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Frank Reich's restless quest for the coaching staff he wants 


CHARLOTTE — It's not that Frank Reich's not still a handsome fella, but he's probably looked better at other points in his life.

The new Panthers coach is a little red-eyed lately, perhaps not his freshest self, primarily because he's been working start-the-coffee-for-the-rooster early mornings and prop-the-eyelids-open late nights trying to put together a coaching staff. So of all the things he could use at the moment, a chance to sleep in might be near the top of the list.

"I feel that," Reich said with a nod Friday afternoon when it's mentioned he appears a little worn out. "I feel that right now. I feel like I'm going to sleep in this weekend."

This is where the narrator voice comes in and says: "He did not sleep in this weekend."

Reich has continued to burn the midnight oil hiring assistants, with more deals rolling in well after dark in recent days as he finalizes his staff. The result has been a widely acclaimed group, though he hasn't kept up with the news lately, so he didn't realize what the reaction outside his office window might be. He's near the end of the process, at least, and it's been a grueling process for him. So that chance to get a little rest might be coming soon.

"There's been two solid weeks of me getting here at 5, 5:30 in the morning, and leaving the office at 10, 10:30 at night," Reich said. "And that's normal during the season, but I'm literally here, and 80 percent of that time is spent on the phone."

Perhaps the only thing showing the same kind of wear as Reich at the moment are his device chargers, since he's been checking messages on his watch and his cell phone all day every day since the Panthers hired him on Jan. 26. That's been a deliberate decision, as he and owner David Tepper and general manager Scott Fitterer have been intentional about conducting a meticulous search process for all their staff positions.

While it's customary to interview two or three candidates for assistant jobs, they've gone through six or seven applicants for some spots and done a lot of background checking on all the candidates. This is all on purpose. Reich realized that was going to be the case when he got the job because he kept hearing from his friends before he was even hired as head coach.

"I appreciated how thorough Scott was," Reich said with a laugh of the head coaching search. "I must have had eight or 10 people call me and say, 'Hey, Fitt just called; he wanted to know all the bad things about you. He wanted to know all your weaknesses. And he gave me a truth serum, and I had to tell him all of them.'"

Having gone through that kind of scrutiny himself, Reich wants to apply the same approach when he's building his first staff here. As he said, he's leaned into those in his network when asking about some of these hires, because he wants to be sure.

"We all have weaknesses; we all have holes in our game, so what are the weaknesses?" he said. "You've got to press it because you want to find out. Because if this guy has a weakness in this area, you want to make sure that you got someone that has a strength in that area that kind of complements him."

Jim Caldwell, Peyton Manning

And when you look at this staff, you can see the result of that kind of conscientious and purposeful construction. There's 42-year-old defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, a rising star in the business. So you make sure you bring in Dom Capers and his 35 years of experience in the league to offer wise counsel. The same is true on offense, where new 36-year-old coordinator Thomas Brown can look to an elder such as Jim Caldwell, and also guys such as Duce Staley and Shawn Jefferson, and James Campen, and even rookie coach Josh McCown, guys who have all played in the league and bring a variety of perspectives.

On Jan. 26, the day Reich was hired by the Panthers, Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian (who drafted Reich in Buffalo and saw him embark on a coaching career as an intern in Indianapolis) offered words of endorsement that became prophecy.

"Because of the incredible respect Frank has in the league, I'm sure he'll put together a great staff," Polian said before Reich had hired his first assistant.

That appears to be the case.

This group (which isn't even finished yet) has a combined 198 years of coaching experience in the league, and another 75 years of service time as players. They also have 10 Super Bowl rings when they gather in that room, and assembling this group of people has been done with a clear concept of the kind of staff he wanted to build.

Table inside Article
Title, name Playing experience Coaching experience Total NFL years
Head coach, Frank Reich 13 17 30
Senior assistant, Jim Caldwell -- 18 18
Offensive coordinator, Thomas Brown 1 3 4
Asst. HC/running backs, Duce Staley 10 12 22
Quarterbacks, Josh McCown 16 -- 16
Passing game coordinator, Parks Frazier -- 3 3
Receivers, Shawn Jefferson 13 17 30
Offensive line, James Campen 8 19 27
Assistant OL, Robert Kugler -- 2 2
Tight ends, John Lilly -- 2 2
Defensive coordinator, Ejiro Evero -- 15 15
Senior defensive assistant, Dom Capers -- 35 35
Defensive line, Todd Wash -- 16 16
Outside linebackers, Tem Lukabu -- 5 5
Inside linebackers, Peter Hansen -- 4 4
Secondary, Jonathan Cooley -- 3 3
Safeties, Bert Watts -- 2 2
Assistant secondary, DeAngelo Hall 14 -- 14
Special teams coordinator, Chris Tabor -- 15 15
Asst. ST, Devin Fitzsimmons -- 8 8
Total 75 196 271

"The one thing that you learn is that every position on that staff is so critically important, number one. Number two, you're going to feel rushed. So you have to force yourself to be patient," Reich said of the lessons he's learned from some of his legendary bosses. "But I always believe in hiring the person first. Hire the right person, the right character. Smart people with high character — this is a Marv Levy-ism — are always learning how to get better. So we're going to ask our players to keep getting better. So I want to make sure we have a coaching staff who, in and of ourselves, we're trying to get better.

"So you're looking for those kinds of people who have integrity and humility, so they keep getting better. That's a big deal."

There are times when Reich can't help but shake his head when he thinks about all these job interviews he's conducting because these have been very different.

He wants to be patient this time; he wants to be thorough. Because he knows what it feels like to be panicky.

In 2018, he was hired by the Colts less than a week after Josh McDaniels backed out of an agreement there. He got the job on February 11th. And as the last head coach hired in that cycle, he had to pick through some leftovers to build his first staff. He inherited the contracts of three guys McDaniels was bringing with him (defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, and defensive line coach Mike Phair). He had to move fast to get the rest of his group thrown together. It turned out to be a good staff, as Eberflus, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, and cornerbacks coach Jonathan Gannon have already become head coaches themselves. But it was absolutely put together on the fly, and the process left a mark on him.

It didn't go away when he was the first guy hired in this year's cycle and had the first crack at some coaches other people wanted too (Evero interviewed for all five head coaching openings this offseason as well, and many people wanted him as a coordinator after the job he did in Denver last year).

Reich was fired by the Colts in November, but he admits he didn't make that many calls to potential candidates until January because he didn't know where he'd end up or who would be available when he got there. He talked to guys like Polian, people he's known throughout the years. But mostly, those November and December calls were about philosophy because, having gone through a lightning-round search before, he wanted to be more careful this time.

"That's where I learned not to hurry," Reich said of his 2018 experience. "I wasn't competing against anybody. This time I was competing against people. But what I learned by coming in at the end of the cycle was, we still got a great staff, right? I mean, everybody else was done filling their staff out. And we still put together a great staff.

"So that teaches me even now when I was doing it earlier, just to be patient. There's no magic to it. I mean, just find good people, find good people who are good teammates and smart and good football coaches."

Ejiro Evero, Dom Capers

This time, he's had the benefit of more time. And he's filled that time by being more exhaustive in his search, though that means being exhausted now. After landing Evero early, the two of them talked many times a day about the guys he wanted on his defensive staff. Since Reich's focus has always been on the other side of the ball, he's leaned on Evero's opinions there, but he's making sure his defensive coordinator goes through the same kind of process.

"When you talk to Ejiro, he's going to say that we've made a million phone calls, a million," Reich said, and not just the interviews, but the cross-checking of references and comparing notes from their sources.

The result, Reich hopes, is that they've created a diverse staff — in every way. That's race, age, and background. With former NFL stars and lifetime coaches who didn't play Division I at all, guys who have been in Super Bowls and guys who played and coached in minor leagues overseas. There's even a former professional basketball player and a former Green Beret who was the "GM of Special Forces" to help develop them once they're together.

Reich said the overarching goal was to create a group with "diversity of thought."

"You need to get a group together that the chemistry is going to be right. It's really, really important," Reich said. "And there's no magic. I'm encouraged to hear that people think that so far the staff has been good. But at the same time, I'm like, I don't know. I mean, we're just doing what we do.

"But the last couple of days, we were interviewing offensive coordinator candidates, and I had a bunch of coaches in on those interviews. There were five or six of us in the interview. And so you got a little bit of a feel because we're in there as a staff interviewing these guys like, 'Oh, this feels good. This is going to be good.' But yeah, we haven't even scratched the surface yet."

And when they walk into Bank of America Stadium this week, Reich will gather them as a group for the first time in the same place to start doing it. Hopefully, he got a nap in on Sunday afternoon. Because the real work starts now.

They're going to be doing a lot of paperwork the next few days, onboarding the new guys, and making plans. The combine is a week away, and before they get there, they have to study their own roster. Most of these coaches have no background with the Panthers' current players, so they start there. Then they have to prep for free agency, which starts in less than a month.

He's got a handwritten list of things he has to cover in that meeting on his desk. It is not a short list. He keeps adding items to it between phone calls.

"And then I have one little message, that'll be more of a vision, for what we're envisioning the identity of this team to be and how we get there," Reich said. "How do we execute this vision?"

Asked what that vision looked like, Reich grinned. It's a tired grin, but he's happy with the work he's done so far. He also knows there are more long days ahead of him, but he likes the people he's surrounded himself with to do the work, people he believes are committed to the process the way he has been for the last few round-the-clock weeks.

"It's ultimately about winning and doing it the right way," he said.

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