Peter King interviews recently retired Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees:
Pees, 70, retired last week after finishing his 47th year of coaching at the high school, college and NFL level. It’s one of the most interesting careers in coaching history. Not only because he got to coach under two legends, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, but he also got to coach under two coaches he coached as players—John Harbaugh (Miami of Ohio, then the Ravens) and Mike Vrabel (the Patriots, then the Titans). Thirteen jobs in 47 years, and . . .
“I’ve never applied for a job. I never got fired from a job. I never really sought another job. I never said, ‘I’m going to climb the ladder.’ I just did the job I had at the time, did the best I could. And I was lucky: I loved every job I had.”
Starting in Bloomingdale, Ohio (pop: 754), at little Elmwood High School.
“I played in a winter basketball league in [northwest] Ohio after college, when I met the principal at Elmwood High School. I was running a men’s clothing store in Bowling Green, Ohio. They had some openings on the football staff at Elmwood and he asked me if I wanted to coach. I said sure. I was hired to coach the secondary and be the track coach. But at our first meeting, the head coach made me the defensive coordinator. I did that two years, then became the head coach for four. Then I went to Findlay College as defensive coordinator and head track coach in 1979. After my first year, I went to Miami of Ohio to learn about their defense—which was the same defense we ran—from their coordinator, Tim Rose. In 1983, he got the head job there and hired me to be his defensive coordinator. Stayed there four years, and then Elliott Uzelac, the coach at Navy, called and hired me to coach the secondary. He got my name from Lloyd Carr, who I’d done some clinics with.
“After the ’89 season, Nick Saban called me. He was the secondary coach with the Oilers then, but he’d just been hired as the Toledo coach. He asked me to fly down to Houston, just to talk. He got my name from [longtime Navy assistant] Steve Belichick. So I flew down, and he offered me the defensive coordinator job at Toledo. Loved working with Nick—so good to me and my family. He left to coach with Bill [Belichick] and the Browns after one year, but Gary Pinkell was hired by Toledo and he kept the staff. I stayed three more years. After signing day [in 1994], Gary said to me one day, ‘[Notre Dame coach] Lou Holtz is on the phone. He’s gonna offer you a job.’ I picked up the phone, and Lou offered me the linebacker job. Then he said, ‘I hate to ask you this, but can you be here this afternoon?’ I said sure, I’ll call my wife on the way. So I was at Notre Dame one year. Then Nick takes the Michigan State job, and he hires me as his defensive coordinator. I was there from ‘95 to ’97. Kent State fires their coach after the ’97 season, and their AD flies up to meet me. We have breakfast, and I guess you could call that an interview, but it basically was a conversation—he just wanted to get to know me. He offered me the job over the phone.
“I’m at Kent six years. One day I had a question about defense for Bill Belichick, and I called him. He called me back and said, ‘I’m losing a linebacker coach. Ever thought about leaving college?’ We met at the scouting combine. He offered me the linebacker job. Great experience, with [Tedy] Bruschi, [Willie] McGinest, [Mike] Vrabel. In 2006, he made me the coordinator. Just a great experience, to see how the very best do it. But after four years as the coordinator, I needed a break. I made a smooth exit from New England. Then John Harbaugh offered me the linebacker job in Baltimore, which is what I needed at the time. How great that was, coaching Ray Lewis. Then John named me the coordinator in 2012. After ’16, I’m thinking of retiring. John said, ‘How about one more year?’ But after the ’17 season, that was it. I retired.
“So we [Pees and wife Melody] went up to our lake house in Michigan. It’s a Thursday night in January. We went out to dinner with our financial adviser, and we’re figuring out the NFL pension and how we’re going to live. Melody was planning this river cruise in Europe. The next morning, the phone rang. I said, ‘Hi Mike,’ and she knew. Mike Vrabel. He’d just gotten the Tennessee head-coaching job. He needed someone with experience to run the defense. He wanted me to be the coordinator.”
Pees’ only son, Matt Pees, was a high school coach in Denver. Dean Pees might have taken the Titans job anyway, but he asked Vrabel if he could bring Matt as defensive quality control coach. Vrabel checked, called the next day to say Matt was welcome on the staff, and the deal got done. Father and son coached together in 2018 and 2019.
“Of course losing at Kansas City was disappointing. But winning at New England and winning at Baltimore in the playoffs, against two coaches I have so much respect for, was an incredible way to go out. That goal-line stand in the second quarter at New England is a career highlight. But this time, I’m done coaching. Forty-seven years is enough. Not saying I’d never do some other job in football, but not coaching.
“It’s been a great career. Very, very blessed. My wife’s been fantastic. My kids have been fantastic—their whole lives, they just take off one jersey and put on another. I’m looking at my grandson right now—he’s 8, and he’s wearing a Titans cap.
“People ask me, ‘What’s your favorite place you coached?’ All of ‘em. They ask, ‘Who’s your favorite player?’ All of ‘em.
“In this football business, who can say they never got fired? Who can say they loved every job they had? For 47 years!”
That is the very quintessence of Bravo. Competent, hard-working, loyal, and valued by every Alpha he encountered. Limited ambition combined with incredible success. This is why it is so valuable for a man to know and understand his place in the hierarchy. Hierarchical fit is one of the key components of long-term success.