Niyo: Aaron Glenn happy to be with Lions, even as he continues coaching climb

Detroit News

Allen Park — They were both nervous, albeit for slightly different reasons.

Back in early February, Aaron Glenn was waiting anxiously for the phone call of a lifetime, as one of two finalists for an NFL head-coaching job with the New Orleans Saints.

Dan Campbell was waiting on that same call, really. But beyond what it meant for his close friend and coaching confidant, the Lions’ head coach also was thinking about what losing Glenn as his defensive coordinator would mean for him heading into Year 2 of this rebuilding effort in Detroit.

“I thought he was going to be gone, and I was going to be happy as hell for him,” Campbell said Thursday, as the Lions kicked off Phase 3 of their offseason program. “But the thought of losing him, I just had this feeling of, like, I was going to be walking around without any pants on.”

The fact that Campbell was fully clothed as he relayed that anecdote Thursday was welcomed by all, Glenn included.

“Well, we want to make sure he keeps his pants on,” Glenn said, laughing. “But that’s good to hear, though. That’s really good to hear. Not the pants part, but that he’s excited for me to back.”

They all are, of course, from the Lions’ front office to the rest of Campbell’s energetic young staff to the players on the field this week in Allen Park, where the intensity ratcheted up another notch and the coaches — Glenn chief among them — were right in the middle of it all.

At one point during a 1-on-1, open-field tackling drill, Glenn celebrated a win for one of his defenders by dropping to the ground and doing a back-spin breakdance move while the players hooted and hollered.

“Hey, man, AG’s still got it,” fourth-year defensive back Will Harris said. “He might have on those knee sleeves, but he’s still got it.”

And they’ve still got him, which was the point Campbell was trying to make, after all. He really did think he was going to lose Glenn to New Orleans, where both men spent five seasons (2016-20) working under Sean Payton before Campbell got the top job in Detroit and insisted on making Glenn, a fellow Texan, his first hire.

“Look, I have a tremendous amount of trust and confidence in A.G., I just do,” Campbell said of Glenn, a former All-Pro cornerback who played 15 seasons in the NFL. “He is more than worthy of being a head coach. He’s more than qualified to be a head coach in this league. And I’m happy to have him and we’re lucky to have him — we’re fortunate to have him — as our defensive coordinator.”

Even if it’s for just one more season.

Accelerating the climb

Glenn shared some more details Thursday of his interview process with the Saints, and of that Feb. 7 day when Saints GM Mickey Loomis finally called to give him the news they were promoting from within and hiring Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen as Payton’s successor.

Glenn said he texted Campbell to let him know, “Man, I didn’t get the job.” And while he wasn’t sure what Campbell’s initial reaction was, “I know I was excited.”

Why?

“I think I have the best job in the world, I really do,” Glenn said, citing the strong working relationships he’d forged with the rest of Campbell’s staff as well as GM Brad Holmes and owner Sheila Hamp, among others. “My main deal right now, I want to be the best coordinator Detroit has ever had. I’m going to stand by that and continue to say it, because I really believe that in my heart. If the head coaching deal happens, it happens. But for right now? I think I have an outstanding job. I really do.”

Glenn, who turns 50 in July, figures to be one of the top candidates for head-coaching jobs in the next hiring cycle eight months from now. He had interviewed the year before for the Jets’ job that ultimately was filled by 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. And in addition to the Saints this winter, Glenn also interviewed for the Denver Broncos job that went to Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.

Earlier this week, he also got a chance to do some more networking, taking part in the NFL’s inaugural Coach and Front Office Accelerator program, a leadership development initiative designed to help increase opportunities for minority and female candidates for head coach and GM jobs. He and Lions assistant GM Ray Agnew were among a group of 60 nominated by their current NFL clubs to take part in the two-day event held in conjunction with the league’s spring owners’ meetings in Atlanta.

It was a chance to meet informally with owners and other front-office decision-makers from all 32 clubs, which Glenn described both as invaluable and eye-opening.

“I had a chance to sit with almost every owner, and my mindset was just, ‘I’m not here to talk football,’” he said. Instead, it was an opportunity “just get to know the owners, and also let them know me. … There is a lot that we have in common. The only real difference was their bank account is bigger than mine.”

That won’t change, but perceptions surely can. Glenn said he was thrilled to get more positive feedback from the Saints’ leadership team this week in Atlanta. Same goes for the Broncos, whose director of football operations, Kelly Kleine, also was among the participants. And just as Campbell talks about his “comfort level” with having Glenn around, the goal of this newest diversity initiative is to help grow that familiarity between league owners and would-be, should-be head coaches like him.

“Me and (Cowboys executive VP) Steven Jones talked about LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Kobe (Bryant) for 40 minutes, like, ‘Who’s the best?’” Glenn said. “And as I’m sitting there, about 15 minutes into this conversation, I’m like ‘Are we really …?’ That was cool, though. They think about those things just like we do. So it was awesome, man, it really was.”

Changing it up

Thursday, though, Glenn was back to work at his current dream job. And he was as animated as ever, jumping in and out of position-group drills to make corrections and frantically making the defensive calls during a spirited 2-minute drill that his defense dominated almost from start to finish near the end of practice.

“He’s the man,” Harris said. “Everyone here loves playing for AG. … I’m so glad he’s back. We’re all glad. The coaching aside, he’s just a good dude. And he brings a lot of passion and energy. He feeds off of us just like we feed off of him.”

But Glenn is changing everyone’s diet this spring with changes to the Lions’ defensive scheme, most notably a return to a base 4-3 front that’ll emphasize a more aggressive, attacking style at the line of scrimmage.

It’s a shift that began in small ways late last season, as the Lions’ defense made some incremental improvements while still ranking among the worst in the NFL statistically. But it crystallized this winter after a full self-assessment by Glenn, who, like Campbell, is straying a bit from his philosophical roots here.

The idea is to make better use of some of the skill-sets the Lions have up front, including second-year defensive tackles Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike and this year’s rookie additions Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Paschal.

“I’m looking at every player’s ability and, ‘How can I showcase this?'” Glenn said. “I can’t be selfish and want it the way that I’ve done it. I have to make sure I do what’s best for each player. To take advantage of who they are and what they can do.”

And in that sense, he’s really no different. Glenn was once a player, looking to showcase his ability, and now he’s a coach hoping to do the same. More proof, I guess, that they all put their pants on one leg at a time.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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