Former Flyer Brandon Staley details his journey to head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, thoughts on Rooney Rule

Newly hired Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley joined a Zoom interview with a group of students from a sports writing class at the University of Dayton. Photo courtesy of Flyer News.

Peter Burtnett
Sports Editor

Since being hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers on Jan. 17, former University of Dayton quarterback Brandon Staley has assembled a high-end coaching staff. He took time March 10 to address a wide-range of topics with students from a sports writing class via Zoom, from his development into a head coach to his insight on the Rooney Rule and having more minority coordinators and head coaches.

Staley, who started and captained the Flyers from 2003-04, said he developed relationships with his teammates that are still strong to this day. 

The Perry, Ohio, native led the Flyers to a 16-5 record before transferring to Mercyhurst University in Erie, Penn., in 2005, where he joined his twin brother, Jason. While Brandon and Jason had always talked about playing together, the death of their mother Linda after a nine-year battle with breast cancer in Feb. 2004 made it the right time for the change.

“It just kind of seemed like the right timing for me to go spend my last year (of college) with him,” Staley said. “We kind of always talked about since we left high school, wouldn’t it be great to play together again, and then the timing kind of worked out.”

After one year at Mercyhurst, Staley joined the coaching staff at Northern Illinois as a graduate assistant from 2006-08, where he coached under Joe Novak, who helped push him from being a quarterback to coaching on the defensive side of the ball because the coaches wanted an offensive mind because the quarterback would run the scout team.

“(Novak) liked the person that had command of the huddle, someone that could communicate with the defense, offense, somebody that could kind of cross both sides,” Staley said. “He always thought that that was a good angle. He was kind of from the older school … a defensive coach. And he always felt like an offensive-player-turned-defensive-coach, that was always a really, really good combination because of the communication and because of the lens and how you see the game. I was really lucky because coach Novak believed in me and gave me an opportunity, and then that’s where my career started.”

After NIU, Staley spent one season coaching the defensive line and special teams at the University of St. Thomas in 2009, and then moved to Hutchinson Community College from 2010-11, where he coached as an associate head coach and defensive coordinator. 

“A lot of people want to be the head coach of the Chargers, but what are you willing to do to invest in your game, and what are you willing to endure?” Staley said. “How many coaches in the NFL would go to Hutchinson Community College to be a defensive coordinator? … Sometimes you gotta go do stuff like that in order to improve, to figure out how to do things.”

Staley then coached at Tennessee in 2012 as a graduate assistant, before bouncing between being a defensive coordinator and secondary coach at John Carroll University (2013, 2015-16), and a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at James Madison University (2014).

After being named National Coordinator of the Year in Division III for the 2016 season at John Carroll, Staley made the jump to the NFL, taking the outside linebackers coaching job for the Chicago Bears in 2017-18. With the Bears, Staley coached 6-time Pro Bowler and 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, and played a major role in coaching a 2018 defense that led the Bears to a 12-4 record and an NFC North Division title. 

Staley then moved to Denver, where he held the same coaching position and this time had 8-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller under his coaching supervision. Next, Staley jumped up another rung of the coaching ladder, taking over the defensive coordinator position for the Los Angeles Rams in 2020.

Now coaching All-Pros like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, Staley led the Rams to the top of the defensive rankings, finishing first in total defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and third in rushing defense.

During his time with the Rams, Staley learned a lot from head coach Sean McVay, also a young coach himself, who took a chance to hire Staley.

“He knew what he was looking for and I was ready. I was prepared to knock it down. The thing about Sean is he’s got command over all three phases of game. He’s an outstanding communicator and outstanding teacher. He’s extremely progressive, and when I think of the word, progressive, I think he’s a competitor, he’s not saying the same,” Staley said. “And I think that part of the reason why he’s been so successful is, he may be a young guy in terms of years on this Earth, but he doesn’t operate like a young guy.”

Staley had interviews with the Chargers, Houston Texans, New York Jets, and Philadelphia Eagles. He said he felt chemistry and a connection with the Chargers, but the interview process was tough while the Rams were playing in the postseason. 

Named as the 17th head coach for the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers franchise on Jan. 17, 2021, Staley has put together a “cutting-edge” coaching staff to try to take a team that finished 7-9 (with seven losses by 8 points or less) to the playoffs.

One of those “cutting-edge” coaches is offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who previously served as the quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints (2009-13, 2016-20) and was the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach for the 2005 Mercyhurst team which Staley played for. 

“(Lombardi) really taught me the game at a high level,” Staley said. “I felt like I got a lot better, and I thought that he was really just different, he was progressive.”

At one point during the excellent run that Lombardi had with Saints head coach Sean Payton in New Orleans, Staley said he thought he was going to get into the NFL as an offensive coach and “go work for Joe and Pete Carmichael (and Sean Payton) on offense.” Although it didn’t happen that way, Staley had stayed in touch with Lombardi and has developed a great relationship.

“Our relationship has certainly meant a lot,” Staley said. “(I made) that hire because I know how good he is, I know the way we want to play on offense, and more importantly, I know what type of character he has.”

Lombardi, who also has a UD connection from coaching the defensive line for the Flyers from 1996-98, will bring his experience of coaching future hall-of-famer Drew Brees and having a “front-row seat” to Brees playing. 

“I think (Lombardi brings) a lot of wisdom,” Staley said. “(But) I think that as a coach, you learn so much more from your players than you do anyone else. A lot of people would be like, well, what coaches shaped you the most, and I would say my parents are the best coaches that I’ve ever seen. But I’ve learned a lot more from like Khalil Mack, (Jalen) Ramsey, AD (Aaron Donald) than coaches … So I think what Joe did was he was able to learn a lot from Drew Brees.”

The coaching experience Lombardi has will be helpful in developing Chargers second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, who started 15 games and threw for 4,636 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, with a 98.3 QBR.

“I think you just take away so much from that (how Brees prepares, studies, walk-throughs, competes on game day), and then I think the volume of experiences … Joe has been through it with one of the best to ever do it. So I think falling back on those experiences, being able to help (Herbert) in big ways and small ways… I think it’s a big advantage for Justin, and surrounding him hopefully with myself as a defensive coach, too. (The coaches) can help shape him and have kind of a dual education as a player, and hopefully we can provide that for him. But I’m really excited about (Herbert and Lombardi) being able to team up.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Staley now coaches a team with Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram II (currently an unrestricted free agent) and Derwin James (who is coming back from a torn meniscus that caused him to miss the entire 2020 season). No longer limited to coaching just one side of the ball, the Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill leads the defense.

Hill, a 10-year NFL veteran defensive back, coached defensive backs for the Broncos alongside Staley in 2019. As an African-American coach, Hill is a minority coach in an important coaching position, which Staley hopes to see more of, citing the Rooney Rule — which requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for coordinator positions — as one of the “most important topics in the NFL right now.”

“I think that for me, what that rule means, and I think the spirit of it is opportunity,” Staley said. “And I think that (journalists) have such an important role in it, in shedding light on all the talented African-American (and other minority) coaches that we have.”

Staley said while it is a competitive world, the recent systematic changes have brought “where we started and where we are now (to) two different places.” 

Chargers’ special teams coordinator Derius Swinton II is also an African-American, and Assistant special teams coach Mayur Chaudhari is an Indian-American. But Staley feels the NFL can do better in giving coaches like Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the opportunity to take over as head coach. 

At a similar age and experience level to Staley, Tomlin was interviewed by the Steelers, and “knocked it out of the park” in his interview. 

“Since that time, he’s been one of the premium coaches in the league,” Staley said. “So what we need to do is take the spirit of that rule, and do even better.”

Staley also said the coaching searches need to do a better job of looking at “where people can come from,” and not just at the NFL, because, “I was at John Carroll five years ago.”

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