Fred Pagac ought to know a good linebacker when he sees one by this point in his coaching career.
The Buffalo Bills’ new linebackers coach spent 23 years coaching at Ohio State University and tutored an impressive string of Buckeye linebackers.
Pagac counts seven first-team All-Americans among his pupils, including Marcus Marek (1982), Pepper Johnson (1985), Chris Spielman (1987), Steve Tovar (1992), Mike Vrabel (1996), Andy Katzenmoyer (1997) and Na’il Diggs (1999).
It’s no wonder Pagac scoffs at the suggestion that rival Penn State is “Linebacker U.”
“That’s a bunch of baloney,” Pagac laughed.
“We’ve had a lot of good players,” said Pagac. “I think the things the majority of them have in common are: No. 1, they were good people. No. 2, they loved football. And No. 3, they all thought football. They were very football intelligent. That’s very important.”
Pagac - pronounced PUG-ich - joined the Bills’ staff after serving the last eight years with the Minnesota Vikings. He has been a coach for 14 NFL seasons and 37 years in all.
He owes his career path to legendary Buckeye coach Woody Hayes. Pagac played tight end for Hayes from 1970 to 1974. After a brief NFL career, Pagac returned home to Western Pennsylvania.
“I’d gotten cut, and I was done with playing,” Pagac said. “I had my wife and daughter. I was working construction near Pittsburgh. Woody called me and told me to get back in school, get my master’s degree. I went back and that’s how I started coaching. I had no idea I was going to be a coach.
“Woody is the reason I became a coach. He was a guy who believed in being firm, fair and friendly. Firm, fair and friendly, the three Fs. Very strict. Workaholic. Was very sincere with people and demanded a lot from you. There was always a military story in there, and he’d have people come in to speak to us. It was all about teaching.”
Pagac, 61, was in the running to become Ohio State head coach after John Cooper was fired in 2000.
“It came down to myself, coach Glen Mason, who was at Minnesota, and coach Jim Tressel,” Pagac said. “They ended up hiring Jimmy, and he did a great job there. Jimmy offered me the job to stay with him, because we had coached together at Ohio State. It would have been hard because I stayed there thinking I was going to be the guy. Had Woody been alive, maybe I would have been. But Jimmy got the job.”
That’s when Pagac made his jump to the NFL, joining Jon Gruden’s staff with the Oakland Raiders.
“I’m getting ready to go down to the University of Miami,” Pagac said. “I was going down as the defensive coordinator with Larry Coker. I get a phone call. Coach Gruden called me. I hung up on him. I thought somebody was playing games on me. About 15 seconds later, he calls back and said, ‘Don’t hang up.’ The next morning I flew out to an interview, and he hired me.”
Pagac didn’t know Gruden at the time of the hiring, and he didn’t know Doug Marrone when the Bills’ coach called him for an interview. Pagac did know new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz a bit, due to the time Schwartz spent as an aide with the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s.
Pagach on how to make players better: “You teach every day. You try to find their hot buttons, what makes them go, what makes them want to be good. You got to know what their limits are. But don’t accept anything less than their best and keep pushing them.”