No coaching candidate knows Detroit Lions misery like Robert Saleh

Detroit Free Press

Jeff Seidel
 
| Detroit Free Press

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There’s nothing better than a little trash talk between brothers.

David Saleh loves to tease his younger brother Robert, the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator. “When I want to take shots or if he’s dismissing my football acumen, I’ll remind him,” David said, laughing.

David will say something like: “At least, I have won a championship as a head coach. Two of them coaching the Lions. Have you done that?”

Robert, who is a fan favorite to become the next Detroit Lions head coach, takes the good-natured ribbing in silence. “It’s so funny, and he’ll just stare at me, waiting for the, ‘I’m just kidding signal,’ ” David said. “But I keep the straight face and let him think I’m being serious.”

David won two championships coaching the Dearborn Lions, a youth football team based in their hometown, and he never lets Robert forget it. A championship is a championship.

“Robert will have big shoes to fill if he comes home (to coach the Detroit Lions),” Brian Mosallam said with a laugh. “Because David is a two-time champion.”

Mosallam, a Michigan State University trustee and former Spartans football player, laughed again. David, Robert and Mosallam grew up in Dearborn and played football on a patch of grass on the median that split Oakman Boulevard. They called it the “island” and they’d play on it all day, every day.

Now, Robert is one of the hottest candidates to become a head coach in the NFL. If he doesn’t get the Lions gig, most assume he will end up somewhere else in the NFL during this hiring cycle.

Still, his family and friends hope it’s with the Lions.

“You couldn’t write a better story than somebody from Henry Ford’s own town, who went to Dearborn Fordson, the high school named after Henry Ford, a coach who could stand up at that lectern and look at the media and tell him I understand your cynicism,” Mosallam said. “And then look at the fans and tell them, ‘I understand your frustration. I have felt your pain.’

“Those are very, very powerful things.”

Of course, David would be sitting in the front row saying: “Yeah yeah. I already turned the Lions into champions. Now, it’s your turn.”

REPLACING PATRICIA: 5 candidates to become next Lions coach

Big family; big dreams

The story of Saleh’s family is like the Motor City version of the great American dream.

Robert’s grandfather, Albert Saleh, emigrated from Lebanon, settled in Dearborn in the 1940s and began working on an assembly line at Ford. Ambitious and energetic, he worked a side gig as a door-to-door salesman. “He started going door to door, selling high-end furniture or blenders or toasters or blankets and it was $1 down and $1 a month or $1 a week,” David said. “So he was financing people.”

Albert founded Albert’s Furniture in Lincoln Park in 1954, and it grew into a chain of stores around Metro Detroit.

“Between the brothers I think there were seven stores,” David said. “We come from a pretty big family. My grandfather came from a family of 10 kids. And may God rest his soul, he had more than 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren when he died.”

Albert Saleh was a remarkable man. He was illiterate and couldn’t speak English, but he became a millionaire because he was driven and smart, disciplined and genuine, with an inner strength and conviction.

Which is how everybody describes Robert.

“Robert reminds me a lot of my grandfather when it comes to how he carries himself,” David said. “That moral compass, the quietness, the thoughtfulness — that’s how I remember my grandfather. He started a business and was able to feed his family and their families and our families. He set a great life and set a great example for all of us.

“My dad would always take me to work with him. And I got to see firsthand the way my grandfather operated. Some of the consistencies, the discipline, doing what’s right, even if it’s hard, you know, things like that, that’s what I mean when I say, Robert reminds me a lot of my grandfather.”

Even though Robert is emotional and passionate on the sideline — there are hype videos on YouTube that show him screaming and pumping his fist and hugging players, a pumped-up bald-headed inspiration, the kind of coach you would run through a wall for — he has a quiet personality. At least, that’s what his family says.

And he’s just like his grandfather.

“My grandfather was a very strong man,” said Jehan Saleh, Robert’s sister. “He was a fun person. He was such a loving guy. If there’s anything I can say that Robert and my grandfather have in common — it’s a great love. If you talk to Robert, there’s this twinkle in his eye. He’s very calm. Very, very quiet. Just like my grandfather. It’s that twinkle that is the same.”

[Robert Saleh, the ‘pride and joy’ of Dearborn, was on cusp of Super Bowl glory in 2019 ]

Watering the plant

Robert, 41, grew up in an age before computers or cell phones. When homework was done, everybody ran outside and played on the island.

“There were no such things as playdate,” Jehan said. “It was everyone meeting in the front of my house and playing football. Our home was always open to all of the boys. My dad used to coach Mustangs football, Little League football. And back then my mom would get all these boys in the trunk of the Suburban and take them to football practice. It was a wonderful life, a wonderful time. But it was such a magical childhood in terms of that old-school upbringing.”

When Robert played football at Fordson, he put together a highlight tape to send to colleges. He ended up at Northern Michigan and played tight end.

“David used to wake Robert up in the middle of the night and force him to eat peanut butter so that he could get bigger,” Jehan said.

After college, Robert started to climb up the coaching ranks, starting out in college (Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia) before moving to the NFL.

His most profound growth happened as a defensive quality control coach with the Seattle Seahawks from 2011 to ’13.

“If you look where things took a turn for me the most would be my time in Seattle, when coach (Pete) Carroll and Gus Bradley and everybody in that room,” Saleh said on the Adam Schefter Podcast. “There was such a challenge, especially from Pete, for all of us to discover who we are and find out what our identities are and what was important to us and really identify with ourselves.”

At the time, Saleh was in his early 30s with a child. He wrote out a mission statement that he follows to this day, according to David, trying to become better every day.

“I really sat back and took the time to reflect on me and what was important to me,” Saleh said on the podcast. “I really just sat back and watched how everybody operated to create my own self-identity.

“Obviously, I’ve become my own person, but the leadership I was afforded along the way, especially in Seattle, with all those different people, you could not ask for a better situation for a young, early 30s, being a part of that Seattle coaching staff and all those superstars, not as coaches but as men, to help groom and help someone that was begging for knowledge. They did not waste a single breath on me. 

“There’s two ways to approach young men. The first way is to make them go get coffee and the second way is to water their plant so they can grow as much as possible. Seattle was the first place that taught me that watering a plant was a helluva lot better. Couldn’t be more thankful.”

‘Very, very composed’

A large part of Robert’s family — even the extended family — still lives in Dearborn. His uncles, as David said, “were knock-around guys.”

“My uncles are big and loud,” David said. “Our whispers were loud. But Robert was quiet. He’s humble. Very, very pious. He speaks quietly. He’s not someone that yells. He’s very, very composed.”

Robert remains close to his family and is a member of a text message chain that includes 32 cousins.

“What do you talk about?” I asked Jehan.

“Let me see,” she said, calling up the chain. “Today is one of the cousins birthdays.”

“Does Robert text much in it?” I asked.

“If people are arguing with each other on the family chat about which politician is going to ban something, Robert is very quiet,” she said. “You’ll never hear him say a word and he’ll show us some kind of picture of like a platter of food.”

Robert usually comes home at least once a year and stays at his parents’ home. But this year, he didn’t because of COVID-19.

“He is one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever met,” Jehan said.

Jehan is a single mother raising a teenaged son, Raiyan Berry, who plays defensive end at Dearborn High School.

Robert has played a strong role in Raiyan’s life, giving him advice about life and football.

“If I ever called Robert and said, ‘Hey, this is what I need help with with Raiyan, he does it,” Jehan said. “He doesn’t even tell me to most of the time. He does it really quietly. It’s my son that will tell me Uncle Robert called me.”

‘One of the smartest people’

Saleh has received praise from around the NFL.

“He’s one of the smartest people I know and I think it shows,” Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur told reporters this week. “You can see just the energy, the effort that the defense in San Francisco plays with over there, as well as just the scheme is really tough to go against. I’m real confident he’ll be a head coach somewhere in this league in the near future.”

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman told Sports Illustrated: “He has to get the Detroit job. Homegrown. He’s a great leader of men. And he’s not stubborn. He doesn’t just think he has all the answers. He comes up with a great plan and evolves it with his players. … We battle for that man! He’s a great human being. Makes you want to fight for him.”

Will the Lions get Saleh?

There is no telling where he will end up. Many believe he could have several options. After interviewing him for about 23 minutes on a podcast, Schefter was certain that Saleh is headed to a head coaching job. 

“Now there is an impressive head coaching candidate,” Schefter said, closing the interview. “After spending time with him on the phone, and listening to his approach philosophy of perspective, I have no doubt that Robert Saleh is going to get a head coaching job in this cycle.”

A perfect match?

Mosallam has known Robert since he was 5 years old.

“He’s the same person,” Mosallam said. “I mean, the highest compliment I can pay is that he’s the exact same kid. Me and his brother, we go back to first grade. He’s very meticulous and detailed. He’s very organized. He really, really understands players that he coaches and he understands what drives them, what makes them tick.”

Robert and his wife, Sanaa, who is from Dearborn, have six children. She is pregnant with their seventh child — a son — who is due in April.

“She’s a queen, man,” Robert said of his wife on the podcast. “She’s the foundation that keeps us standing and hats off to her and the things that she has to deal with, especially with me. I’m like three kids by myself.”

In a normal year, Jehan visits Robert in whatever NFL city he is in over the holidays. But she can’t this year because of COVID-19. “Honestly, I just hope he comes to the Lions, so I can be around with my nieces and nephews,” Jehan said. “I mean, that’s what it boils down to for me.”

A few days later, Jehan sent me a text, describing her brother, just to make sure that she was clear. “Good family man,” she wrote. “Great stable life. Great personality. Sincere and genuine. Morally upright. Great dad. Great husband. He is a good, decent person.”

Even more than that, he can flat-out coach. When you consider the entire package — from his experiences to his personality to how he is respected by players — he would be a respected hire for any franchise. Add in the hometown angel factor, and it is incredibly appealing for Detroit.

A homegrown kid coming back home, trying to save the Lions. Trying to turn them into champions, after six decades of misery.

Of course, David would be sitting in the corner, throwing down some trash talk: “Been there. Done that. Now do it twice.”

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.

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