’s been at it for a long time. He’s still pretty viable, so how does he do it?’

“I tried to answer that question for him. I was really impressed with him. I think the Bills found a really great coach.”

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“The test of a team is how long it can stay together through all the distractions that come – injuries, all these other things that pull at you during the season,” McDermott said. “During the season, there’s a little bit of a different Sean in front of you guys, because I am very protective of those guys.”

Boeheim’s advice of taking some “me time” in season is something McDermott actually started to do last year. On Fridays, he would get out of work in time to race over to Orchard Park Country Club, where he would meet his 11-year-old son to play a few holes.

“My wife is very accommodating that way,” he said. “A big part of that is trusting your staff. Listen, I get up early, but I also try and get home at a decent hour so I can see my kids, or at least see my wife before she goes to bed.”

Golf has become more of an escape than McDermott might have imagined when he was hired in January 2017. That June, the Bills started an annual golf tournament for media members who cover the team, pairing a team employee with a reporter. McDermott participated then, but the idea of spending four hours away from the team was hard to stomach. His priorities then were his family, his faith and his job … and then whatever else came after that. If he could sneak in an hour to work out, that was pretty good. Four hours on the golf course, though? Forget it.

The game has gotten its hooks into him, though. Even in this stress-free setting, McDermott wasn’t ready to leave the range until he was satisfied with his progress.

“For him, starting to get into it just now and really enjoying it, I’m never really surprised to hear when anybody’s necessarily into the game,” said retired Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who played his practice rounds with McDermott. “Now, him coming out here and taking a week to do it is probably a bit of a surprise.”

That’s all part of “reinventing himself.” McDermott was invited to play last year, but declined because of Covid-19 concerns. When the invitation came again this year, and he saw that it worked with his kids’ sports schedules, the family decided to make a vacation out of it – even if it involved at least a little work.

The day before coming here, McDermott was on the range at Orchard Park when an older member – one the coach doesn’t know by name, but frequently sees at the club – walked over.

“I can kind of see him out of the corner of my eye,” McDermott recalled, “and he comes over and says, ‘Hey coach, I can see you’ve got an addictive personality, just like I do.’ ”

Challenged on that notion, McDermott doesn’t totally go along.

“I think I have a passionate personality,” he said. “I don’t think it’s addictive, but I know I can be better. Part of that is the competitor in me. I’m never going to embarrass myself. I think a little bit of motivation by fear is healthy, too. I don’t know what it is, man, but I can’t walk away when it’s not right.

“My kids would tell you the same thing. We go hit ground balls. We practice infield, we’re going to work. I try to find that balance, too, of I know what works for me, but what works for me doesn’t always work for my kids or my team or whatever. Self-awareness is huge. I could sit out here all day, but I need to get home and be a dad and a husband.

“If you’re wired the right way, you get smarter as the years go. You know yourself better.”

Over a lunch of grilled chicken on a salad, McDermott is completely at ease. Truthfully, it’s hard not to be in this setting. As the sun shines brilliantly and a light breeze makes the 85-degree temperature feel comfortable, McDermott seems to soak in just how fortunate he is to be here, surrounded by his family and friends, leading an NFL franchise potentially on the cusp of something great.

“To those who much has been given, much is expected. That’s kind of how I look at it,” he said. “I’m blessed. My family has been blessed.”

He speaks freely, much more so than he will when the regular season starts Sunday at Highmark Stadium against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s calculated.

“I learned from Andy Reid that the No. 1 job of a head coach in press conferences is not to create distraction for his team, because it’s hard enough to win in this league as it is,” he said. “The test of a team is how long it can stay together through all the distractions that come  injuries, all these other things that pull at you during the season. During the season, there’s a little bit of a different Sean in front of you guys, because I am very protective of those guys.”

Given the way McDermott, now 47, and his older brother, Tim, were raised by their parents, Rich and Avis, that’s not a big surprise. There were high expectations and a low tolerance for nonsense.

That explains why McDermott is on the range after a practice round while most of the other celebrities are more concerned with the open bar in the hospitality tent.

“He has a different personality when you see how he goes through things,” said retired Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who caddied for McDermott in the practice round. “Obviously, golf is a very meticulous game. You almost can’t be overthinking and be in your head. … Then he doesn’t have the time, being the head coach. You want to come out here knowing the competitor he is, too, you want to show well. So I was like, ‘I wonder how he’s going to do, but he actually is doing really well with it, taking some good lessons. You have to humble yourself, and this game does it.”

Alexander had it pretty easy during McDermott’s round.

“I’m out here, supposed to be caddying, like, ‘Hey you want me to get this?” he said. “He’s like, ‘No, I got it.’ He’s still got that down-to-earth foundation. He’s the same dude, even those he’s getting the looks now nationally.”

McDermott’s family also keeps him in check. He asked his brother to caddy for him, but was quickly turned down.

“He thought, ‘Hey, why I would carry my younger brother’s clubs for three days in the sun? He thought better of it,’ ” Sean McDermott said.

During that practice round with Williams, McDermott’s mom texted to wish her son and Jamie a happy anniversary. He pulled out his phone to read the exact message.

“Don’t worry if you’re not playing good golf,” it read, “remember you’re a dad first and a coach second and golfer third.”

“Perfect,” McDermott said with a laugh. “I’m playing with Kyle and a couple of other guys who are pretty good, so you can get pretty frustrated when you play with those guys. That’s exactly what I needed.”

Golf has given him perspective, too.

“A lot of the golfers on our staff, guys who have played longer than I have, that’s what they say, that one golf shot approach or theory,” he said. “You’ve got to go onto the next shot. Reset, whatever the term is to get guys onto the next play, that’s what you’ve got to do. There’s no more game I think that it’s more true for than this game right here.”

It applies to football, too. Not every play will go as designed. Neither will every game. There will be aversity along the way. That’s true even in wins.

“After a game, my dad will leave a message, ‘Hey, we got to talk,” McDermott said. “We could win 28-7, and he’s got three things you’ve got to get better at each week. He was a coach. That’s how it is.”

Ego isn’t something that Alexander ever sees developing in his friend and former head coach – no matter how many celebrity golf tournaments he’s invited to play in.

“He realizes it kind of comes along with it when you coach in the NFL these days,” he said. “When you’re a head football coach, you have a certain platform. Obviously being in Buffalo with the success he’s had, he’s now able to do things like this, but he’s still very grounded. It’s not like ‘I’m this superstar now.’ He’s grounded in who he is.”