The question seemed innocuous enough.
A reporter approached Mike Pettine Jr. during his high school coaching days and wanted to know how it felt to have reached 40 career wins faster than his father, legendary Pennsylvania preps coach Mike Pettine Sr.
That seemingly good news left the younger Pettine evaluating just what it was he wanted in life.
“That was one of the reasons that I think I yearned for more,” Pettine Jr. said. “I just did not want those comparisons, because I knew they would always be there.”
So the son charted his own course. It’s one that began in the lowest levels of professional football, and has steadily advanced to Buffalo, as the defensive coordinator of the Bills.
The pursuit of Pettine to lead the team’s defense was one of coach Doug Marrone’s first priorities upon taking over in January. In fact, Marrone couldn’t wait for his introductory news conference to end, so that he could get on a plane and fly to New York – where Pettine had been defensive coordinator under Rex Ryan with the Jets the last four seasons — to persuade him to move upstate.
This, despite the fact Marrone did not have a prior relationship with Pettine.
“But I’ve always been an admirer,” Marrone said. “You’re always looking to attack defenses. What I had in my mind was a system, schematically, that we wanted to run. When I was looking for the people that were taking that system and growing with that system, it just led to one person.”
In four years with the Jets, Pettine’s defenses finished in the top eight in yards allowed every season. He has been praised for his creativity, especially when it comes to rushing the quarterback.
“It’s smart, tough, and it gives you a lot of problems,” Marrone said of Pettine’s scheme.
Those same adjectives, it turns out, perfectly encapsulates the relationship between Pettine Jr. and Sr.
In 33 years as the coach at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Pa., Mike Pettine Sr. amassed an incredible 327-42-4 record. He won four state class AAAA championships and retired after the 1999 season as the winningest coach in Pennsylvania high school history. He did it all with an approach best described as old school.
“Yeah, I’d say that,” the 73-year-old Pettine Sr. says with a laugh. “No nonsense.”
No player knew that better than his son.
“He wanted to make sure that everybody knew that there was no favoritism there, so he went out of his way to be extra hard on me,” Pettine Jr. said.
After a particularly poor scrimmage during Pettine Jr.’s sophomore year, the team was lined up doing grass drills – running in place, diving on the ground and then popping back up.
“He just kept doing it until guys were done,” Pettine Jr. said. “It was pushing 100 of them that we did. Of the 70-some players on the team, there were two or three guys left standing, and I was one of them.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t get up any more or was slow getting up from one. I just barely saw the size 12 coming at me from the side. The phrase ‘momma’s boy’ and maybe a couple other words were used. That’s the way it was back then. He wanted to make sure people knew that any playing time I earned, it was deserved. Players respected that.”
Pettine Jr. proved he should be on the field. He threw for more than 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior, setting school single-season records in both categories and making the all-state team. He also finished with 21 career interceptions playing defensive back, including a single-season record 10 as a junior.
But when things went wrong, he heard about it. When the arguing between father and son at the dinner table got to be too much, Joyce Pettine had a message for her husband and son: drop it when you come through the door.
So the father improvised. He would pull over the car after practice and hash out whatever faults he found before they got home.
All these years later, he has his regrets.
“I was harder on him than I needed to be,” he said. “I don’t express it enough, I’m sure, but I’m very proud of him.”
Pettine Jr. went from C.B. West to play for coach George Welsh at the University of Virginia, one of the few schools to give him a chance to play quarterback. He did that for his first two collegiate seasons with the Cavaliers before moving to defensive back.
“I’ve always thought of myself as an offensive guy,” Pettine Jr. said. “When I was a high school coach, I had a defensive coordinator and I oversaw the offense.”
Pettine started coaching as an assistant with his father at C.B. West. He went on to work as a graduate assistant with the Pitt football team under coach Johnny Majors.
He did that for two seasons before moving back to the Philadelphia area to take his first head coaching job, at William Tennett High School in the 1995 season.
From there, he moved to nearby North Penn High School, like C.B. West a Class AAAA school.
‘Father knows best’
Pettine worked days as the audio-visual coordinator at North Penn, counting down the hours until he could get out on the practice field. He devised hundreds of formations and in short order turned North Penn into a legitimate threat to C.B. West’s supremacy.
The matchup of father vs. son fascinated the community. So much so, in fact, that a pair of documentaries were produced about the teams. “The Season” followed North Penn throughout the 1999 season and aired on ESPN. “The Last Game” followed C.B. West as it pursued a third straight state title. Pettine Sr. and his squad ultimately got it, defeating North Penn twice along the way.
“The headline ‘Father knows best’ was getting really old,” said Pettine Jr., who went 0-5 against his dad.
The ’99 season would ultimately be the last for Pettine Sr., who retired after a three-year run in which his team went 45-0.
“The whole foundation of my coaching, has really all come from him,” Pettine Jr. said. “As a high school coach, our systems were deeply rooted in what he did at C.B. West. But even when I got into the NFL, not so much the X’s and O’s, but more the logical, common sense, no-stone-unturned approach comes directly from my dad. To me, I always fall back on that.”
Pettine Jr. went 45-15 in five seasons at North Penn, but he knew the comparisons to his father would never stop. He also knew that leading the AV department was not his true calling.
“I was at the point in my life where I wanted football to be full time,” he said.
To do that, he would have to give up the security of a job in the school system, and start in the most entry-level of positions — as a video coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens in 2002. One of his main jobs was filming special teams practices.
“He’s certainly more of a risk taker than his old man,” Pettine Sr. said. “He had a family. I said to him, ‘Are you making the same money? What about security?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m getting the same.’ Actually, he took a pay cut.”
Pettine cashed in his 401(k) to make it work.
“It was a risk he took, but it paid off,” Pettine Sr. said.
The big break came when there was an opening for a defensive line assistant under Rex Ryan.
“Brian Billick said, ‘Hey, Rex doesn’t have an assistant, why don’t you work with him?’ “ Pettine Jr. said. “I don’t want to say it was by accident, but it was almost dumb luck.”
When Ryan took the Jets’ head coaching job, he brought Pettine Jr. with him as his defensive coordinator. In their first two seasons in New York, the Jets made it to back-to-back AFC Championship games. Their attacking defensive style gave plenty of opponents fits.
“We all spend a lot of time studying people and trying to figure out what can get ’em. There are blitzes where you think nine people are coming and only three are,” said Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Thomas, who worked with Pettine and Ryan. “The timing has a lot to do with it. You have to change things up. You can’t do the same thing all the time.
“It’s about making it appear that there’s more people coming than they can handle. Any time you can do that defensively it’s to your advantage both ways, whether we bring ’em or we don’t.”
Despite Pettine calling the plays for most of his tenure in New York, the Jets were undoubtedly looked at as Ryan’s defense. When it was reported late last season that Pettine had turned down a contract extension with New York, the popular sentiment was that he wanted to break away from Ryan.
It was one shared by dad.
“He owes a lot to Rex, but in looking at the progression of his career in New York, no matter what, it was always Rex’s defense. His mother would get upset watching games. They would be mentioning other coordinators, and hardly ever mentioning her son,” he said. “He’ll tell you it’s all about winning. But as far as moving on — I think he has aspirations of being a head coach one of these days — he had to get out of Rex’s shadow.
Pettine Jr., however, said that’s not the reason for his move.
“I think that’s a little overblown. I talk to Rex probably once a week,” Pettine said. “People wanted to write about a falling out, and that’s just not the case. I wanted to go ahead and let it run out and just see what my options were. I had the opportunity to go back to the Jets if I wanted to.
“It wasn’t a situation where I was being forced out or had definitely burned that bridge. Ultimately, you have to make a decision on what’s best for you career-wise. When this opportunity presented itself, it was just more attractive to me than New York.”
Cupboard’s not bare
Pettine is taking over a defense that gave up 435 points last season, second most in franchise history. But the past is the past, Pettine says. He’s been upbeat about the situation here since taking over.
“When you look at some of the guys up front, whether it’s Mario Williams, it’s Kyle Williams, it’s Marcell Dareus – or you look on the back end – Stephon Gilmore we had rated real high on our draft board in New York.
“Just that whole accumulation made it very attractive. I was certainly going to a place where the cupboard wasn’t bare.”
The new scheme has been a hit with players right from the start. Mario Williams has mentioned, in a good way, that he’s not even sure what position he’s playing sometimes.
That versatility is what Pettine strives for. He believes by having players cross-trained at multiple positions, it allows him to always have his best 11 on the field.
“It creates some indecision or some confusion on the offensive side when you’re constantly changing who’s who and you have different groupings on the field,” he said. “You know one play this guy’s playing inside linebacker, then next play he’s playing outside linebacker, the next play he’s playing defensive end. From an identification standpoint, I think you can cause some problems for teams. If an offense knows what’s your plan pre-snap, you’re in trouble.”
Majors had a phrase for it: “Don’t let them read your mail.”
“If they’re going to figure out what we’re doing, let them do it post-snap,” Pettine said. “That’s the business we want to be in. Having guys that can play multiple positions I think helps us do that.”
A helping hand
With his shaved head and goatee, the 46-year-old Pettine carries a stoic look on the practice field. But he beams when talking about his three children.
His oldest daughter, Megan, is an 18-year-old who will be a freshman at Stony Brook, where she’ll play lacrosse. His son, Ryan, is 15, and his youngest daughter is Katie, 11. They reside outside Baltimore, with Pettine’s ex-wife.
“It’s so hard for me schedule-wise during the fall that I try to spend more time down there or have them up here in the spring and the summer,” he said.
As of now, don’t expect another Pettine in the family business.
“He’s more into academic pursuits. He’s a good soccer goalie and a golfer,” dad said of Ryan. “He tried football and didn’t like it. And I’m OK with that.”
Pettine’s bond with his father is also strong now, much more so than it was when he played or coached for him. Whatever wounds there were from those battles long ago have healed.
“It’s much better now. We’re more peers,” Pettine Jr. said. “We talk almost every day.”
The Bills had Pettine Sr. in for spring practices, and he’ll spend a week at training camp. He also has a copy of the team’s playbook and will watch practice tape to see if he can offer any advice.
He’s not shy about that.
“He doesn’t have to ask me. I’m always throwing stuff against the wall,” Pettine Sr. said. “No two coaches think alike. I think we have a lot in common, but if I see something in practice or I’m watching film, I’ll offer my opinion.”
It gives dad his coaching fix, and son a valuable second opinion.
“He just knows football. He doesn’t know about contracts and agendas and some of the other stuff that comes along with the NFL,” Pettine Jr. said. “He knows from my perspective: He’s going to tell me and I can take it or leave. Most of the time he’s right.”