Robert Saleh's journey to the New York Jets began with 9/11 epiphany

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Monday, September 11, 2023

Editor's note: This story originally published Jan. 26, 2021 on and has been updated.

Let's start in the living room of Robert Saleh's parents' home in Dearborn, Michigan.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Saleh and his family sat in front of the TV, horrified by the images they saw on CNN. His mother was crying. His sisters were crying. His father, Sam, refused to believe the grisly scene at the World Trade Center in New York City.

Maybe the restaurant atop the north tower was on fire, Sam thought. Maybe it was a bogus report or trick photography by a twisted producer. That was his paternal hope. His body felt numb.

With Robert's older brother, David, working on the 61st floor of the south tower, their minds soon began racing to bad places. Robert was motionless on the sofa, his eyes stuck on the screen. He was 22 years old, a former college football player starting a career in the financial world -- 19 years before he would be named head coach of the New York Jets.

"He barely said two words, but you could see he had anxiety in his face," Sam said. "You could see the anxiety and fear that he might have lost a brother. Right then and there was the turning point for Robert. He said, 'You know what? I'm going to live my life. I'm going to do something that will make me happy.' That might have turned his life."

His brother made it out alive following the terrorist attacks, but Robert bottled up those emotions for another five months. No one knew how he felt until Feb. 4, 2002, the morning after the New England Patriots stunned the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Sitting in his work cubicle at the Comerica Bank offices in Detroit, Robert called David with some personal news. He was sobbing uncontrollably as he made the call.

Now let's go to the Jets' training facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.

In Jan. 2021, Robert was introduced as the 18th full-time coach in Jets history, culminating a journey from the bottom of one profession (financial credit analyst) to the pinnacle of another. Instead of a lavish news conference with family and friends, it was done via Zoom with Jets CEO Christopher Johnson and general manager Joe Douglas. The virtual introduction had a detached feel to it but the moment lost no significance.

Robert was seated in a room 32 miles due west of lower Manhattan, home of the former twin towers. One of the darkest days in American history -- the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- had altered the course of his life and countless others. Now here he was, the grandson of Lebanese immigrants and the first Muslim head coach in NFL history, throwing his arms around the city and the franchise.

"Going through my brother's experience and the tragedy that he experienced, being able to self-reflect on what I was doing at that moment and realizing that I had a passion for football, really triggered this whole thing," Robert said.

In Saleh, the Jets got a man with many sides. He's a fist-pumping, high-fiving, people-loving coach who wears a bracelet that reads "Extreme violence." He's 240 pounds with less than 10% body fat; he looks like he could suit up at linebacker. He's also a deep-thinking, chess-playing, child-doting dad of seven.

Saleh crisscrossed the country as an NFL assistant, going from the Houston Texans to the Seattle Seahawks to the Jacksonville Jaguars to the San Francisco 49ers. He won a Super Bowl ring (Seattle, 2013 season) and endured the misery of losing (two 3-13 years in Jacksonville), so he has seen it all in a relatively short time.

"When he was our linebacker coach, we would say, 'He's not going to be here for very long,'" former Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "He has that type of personality and that type of presence that you knew he was going to be in a leadership role."

After graduating from Northern Michigan in 2002, Saleh seemed more likely to become a bank president than an NFL head coach.

He landed a job with Comerica Bank, making $800 a week to evaluate loan applications in an antiseptic office space. He missed football. He grew up in a football family. His father was a star middle linebacker at Fordson High School in Dearborn, where Robert and his brother, uncles and cousins also played. His dad was good enough to play at Eastern Michigan, earning a tryout with the Chicago Bears, but a serious knee injury prevented Sam from fulfilling his potential.

From one generation to the next, the Salehs played the same way.

"On the football field, he was a typical Saleh," former Fordson coach Jeff Stergalas said of Robert. "He's going to hit you."

Robert, an all-conference tight end at Northern Michigan, opted for the 9-to-5 life because he knew he wasn't good enough to pursue the NFL as a player. There was no shame in that; he had a college degree and a promising job in finance. His family was proud of him, and why not?

His paternal grandfather, Albert, was born in Lebanon and had lived a hard life, often holding down two jobs. For a two-year stretch, he worked shifts at Ford Motor Co.and General Motors. He moonlighted as a door-to-door salesman in downtown Detroit, selling enough household products in a low-income area to buy a furniture store. He never learned how to read or write English. His idea of corporate finance was doing business out of his station wagon.

And now his grandson was starting a jacket-and-tie job in a downtown office. Robert was standing on the shoulders of his grandfather and father, who worked construction, coached youth sports and was a pillar in Dearborn's large and tightly knit Arab American community. This was an inspiring success story.

Except Robert hated his job. The realization hit him on 9/11.

'I have to be on the football field'

David Saleh arrived in Manhattan on Sept. 6, 2001, to begin a one-month training program as a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley. After a weekend of fun in the Big Apple, he reported to work on Sept. 10. On his second day in the office, he took a break around 8:30 a.m. and savored the view from the 61st floor. He saw the Statue of Liberty and a blue harbor speckled with ships. It was a postcard morning until a ball of fire zoomed past the window, jolting him back a step.

"It was all slow motion to me," David said. "I couldn't even register what was happening."

David knew enough to get the hell out of there. He found the stairwell and started to walk down, passing firefighters at the 11th floor. The concerned, pasty look on one firefighter's face is burned into his memory. He still wonders if any of those brave souls who marched into the inferno made it out alive.

When David reached the street, he started running and kept running for seven blocks, not knowing the north tower had been struck by a plane. There was hysteria in the streets as people watched the towers eventually collapse. The scene reminded him of the movie "Independence Day."

In Michigan, his panicked loved ones tried desperately to reach him.

"Swear to god, you never want to hear your mom's voice when she thinks you might be dead," David said. "Oh boy, just hearing her on the voicemail was horrible."

David stopped at a convenience store and called home (the owner charged him $20), letting his frightened family know he was OK. He made his way to White Plains, just north of the city, where he obtained a rented car through a friend of his dad's. He drove home to Michigan, pulling over in Pennsylvania because of a trauma-induced anxiety attack.

Robert was happy to have his big brother home, but that day shook him so much that he reexamined his own life and career goals. He decided to follow his heart, giving up finance for football. It took guts, but it also was gut-wrenching.

"He called me up, profusely crying, in complete tears," David said. "He had a little breakdown. He said, 'I have to be on the football field.'"

Robert drove home and broke the news to his father.

"When he walked in the house, his face was as red as a tomato," Sam Saleh said. "I said, 'What happened, did you get fired?'"

Sam tried to convince his son to stay at the bank, which was secure and safe, but he quickly realized it was a lost cause. Robert wanted to coach, and nothing was going to change his mind.

Seeking advice, Robert reached out to his old high school coach, Stergalas, who didn't paint a pretty picture of the road ahead. He told Robert he'd better learn how to make coffee and run a copy machine because those would be his primary responsibilities as a college graduate assistant. That didn't faze him.

Stergalas set up an interview for Robert by calling Mike Vollmar, the Michigan State director of football operations and an alum of neighboring Riverview High School. Coincidentally, Saleh's Jets predecessor, Adam Gase, was an undergraduate assistant for the Spartans only three years earlier.

After two years at Michigan State, where he made $650 per month, Saleh used his connections to land a GA position at Central Michigan in 2004 under coach Brian Kelly. Most coaching wannabes don't do a second GA stint, but Saleh felt he needed more seasoning.

"I'm not ready to go out in the world yet," he told Stergalas.

Saleh was ready for the world after a year at Central Michigan and a year at Georgia. He made a lot of coffee and copies, but he also impressed his bosses with how quickly and clearly he was able to produce scouting reports on different computer programs. His NFL tour started in 2005 with a six-year run in Houston, his longest stint in one city.

Former Texans defensive coordinator Richard Smith met Saleh's father one day at practice and told him his son was too smart for football, that he should be a college professor. Saleh's intelligence is overshadowed by his sideline exuberance, but those who know him say he's extremely sharp.

Posluszny said Saleh has the ability to turn complicated material into simple concepts for the players to learn. In its purest form, coaching is teaching. Each week in Jacksonville, he presented the opponent's favorite running plays, followed by play-action passes off those runs. Clear. Concise. Easy to digest.

"He was thinking well in advance, not only what would happen immediately but what would happen later in the game as well," Posluszny said.

Saleh plots strategy like he plays chess -- and he does that pretty well, too. Years ago, he reached 1,800 in the chess rating system, according to his father -- not far from master level. Sam Saleh taught his kids and their friends how to play chess, once putting up $50 for a winner-take-all tournament. Robert didn't win and demanded another tournament. Yeah, he's fiercely competitive, too.

'I'm supposed to be here' in New York

Saleh's coaching philosophy was shaped during his time in Seattle (2011-13), where he was introduced to coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, a close confidant. Bradley remembers the day in his office when he interviewed Saleh for a quality-control position on the staff.

"He convinced me that it would be a big mistake if I didn't hire him," Bradley said, laughing at the memory.

That offseason, the Seahawks rebooted on defense, as Carroll challenged his defensive coaches to create a player-friendly scheme. They opted for Cover 3, tailored around their immense talent in the secondary -- aka the Legion of Boom. Two years later, they won the Super Bowl with one of the best defenses in history. To this day, Saleh uses that as his base defense.

"Robert was in that beginning stages of it," Bradley said, "and he was great."

Saleh eventually followed Bradley to Jacksonville, where he became a position coach for the first time and built a reputation for connecting with players. As soon as he got the job, he took Posluszny out to dinner. The linebacker was blown away; he had never had a coach who wanted to break bread with him. They talked football and life. When Posluszny got home that night, he told his wife, "This guy is really impressive."

Bradley was fired during the 2016 season and most of the staff was replaced, so Saleh ended up in San Francisco as the defensive coordinator. He inherited the 32nd-ranked defense, but this was no overnight success story. The first two seasons were bumpy; there were rumors about his job security. Everything clicked in 2019, when the 49ers soared to No. 2 in total defense and won the NFC championship.

That defense was stacked with talent, and Saleh was able to galvanize it with his upbeat personality and clever schemes. In 2020, star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was traded and other stalwarts such as cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive end Nick Bosa were injured. Somehow, the Niners finished fifth in yards allowed despite a 6-10 record.

"Robert helped to build a successful environment that has developed both players and coaches," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.

Coveted by six of the seven NFL teams that had head-coaching vacancies, Saleh told friends he preferred the Jets or Jaguars over the rest. The Jaguars hired Urban Meyer, leaving Saleh for the Jets, who made him their No. 1 choice after the first round of interviews.

Maybe it was destiny.

Saleh coaches in MetLife Stadium, where he enjoyed the biggest win of his professional career -- the Seahawks' rout of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. In his 50-yard-line seats, Sam Saleh had looked at his wife, Fatin, and said, "Who would've thought we'd have a son in the Super Bowl?"

Before that day in February 2014, members of the Saleh family ventured to lower Manhattan, where they visited the Freedom Tower -- built on the site of the old World Trade Center. David, who could have been one of the 3,000 who lost their lives, brought his daughter with him. What a story to tell.

Coincidentally, the first Sunday of the 2021 NFL season was Sept. 12, which meant Robert Saleh's head-coaching debut occurred at MetLife one day after the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack.

"I'm supposed to be here, and I believe that," Saleh said of the Jets. "God does things for a reason, and I believe this is one of them."

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