‘Reinvigorated’ Darrell Bevell geeked for 1st shot as NFL head coach with Lions

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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The reckoning came in 2018.

Darrell Bevell had been a football coach his entire adult life, making the slow climb up from assistant coach at a tiny NAIA school that no longer exists to a slew of more prestigious jobs in the NFL.

He won a Super Bowl in 2014 as offensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. He coached Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre twice, with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. He was briefly the NFL’s hotshot young coordinator, interviewing for head coaching jobs with the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals.

And it all came to a screeching halt.

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Bevell, who will make his debut as interim Detroit Lions coach Sunday against the Bears, was fired in Seattle after the 2017 season and spent the next year out of work.

He turned down a couple opportunities to coach quarterbacks during the 2018 hiring cycle, and was a finalist for a few offensive coordinator positions, including one that never materialized with Josh McDaniels, who backed out of a job with the Indianapolis Colts.

But when his agent called one day that winter to let him know the NFL’s version of musical chairs had stopped and left him without a seat, Bevell wondered if his dream to be a head coach had died.

“I used to tell everybody, ‘Football is what I do, it’s not who I am,’ ” Bevell told the Free Press this week. “Well, all of a sudden, I didn’t have it anymore and I’m like, ‘Ahh, you know what, it really is who I am.’ So that was really enlightening for me as well. I loved the game and I missed the game and so I just came back with, ‘You know what, I’m going to dive into whatever opportunity I get kind of reinvigorated and give it the best I got.’”

Bevell’s enthusiasm is endearing in a profession where 20-hour workdays are far too common, and the Lions (4-7) hope it’s inspiring enough, too, to help them make an unlikely December playoff push. 

Bevell said he was “jacked” for what amounts to a five-game audition as head coach. He stressed to players the importance of having fun during his first virtual meeting with the team, and much to their liking, blared music throughout the week’s three practices.

READ MORE: Lions coaching search: Eric Bieniemy earns more praise, lawmakers back Robert Saleh

And while that message played publicly as the anti-Matt Patricia, after how dreary the past two and a half seasons have been in Detroit, it was more about Bevell’s own approach to football and life.

The son of a high school football coach in a family of eight children, Bevell grew up surrounded by sports.

He watched film with his father, Jim, who he still calls, “my best friend,” in his living room as a kid, and dreamed of not coaching but playing in the NFL.

“Totally honest with you, it was not in the cards,” Bevell said of coaching. “I was a player the whole way, so my dreams, like what I dreamed the whole time was I’m going to play football and I’m going to make it to the NFL and be an NFL quarterback.

“That was my dream like from all I can remember. And it was not until my senior year, got injured my senior year and then the same thing happens, and it’s like, ‘OK, now this is over, this chapter’s over, I’m not going to be able to play anymore.’ And it’s like, ‘Now, what am I going to do?’ ”

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‘Now what do I do?’

From a football standpoint, Bevell successfully reinvented himself twice before he joined the Lions as offensive coordinator in January 2019.

A star high school quarterback, Bevell broke a finger on his throwing hand as a senior at Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz., that limited his exposure as a recruit. He signed with Division I-AA Northern Arizona, redshirted his first season, then left on a two-year Mormon mission.

When his mission was done, Bevell returned to find the NAU staff that recruited him had been fired. He followed former NAU offensive coordinator Brad Childress to Wisconsin, where he won the starting quarterback job in his first season and led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in his second.

As a senior, Bevell again missed time because of injuries, and after going undrafted in 1996, gave up his dream of playing in the NFL to become a coach. 

From the archives: Why Lions’ OC is built to win: ‘This is frickin’ Darrell Bevell’

He had a straight rise for more than 20 years as a coach, going from that NAIA school, Westmar University, to Iowa State and UConn, before joining the Packers as a quality control assistant in 2000.

It was not until that 2018 season, after long stints in Green Bay, Minnesota and Seattle, that he was a football nomad again.

“The whole cycle’s going, it’s going, it’s going, and then it’s like, there’s no more jobs,” Bevell said. “The chairs are all full. And so you’re like, ‘Uh-oh. OK, now what do I do?’ And you’re calling your buddies, you’re calling people, and that’s a whole nother story. … And now I’m like, ‘OK, like, everything I’ve ever done, ever known, every minute of every day since I’d been 8 years old has been about football.’ And so you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m kind of thinking that’s me.’ That’s ingrained in me, all the way through everything that I’ve ever done, somehow every day the conversation’s going to come up.”

Bevell did not sink into a deep depression like some when they lose their job or sight of their dream, but he fielded enough “excruciating” phone calls to at least cycle through the stages of grief.

“I really had that moment like, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ ” he said. “I have a family, I’ve got three daughters. What am I going to do to take care of them? That part becomes real, so yeah, there’s a little bit of those moments where it’s, one, you feel sorry for yourself and all that stuff, then you kind of pick yourself back up and say, ‘OK, I got to figure out the next thing and go from there.’ ”

As agonizing as life without football was, the 2018 season turned out to be equally enlightening, and for that reason Bevell is a better coach today.

He spent training camp that summer with the Atlanta Falcons and his good friend and former Seahawks colleague, then-Falcons coach Dan Quinn. In Atlanta, Bevell sat through defensive meetings for the first time in his career and worked with defensive coaches and players to get a new perspective on offense, but he also picked Quinn’s brain about sitting in the captain’s chair.

“Just tried to share insight into meetings and kind of the connection that you have to have, not just on the coaching side, players side, personnel side and making sure you make time for all of those,” Quinn said. “We’d sit down together in the evening, and, ‘How did this come up?’ Or, ‘How did this come up?’ That’s where we just tried to share some ideas and some stories back and forth, and just give him some insight on what it would look like from his point of view.”

After camp, Bevell and his wife, Tammy, joined another couple on a vacation to France, where Bevell was able to finally get away from the nagging absence of not having football in his life.

He explored Paris and the beaches at Normandy — “That was my favorite thing going there. I mean, just super powerful,” he said — did not see a single NFL score, and when he returned home, he spent time as a softball dad, watching his daughter, Morgan, who plays for BYU.

Still, as the 2018 season neared its end, Bevell knew he wanted back in football, and back on the path to being a head coach.

“I live in Utah, and so there’s no NFL team there, that’s being covered, and so unless you’re turning on the TVs, you’re not in a state where people are talking about the local team,” he said. “There was a little bit of that where there was nothing, no football. So it was like, ‘Um, I’m going crazy for this. I miss it.’ ”

BIRKETT: Interim Lions coach Darrell Bevell is a candidate for permanent job

‘Every bone in my body is ready’

No one wants to become a head coach, especially an interim one, because someone else loses a job, and that is the case for Bevell.

But that tends to be how things work in the NFL, and as the son of a coach, Bevell knows it’s up to him to take advantage of his opportunity.

Lions players seemed genuinely excited for Bevell to finally get his chance to be a head coach this week, and that sentiment was shared across the NFL.

Bevell said he scrolled through his phone one night over the weekend looking for one of his daughter’s phone numbers and “I think she was the 76th call that day. I’m not sure if you looked at my whole history I had 76 calls ever on the history of the phone.”

Bevell said he talked to Patricia, who was fired eight days ago along with general manager Bob Quinn, but only about the circumstances of what happened. Childress, Dan Quinn and San Francisco 49ers assistant Robert Saleh, another former Seahawks colleague, were among others to reach out.

“We’re all kind of pulling for him to have good success cause we think so highly of him,” Dan Quinn said.

Bevell said none of his family will travel to Chicago for Sunday’s game, as no fans are allowed at Soldier Field. He will, however, have a big contingent of supporters cheering from afar, including his 75-year-old father, who texts him with advice a couple times a week.

“Every single day he gives me little pointers and coaches me and helps me out, whether I ask for it or don’t ask for it, and so I love him and appreciate all he does for me,” Bevell said.

As for his own opportunity, Bevell said “it’s incredibly exciting,” and after all he has been through, something he’s determined not to let slip away.

“I hate the circumstance that it happened, but it’s an opportunity that I’m given,” he said. “I mean, every bone in my body is ready for this and for all the things that I need to put into it. And I’m excited. I couldn’t be more excited about it. I don’t even know what to say, really.

“I’m sitting in my office right now, I’m still preparing, I’m trying to make sure that I’m ready to go in every way that I can. Sunday can’t get here fast enough, but also I feel like I’ve got a million other things to do so that I am as ready as I can be.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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