Jim Schwartz: 'I owe just about my whole career to Bill Belichick'

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Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz got his start in the NFL on Bill Belichick’s staff with the Cleveland Browns.

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Jim Schwartz didn’t have an etched-in-stone career plan as an undergraduate at Georgetown.

The son of a Baltimore cop, Schwartz played football, golfed, listened to head-banger music, and majored in economics.

Coaching intrigued him, but he knew it was a tough way to make a living. He figured he’d wind up in the same place that most people with economics degrees from schools like Georgetown wind up: Wall Street.

“That’s where most of my friends were going,’’ Schwartz said this week.

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Then, during his junior year, a fateful visit from a former college roommate changed all that.

“He had a few too many to drink one night and broke down and started crying,” the Eagles defensive coordinator said. “He started talking about how he was working a hundred hours a week and didn’t have time to enjoy what he was doing. He just didn’t seem very happy with where he was.”

Right then and there, Schwartz eliminated Wall Street from his list of career preferences.

“I decided if I was going to work that much, I’d better find something I like to do,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be a professional golfer. And nobody was going to pay me to sit around and read books.

“I liked football, so I said, you know what, maybe I can make a career in it.’’

Getting into coaching

He never saw himself coaching in the Super Bowl one day. His original goal was to be a small-college coach. Maybe even become a member of the faculty.

“A lot of twists and turns later, I found myself in the NFL,” he said. “It’s worked out pretty well.”

Wall Street’s loss is the Eagles’ gain. And, ironically enough, the man they have to thank for that is a guy who will be standing on the opposite sideline Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“I owe just about my whole career to Bill Belichick,” Schwartz said without hesitation.

Bill Belichick at news conference.
Camera icon David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Bill Belichick gave Jim Schwartz his first job in the NFL.

After he graduated from Georgetown, Schwartz did one-year stints as a graduate assistant coach at Maryland and Minnesota. Then he spent a year as the secondary coach at North Carolina Central University before moving on to Colgate.

He was there for only a year before the entire staff got fired.

A couple of other guys on the Colgate staff  had coached at Navy with Belichick’s father, Steve. Bill had just finished his second year as the head coach of the Browns. He and his staff were coaching one of the Senior Bowl squads, and stopped off with his father at the college coaches convention in New Orleans, where Schwartz and the other two out-of-work Colgate coaches were looking for jobs.

“My friends introduced me to Steve and introduced me to Bill,” Schwartz said. “I wanted to break into the NFL and had maybe a 15-second conversation with him.

“Four months later, I got a call from Bill. He asked me if I’d be interested in coming up to Cleveland and working a hundred hours a week for free. I was young. I had no bills. That was exactly what I was looking for.”

Working in Cleveland

Schwartz spent three years working for Belichick. He was a member of a talented intern group that included future NFL general managers Thomas Dimitroff, Scott Pioli, and Mike Lombardi, and future Jets and Browns head coach Eric Mangini.

They called themselves “slappies,” which is short for a much more vulgar term that doesn’t need to be mentioned here. Schwartz’s job description was research assistant/personnel scout. His duties —  well, his duties, at least initially, were many and varied.

“You name it, I did it,” he said. “When I first got there, I was driving people to the airport. I was making cigarette runs for secretaries. It was anything.

“But with Bill, as soon as he found out you had some acumen, that you could do a job [well] — for me in particular, Nick Saban [Belichick’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland] had found out that I had actually coached before. You do a good job with one thing, they give you a little bit more [to do].

“One thing I’m incredibly grateful for is that I didn’t start in coaching [with the Browns]. I got started in scouting. I was able to develop that whole background. Learning the grading system. Grading college and NFL players. You still see the Patriots do the same thing now. They cross-train a lot of their guys. I think that’s real important from a developmental standpoint. I think I developed as a coach a lot better as a result of having that background in scouting. I owe a great debt to Bill for allowing me to do that.”

The feeling is mutual.

“I can’t say enough good things about Jim,” Belichick said  this week. “He’s one of the smartest people I know. When he worked for me in Cleveland, he could handle an infinite number of things at the same time. He had a great ability to multi-, multi-task.

“He was a really smart, hardworking kid. Had good judgment and a good personality. We all learned a lot from watching him do his job. You couldn’t give him too much. I have a ton of respect for Schwartzy.

“We had a lot of talented people there in Cleveland. But I would certainly put him up there in a pretty high category. He didn’t have as much responsibility as people like Nick [Saban] or Ozzie [Newsome] or [offensive line coach] Kirk Ferentz. But he did a great job. What we accomplished in Cleveland, he was a big part of that.”

More help from Belichick

Besides giving Schwartz his NFL start in Cleveland, Belichick also helped get him a job as a defensive assistant in Tennessee in 1999 after he was part of the purging of Ted Marchibroda’s staff in Baltimore.

“Bill knew Jeff  and he also knew their GM, Floyd Reese,” Schwartz said, referring to Titans coach Jeff Fisher.

The Titans went to the Super Bowl in Schwartz’s first year there, barely losing to Dick Vermeil’s “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams team. A year later, he was named the Titans’ defensive coordinator after Gregg Williams left to take a head-coaching job in Buffalo.

“I spent a lot of my career being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the right place at the wrong time and the wrong place at the right time,” he said. “That was probably the first time I was really in the right place at the right time.”

Funny how things work out. When Belichick called Schwartz in ’93 and offered him a chance to get his foot in the NFL door, he was considering a couple of small-college assistant jobs.

“If I had taken one of those, I probably would have felt a responsibility to see that job through and maybe wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to go to Cleveland and work with Bill and Nick and Kirk and all those other guys,” Schwartz said. “What a great outfit it was.”

And if his former college roommate hadn’t gotten drunk and soured him on the prospect of working on Wall Street, Schwartz might be watching this Super Bowl in a mansion on Long Island instead of on a  sideline across from Belichick at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a mansion on Long Island.

“I’ve devoted my whole life to coaching since I left college,” Schwartz said. “I had a lot of other opportunities, with a degree in economics from Georgetown.

“But I’ve spent just about every waking hour trying to fulfill this dream and trying to develop into that kind of coach.”