They have a good relationship... too bad Westhoff's retiring after this year.
On the Sideline, the Jets’ Odd Couple Coach Alike and Think Alike
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Coach Rex Ryan, left, and the special-teams coach Mike Westhoff share coaching philosophies.
By BEN SHPIGEL
Published: September 15, 2012
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Two football coaches go shark fishing off the coast of Florida. One is Rex Ryan, the other is Mike Westhoff. They sit on Westhoff’s boat for hours, sharing laughs while casting lures, but the sharks are not biting. They catch nothing. Well, almost nothing.
“I caught a buzz,” Ryan said. “So that was good.”
“Next time we go,” Westhoff said, “we’ll catch something.”
There will be a next time because Westhoff does not make promises he cannot keep. He is loyal that way. He cherishes that trait among friends as he does a flawless punt return.
When Ryan was hired as the Jets’ coach in January 2009, he and Westhoff were not shark-fishing buddies. They were not friends. They were not even acquaintances. For all their years in professional football, they had never even met. And now?
“He’s a mentor to me,” Ryan, 49, said. “He’s like an older brother.”
“Gee, thanks,” Westhoff, 64, said. “I’m not old. I think he looks older than me.”
Their relationship has transcended its not-so-humble origins: the respect that two masterminds, each with a history of leading exceptional units, can have for each other. It would be difficult to find a defensive coach as imaginative as Ryan — just ask him. It would also be difficult to find a more inventive special-teams coordinator than Westhoff — just ask him, too. He routinely slips his assistant, Ben Kotwica, where-did-that-come-from? plays scrawled on airplane napkins or hotel stationery.
Westhoff and Ryan acknowledge that the contrast in personalities is stark. Ryan has a bottomless reserve of optimism but once called Westhoff Old Crusty. They are united by a vision: their obsession with winning, their love of teaching, their respect for the game.
“I see the fire in their hearts,” said Isaiah Trufant, one of Westhoff’s prized special-teamers. “They get me riled up to play.”
The special-teams office is next to Ryan’s, and Westhoff visits often. They talk about personnel and schemes, and philosophies espoused by Don Shula, and advice suggested by Jimmy Johnson. Through the wall, it all sounds like genius to Kotwica.
“There’s a passion in their voice,” Kotwica said. “They may not always agree, but when the door opens, they’re together.”
As Ryan prepared for head coaching interviews with St. Louis and the Jets, he consulted his boss at the time in Baltimore, Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, a close friend since their days coaching at the University of Cincinnati. Discussing the Jets possibility, Harbaugh told Ryan, “Well, Mike Westhoff’s the special teams coach there.” As if to say, go. Five minutes into their first conversation, Ryan knew.
“It didn’t take long to realize that our philosophies and ideologies were really pretty similar,” Westhoff said.
Ryan’s aggressive, attacking defensive scheme matched Westhoff’s style. They are sticklers for fundamentals, never straying from basic principles, but always willing to concoct and conceive.
“That’s one of the reasons why Rex admires Westy so much,” Mike Pettine, the defensive coordinator, said. “He’s not a cookie-cutter coach. He’s not going to do something one way just because this is what everybody else does.”
That approach crystallized for Westhoff in 1982, his first year in the N.F.L., as an assistant with the Baltimore Colts, when his friend Bill Parcells told him not to deviate from his beliefs. Ryan gives Westhoff the freedom to run his group as he likes, much as Shula did in Miami. There, the entire team was required to attend special-teams meetings the morning after games.
“He has a good way of being harsh,” the former Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, a close friend of Westhoff’s, said in a telephone interview. “He’d get on guys, but make them feel like they were going to get the job done, regardless.”
Ryan will drop by special-teams meetings throughout the week but makes sure to attend the unit’s gathering on Saturday nights for what he described as a highlight of his week. That is when Westhoff, one of the staff’s great orators, delivers an impassioned speech that uses an example, like a movie clip or a historical anecdote, to teach a point. Westhoff once spoke about the importance of sheepdogs in cattle herding and how only the smartest and strongest survive.
Before last week’s game against Buffalo, Westhoff drew on a more personal subject. He placed an X-ray of his left leg on an overhead projector, showing his players the titanium rod that replaced his femur. (“Intense,” punter Robert Malone said.) Westhoff, a bone cancer survivor, told of the surgeon, Dr. Daniel Wurtz, who repaired the rod when it snapped in May, and who once performed that complex operation seven times in one day.
“This doctor is only one of a handful of people that can do this, so he’s automatically at the top of his profession,” Westhoff said. “That’s where we’re supposed to be. Sometimes, if you’re going to be at the top, you have to perform under extraordinary circumstances.”
For the last 27 years, Westhoff has coached at the top, but he is retiring after this season. His valedictory tour begins Sunday in Pittsburgh, his hometown. Ryan must find a new special-teams guru, so he is savoring these last few months with Westhoff.
“He’s everything that you want,” Ryan said. “I’m honored that he coaches with me.”
“I’ll always have his back,” Westhoff said. “Not that he needs me.”
That is where Westhoff is wrong. There are sharks to reel in and buzzes to catch. There are next times to be had.
But really, it sucks that he's retiring. You can tell by listening to him talk that he has such a deep passion and love for his guys and the game. It really resonates how much he cares when you listen to his press conferences.
Besides Parcells, Westhoff is my favorite coach. I love his weekly pressers. Always informative with some great humor sprinkled in..He'll be missed if this does turn out to be his final season..Heck, he'll be missed whenever he leaves the game.