Super Bowl-bound Nick Sirianni, literally a Canton Legend, owes much to Mount Union's Larry Kehres
Although Larry Kehres believes in Nick Sirianni, he had to wonder what his star pupil got himself into.
Fifteen months ago, Kehres was on the road, checking up on the Toledo Rockets, whose defensive coordinator is his son Vince, and whose head coach, Jason Candle, played for him at Mount Union.
Larry is a legend, but the former Mount Union football coach's face is not so famous that he can't travel incognito and have a little fun doing so.
"There was a St. Aloysius Church bus in the hotel parking lot in Toledo," Kehres said. "The bus was carrying Philadelphia fans, a bunch of gruff-looking guys who were on their way to see the Eagles play at Detroit. "
It was October 2021. Sirianni was in his first season as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. He had replaced Doug Pederson — who led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl title, following the 2017 season, but was fired after three years of failing to get back to a Super Bowl.
"These guys are all eating in the hotel breakfast lobby," Kehres said, "and I say, 'Hey, how's the new head coach you've got there?'
"One of them looks at me and says, 'Time will tell,' and I thought, 'Good luck, Nick.'"
Time flies. In his second season in "The City of Brotherly Love," Sirianni coached the Eagles to the No. 1 seed in the NFC postseason. His team is in the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs after following through with two decisive playoff wins, including a rout of the 49ers in the NFC championship game.
Sirianni was an unpopular choice among fans and media when he was hired. In grading the NFL's seven 2021 head coaching appointments, for example, USA Today gave the Urban Meyer hire in Jacksonville a "B." The Sirianni selection drew a "D" and was termed "uninspiring."
"Some of the talking heads that know everything don't know as much as they think," Kehres said.
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Nick Sirianni grew up a Mount Union Purple Raider
Kehres has known Sirianni since he was in grade school. Nick, now 41, is the youngest of three brothers to come through Mount Union.
"I still have a hard time not perceiving Nick as the kid brother," Kehres said.
Oldest brother Mike was a receiver on the first of Kehres' 11 national championship teams, in 1993. Nick, nine years younger, got to know Mike's Purple Raider pals.
"One of Mike's teammates, Jim Gresko, might have been the most fun football player I ever had," Kehres said. "Jim knew how to cut hair. After Jim died not too long ago, Mike sent me a picture of him giving Nick a haircut. Little Nick's getting a haircut from the star running back of the Raiders."
Mike Sirianni, 50, has spent the last 20 years as head coach at Washington & Jefferson, south of Pittsburgh. He owns a 176-42 record and has taken the Presidents to the NCAA Division III playoffs 11 times.
Mike marvels at Kehres' Mount Union record, 332-24-3 from 1986-2012, with 11 national championships and spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. Like Kehres, he is tickled by Nick's success.
"It's unreal," Mike told The Canton Repository. "To me, he's still the little brother we wrestled and picked on unmercifully.
"Today I was in a room where our trainer was working with one of our kids. Nick pops up on ESPN. You do a double take. Hey, that's my brother.
"He's worked to get where he is. He took chances early in his career, chances that other coaches, including myself, might not have been willing to take."
The brothers all benefitted from growing up with a renowned Jamestown, New York, high school coach, Fran Sirianni, as their dad.
Alliance, Ohio, became a big next step, including for middle brother Jay, who won two state championships at Southwestern Central after Fran Sirianni retired.
"Who knows where Nick would be if he hadn't gone to Mount Union?" Mike said. "Coach Kehres was so influential.
"We've kept a relationship with him. We've kept asking him for advice."
Nick Sirianni overcame serious injury to star as a Mount Union receiver
Little brother Nick was a big target at Mount Union, a 6-foot-3 receiver who averaged nearly 20 yards a catch as a 2003 senior. He survived a big scare in September 2001, when a leg injury led to complicated surgery and a life-and-death battle with an infection.
A bedside visit from Kehres the morning before a game against John Carroll has stuck with Sirianni through the years.
“The doctors were saying I couldn’t play football again," he told NBC Sports Philadelphia in 2021. "I’ll never forget that day, telling myself I’m going to be an All-American for this guy because I knew how much he cared about me and I knew he loved me.”
A scar on his right leg spans from knee to ankle.
"That ordeal cost him most of a season and scared him," Kehres said in an interview with The Canton Repository last week. "It helped shape his recognition of the seriousness of what other players go through, and of course we just saw recently what that can look like (with the Buffalo Bills' Damar Hamlin)."
Sirianni was all the way back in 2003, a steady target for two quarterbacks, former Lake Blue Streak Jesse Burghardt and Zac Bruney.
Mount Union won its 55th straight game, a college record, in the national semifinals against Bridgewater. It was Sirianni's final home game, and he went out with three touchdown catches.
A week later in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the Purple Raiders lost to St. John's. Sirianni caught eight passes for 106 yards.
He stayed at Mount Union in 2004 and 2005 as an assistant coach, mixing in a playing stint with a pro indoor football team, the Canton Legends.
"My family had a lot of fun going to Legends games," Mike Sirianni said. "It opened Nick's eyes a little. He was playing against Division I kids. The Legends would put him in motion to keep him from getting jammed coming off the ball."
"We had a couple of Raiders playing for the Legends," Kehres said. "We had a big recruiting weekend one time, and we put all of those kids into vans and took them to a Legends game. They had a ball."
Nick Sirianni's NFL journey begins with a call from Todd Haley
Nick left Mount Union in 2006 to take a coaching job at NCAA Division II Indiana University-Pennsylvania. He was still at IUP in the summer of '09 when he got a call from Todd Haley, the new head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Sirianni and Haley became chance acquaintances because both of their families frequented Lake Chautauqua in New York. Todd Haley and Nick Sirianni worked out at the same gym in that area and became friends. They talked lots of football.
Haley inherited offensive coordinator Chan Gailey from the previous Chiefs regime, but the relationship got squirrely. After firing Gailey days before the season, Haley needed on-the-fly help for his offensive staff.
After Haley offered an entry-level position, Sirianni, 28, called Kehres. Was it crazy to drop everything and bolt to Kansas City?
Kehres' recalled his advice:
"Oh, my goodness, this is a chance to get in the NFL, and with someone you know. Go. If your car won't make it, stop here and take mine."
Thirteen games into Sirianni's third season with the Chiefs, Haley was fired. Interim replacement Romeo Crennel stayed on as head coach in 2012, when Sirianni was receivers coach alongside coordinator Brian Daboll.
Nick Sirianni finds another mentor in former Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich
Then Crennel was fired, leaving Sirianni in need of a job for 2013. He found one with the Chargers. He hit it off with quarterbacks coach Frank Reich, but Reich left for a coordinator job in Philadelphia in 2016, while Sirianni stayed behind.
Another last-minute twist reunited Sirianni with Reich in February 2018. The Indianapolis Colts were on the verge of naming Josh McDaniels as head coach, but McDaniels turned down the job at the last minute. The Colts turned to Reich, who asked Sirianni to be his offensive coordinator.
The 2018 Colts made the playoffs and won a first-round game against Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans. Quarterback Andrew Luck unexpectedly retired after the season, and Sirianni went back to the shadows on a 7-9 team that used Jacoby Brissett and Brian Hoyer at quarterback.
In Reich's eyes, though, Sirianni was a budding genius. Reich shared his zeal early in the 2020 season when the Colts were preparing for a game at Cleveland. The Repository, preparing a story on Sirianni, asked for an evaluation.
"When I got here, the first thing I said to (GM) Chris Ballard was, ‘There is one guy we have to get on this staff, and that is Nick Sirianni.’
"I think the world of Nick. I think he is a brilliant offensive mind. He is a tireless worker. He pays attention to detail. He has a dynamic coaching personality.
"I think he is going to be a great head coach in this league sooner rather than later. It is hard for me to have a higher opinion of Nick than I already do.”
The Eagles named Sirianni head coach three months later. He piloted them to a franchise-record 14 wins in his second season.
With Sirianni gone in 2021, Reich's Colts went 9-8. When Reich was fired after a 3-5-1 start in 2022, Sirianni was livid.
He vented during and after his Eagles beat the Colts and their interim head coach, Jeff Saturday, on Nov. 20.
"I’m emotional because I love Frank Reich,” Sirianni said in his postgame talk. “He’s one of the best damn football coaches I’ve ever been around.
“He’s one of my biggest mentors. I’ve got my dad, I’ve got Larry Kehres, and I’ve got Frank Reich.”
Mount Union remains a part of Nick Sirianni
Kehres retired after the 2012 season and turned over Mount Union's head coaching reins to son Vince. Vince left for Toledo after the 2019 season, giving way to Geoff Dartt, Larry's son-in-law.
"Obviously, we're proud of what Nick is doing in Philadelphia," said Dartt, who played at Mount Union when Sirianni made the transition from player to coach.
Sirianni's Mount Union drop-ins have been all over Philadelphia.
Late this season, someone asked how he would manage the uncharted waters of the Eagles getting to 12-1. Sirianni said this was business as usual in his life, recalling Mount Union's records of 14-0, 14-0, 14-0, 13-1, 12-1 and 14-1 when he was a player and then a coach.
In his Eagles press conference the day before Mount Union played in the 2022 Stagg Bowl on Dec. 16, Sirianni sported Purple Raiders gear and opened with a one-man pep rally.
Eagles defensive back Josiah Scott's father, Oliver Scott, grew up in Alliance. Josiah's brothers Isaiah and Joshua were Mount Union teammates on Kehres' last team, in 2012.
"Everybody knows (Sirianni) went to Mount Union," Eagles guard Josh Sills told NBC Sports Philadelphia recently. "My high school football coach (Jeff Twiddy at Meadowbrook, in Ohio) played at Mount Union. One of my buddies from back home played at Mount Union.”
Nick Sirianni has star QB in Jalen Hurts
Larry Kehres came out of retirement in 2022 to coach Mount Union's quarterbacks. He likes Philadelphia's QB, and the way the Eagles are developing him.
Jalen Hurts played so well in 2022 that it is easy to forget he was a No. 53 overall draft pick in 2020. The Browns spent a No. 52 overall pick on quarterback Deshone Kizer in 2017 and didn't get very far.
"Nick knows the value of a quarterback that can move," Kehres said. "When we had a quarterback who could move at Mount Union, you had a hard time beating us. Nick's got that guy.
"I'll have a chance to go over all of the Eagles' games in March, but from what I have seen, Nick and the other guys on the staff are really using Jalen Hurts to their advantage.
"When Nick was coaching with us, we had five things that we wanted from every position. At quarterback, No. 1 was passing accuracy. No. 2 was agility.
"We really valued a quarterback with good feet, one who could scramble as needed and save your bacon once in a while. Nothing scares a defensive coordinator more than a guy who can do what that guy is doing."
Can Hurts make the next big step and beat Patrick Mahomes in a Super Bowl? Can he stay healthy? What happens when he starts making real money?
Not even Andy Reid lasted forever in Philadelphia. Time will tell as to Sirianni's staying power. For now, his team is 16-3 after two blowout wins in the postseason. His arriving power has been off the charts.
Chuckling as he remembers the St. Aloysius bus, Larry Kehres extends his advice to his star pupil to include, "Enjoy the ride."
"I think Nick's No. 1 attribute is humor," Kehres said. "Not everyone can be Bill Belichick and be humorless and succeed. Nick has fun."
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This article originally appeared on The Repository: Who is Nick Sirianni? Mount Union's Larry Kehres on Eagles coach