Robert Saleh's rise with 49ers fueled by humble, authentic style

Before 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh interviewed for the Cleveland Browns' head-coaching vacancy during San Francisco's playoff bye week, several people close to him and the situation felt that Cleveland had already made up its mind to hire Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who interviewed with the Browns last offseason. Saleh's visit was simply part of the Browns' process of being thorough.

Many of those people close to Saleh knew how this would go, though. Once the Browns spent time with Saleh, they would be impressed. Impressed to the point where they might take a few steps back and re-think things. And that's what happened, too.

Cleveland went on to hire Stefanski, but not without Saleh getting serious consideration, according to multiple people with knowledge of the process.

It's nearly impossible, multiple people said, not to want to spend more time with Saleh after speaking with him, even once. There is something about his presence, his intellectual articulation of nearly everything he says and does, that elicits positivity and command of the situation.

"I don't like to compare, but I do talk often about the qualities that make up the good and the great, and he embodies those qualities," Niners general manager John Lynch, a 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist who played safety for defensive-minded coaches like Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, Monte Kiffin, Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin and Lovie Smith, said last week. "He's smart, confident and humble. I think we all know we're on borrowed time with him (in San Francisco).

"We're disappointed for him that it didn't happen this year, but we're thrilled to have him. We do know he's too good of a leader, too good at what he does and too good of a person to not get another chance."

The Browns' decision to hire Stefanski filled the last remaining open head-coaching job this offseason. But don't think the 49ers aren't thrilled to have been able to retain Saleh, who didn't miss a beat in his duties to the team while prepping for and conducting his Cleveland interview. Saleh's defense went out and dismantled Stefanski's Vikings, 27-10, in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, then opened up a can on the Packers in a 37-20 NFC Championship Game victory to springboard San Francisco to this weekend's Super Bowl LIV showdown against Kansas City.

This wasn't a run of vengeance inspired by Saleh being denied. This is what the 49ers have done to get where they are. He's kept players focused, and he's kept himself low-key.

Saleh's humility is not a quality we'd imagine after witnessing a season-long highlight reel featuring the kind of energetic sideline behavior that puts the get-back coach assigned to keep Saleh off the field through the wringer. It's who Saleh is, though. The Pete Carroll-esque screams of celebration Saleh unleashes when Nick Bosa gets a sack, or when his unit makes a stop on third-and-1, have made game-day TV directors focus on Saleh constantly, but otherwise, he's just one of the guys.

"He's got a presence," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said last week. "He looks like he's been doing push-ups since he was about 2. He's jacked. He's just this gentle giant. So well thought-out and so thorough. I joke with him that he's the type of guy where, if you get something ... I'm the type of guy to just try to put it together; he's going to read the directions completely before he even starts."

Saleh, who will turn 41 this Friday, is almost sheepish in overall demeanor. He's not loud or boastful. He constantly credits others. Still, he casts an aura of confidence that lets players and coaches know he's got this -- and he's got their backs.

Those were just some of the qualities that 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said the Browns missed out on by not hiring Saleh. The team that does hire Saleh will get the right guy, according to Sherman, who has played under Saleh in San Francisco these past two seasons and also worked with him in Seattle from 2011 through '13, when Saleh served as the Seahawks' defensive quality control coach.

"He's taken a little bit of every coordinator he's ever been a part of, taken tidbits (schematically)," Sherman said Monday night. "He's even taken some of their coaching styles. You see some of Gus Bradley, some of Dan Quinn, some of Kris Richard, some Ken Norton. You see some of Kyle Shanahan, and that makes for a really good product.

"He's super-optimistic. He's positive. Not a lot of yelling. Not a lot of negative criticism. There is criticism. When you're wrong, you're wrong, and he'll get on you when you make a mistake, but he won't say, 'You suck.' He will say, 'I see what you saw, but we need to play this a little better.' It's honest criticism that anybody can accept."

Relatability with his players has been huge in Saleh getting buy-in. He doesn't want the credit he's getting. The players are the ones making the plays, and they should be the ones celebrated, he said. When there is a mistake, it's because he and other coaches didn't coach things up properly, he said.

Respect given; respect reciprocated.

"Think about when your kids were little, and you teach them something, and they do it," he said last week. "The pure joy you get is like nothing else. Or if they had a failure, you could feel the pain. The responsibility you felt as a parent is to find a way to help them. That's what we as coaches feel on game day. For myself, that's what I feel most. When you invest so much time in one another and see the amount of time they put in to perfect certain techniques, and you see it happen in a big moment, you can't help but let this emotion out."

The fact that Saleh says, "when your kids were little," is almost funny. He has six children between the ages of 11 months and 9 years old. They're still little.

Just as he's gained perspective in helping raise so many young children with his wife, Sanaa, he's grown as a coach, especially since he was hired by San Francisco three years ago. Saleh was a first-time defensive coordinator coming in with a first-time head coach (Shanahan) and a first-time GM (Lynch), all of whom dealt with ups and downs while trying to figure out how to get the 49ers to where they are now.

In that first season, back in 2017, Saleh inherited the worst defense in the league and made some positive strides, bumping San Francisco up to 24th in overall defense and 25th in points allowed. Still, the 49ers started 0-9 and didn't look like a real team until quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, acquired in a trade from New England, led them to five straight victories to finish the season with a 6-10 record and raised expectations.

Then, in 2018, Garoppolo tore his ACL in a Week 3 loss to Kansas City -- Sunday's Super Bowl opponent -- and was lost for the season. The defense was up and down, but, according to Saleh, didn't make enough plays in tight spots to win. The Niners regressed, finishing 4-12, while the defense carried mixed-bag rankings of 13th overall and 28th in points allowed.

Although there were issues across the board, there were questions outside of the Niners building about Saleh being the right guy to lead the defense.

"I knew we weren't going to be able to make a huge jump right away," Shanahan said. "People didn't give him enough credit for what we did right away. We made a climb the second year, we had some injuries, and things were tough. Saleh going through those two years, he was forced to do some other stuff (schematically). That helped him grow and develop."

Before the season finale against the Rams late in 2018, 49ers owner Jed York, when asked, steadfastly stood by Saleh, citing Saleh's growth, the fact that players competed for him and that Shanahan and Lynch had unwavering faith. This staff was good enough, he said.

The injury-riddled roster wasn't.

The subsequent draft brought Bosa via the second overall pick and starting weakside linebacker Dre Greenlaw in Round 5. Big-money veteran additions Dee Ford (acquired in a trade with the Chiefs and signed to an extension) and Kwon Alexander (signed via free agency) made immediate impacts. The Niners finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in overall defense and No. 1 in passing defense. They've dominated defensively in the playoffs, especially getting pressures (19, fourth in the playoffs) and sacks (nine, tied for the most).

Saleh has mixed coverages, occasionally blitzed from the secondary and schemed matchups that have let players like Bosa, Ford, Arik Armstead and Fred Warner stand out.

"We're always trying to learn about ourselves, right?" Saleh asked. "When I was a quality control guy (with Seattle), I was the computer guy. I spit out as much information as I could. When (then-Jaguars head coach) Gus Bradley gave me the opportunity to be linebacker coach, I was guiding a small group of men, within our scheme, to be their personal best.

"As a coordinator, I want two things. A player wants to know that you care about his well-being. A player needs to be able to feel the investment and the care in them, not just as players. The player also needs to know that you can help them show themselves at their best and make plays on Sundays. They need to know that you know your stuff. If you give players those two things, whether you are a yeller or an introvert, they'll take to you. It's one of the great things that makes this entire organization what it is."

Saleh is not a yeller, by the way. Captain Positivity, like Seattle's Carroll, people with the Niners said.

What else has helped Saleh is working with Shanahan, who consistently challenges Saleh to come up with game plans that would cause issues for Shanahan's offense. Shanahan wanted Saleh, with whom he worked in Houston from 2006 to '09, to be his defensive coordinator originally because the scheme Seattle used under Carroll when Saleh was there was tough to consistently decipher.

In their time together in San Francisco, they've come up with points, counter-points and new points to make each other find schemes to exploit and matchups that help their players excel, Shanahan said.

"He's gotten to hear offensive perspectives, and him and I talk a lot and go back and forth a lot," Shanahan said. "Some stuff helps, and some stuff doesn't. I always wanted a guy who thought about everything and can have detailed answers. The scariest thing as an offensive coach is, if you go to your defensive coordinator and said you want them to do something, and they just do it."

There is another layer to Saleh, one that has confused some and created some uncomfortable discussions when his name surfaced in connection with head-coaching jobs this winter. That's Saleh's ethnicity.

"It's funny because a lot of people wonder what I am," Saleh said. "Am I half-white, half-black? Am I Mexican? I am Arab American. My mom and dad and grandparents are Lebanese. I am full-blooded Lebanese. I was born in a Lebanese household; I am married to a Lebanese woman. I have never shied away from it."

But he also has never worn it on his sleeve. He never thought he had to. If anyone was curious, he would tell them. If anyone made an assumption, right or wrong, about his background, the onus was on them for assuming.

Which is why there was some confusion by some people in the NFL when he showed up as a diversity candidate under the Rooney Rule. The Rooney Rule requires any team with a head-coaching or GM vacancy to interview at least one non-white candidate for the job.

According to multiple people I spoke with, inside and outside the NFL, connected to identifying coaching candidates and involved in actual coaching searches -- including those who work for teams and Saleh himself -- there was some opposition to the idea that Saleh should qualify as a diversity candidate, much of it based on assumptions. Yet, after learning more about him and his background, those with questions or doubts came around, and after widespread discussion, it was deemed that he was a diversity candidate. Saleh was puzzled that anyone would question his status as a diversity candidate, but he kept his mouth shut and went with the flow.

Saleh added that if he ever gets a head-coaching job, his staff will reflect the diverse makeup of this country. It is something that is very important to him, he said.

"I go about my business the best I can," Saleh said. "Judge me for who I am, not what my ethnicity tells me I am or what the media might portray Middle Easterners as. When you look at my background and where I am from -- Dearborn, Michigan, which has the largest Middle Eastern population outside of the Middle East -- we're Arab Americans trying to assimilate within the culture of this country while, at the same time, maintaining the values that make up Middle Easterners. In Dearborn, that includes football. That's a huge part of our lives."

A huge part of Saleh's life at the moment is figuring out how to contend with Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' explosiveness. It's not giving him much comfort.

"He's like a young Aaron Rodgers," Saleh said of Mahomes. "Their speed. Man, it's like a track team, and he can get the ball to them. We have to be good, and the key is, we have to tackle in the open field."

A side note: 49ers players have repeated this mantra and will continue to do so leading up to the Super Bowl. They're going to prop up Kansas City's strengths, downplay their own and steadily let folks talk about the Chiefs while letting their energy percolate until it's time to show and prove.

The posture, composure, talent and downright bad-ass nature of this defense is why Saleh isn't anxious. His players have stepped up all season, regardless of the challenge. They'll be ready, and not simply because of the talent or the game plan, Saleh said.

"We won shootouts, played in mudders, low-scoring games, games with lots of turnovers, every way you can imagine," Saleh said. "I don't think the success we've had happens unless you go through the learning experiences that we had the first two years here. Kyle and John were implementing this message and culture. Now, the players have taken it over, and it screams the personalities of Kyle and John."

One last thing about Saleh. Once people who know him tell you how "impressive" he is, they'll tell you that he is tight with his money. Oh, man. Everyone, in their own way, mentions how he's not coming off any coin.

Except when it comes to his pride and joy: a nine-passenger van that fits his entire family, and then some.

"Each kid has his own plush seat in the back -- and it was cheaper than the Suburban," he said, validating much of what others said with that last little remark. "There is a 30-inch TV. It has track lighting. When it arrived, I was so proud of it. Everyone was making fun of me for it, but it's the coolest thing in the world."

A tricked-out van. The coolest thing in the world. That's so Saleh, Lynch said smiling.

Impressive, right?

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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