From Division II to Gang Green: Robert Saleh’s college coach knows he earned Jets opportunity

Eric Holm and his wife were watching TV at their Kansas City home when the news broke.

Now mostly retired, the former Northern Michigan University head coach had been keeping up with the rumors and tracking NFL interviews, so he wasn’t surprised when the Jets announced that they were hiring Robert Saleh on the night of Jan. 14. What Holm didn’t expect, however, was an immediate response to a congratulatory text.

Their lives taking them separate ways since their days at Division II NMU, Holm and Saleh had only reconnected about a month prior. And yet, amid the biggest night of his career, Saleh felt it was important to reply to his college coach right away.

“I texted him congratulations and good luck and all that and I got a text back from him a minute later. Honestly, I was moved by that,” Holm, 61, told Jets Wire. “New York City, the center of the universe, and one of the plum jobs in the NFL, the New York Jets. I can’t imagine all the things he’s got going from all different directions.

“And yet he took the time to text me back a quick thanks. For an old coach like me, that was meaningful, and it tells you that’s just the kind of person he is.”

Saleh, 41, played for the Wildcats from 1998-2002 while earning a finance degree. This was long before he ever endeared himself to NFL players with his demonstrable confidence and fire on the sidelines. Holm said Saleh lacked some of that poise and passion as a college kid, but he was as coachable as they come.

“He was almost too good to be true in some regards,” Holm said. “He just did what was asked of him, never complained. ‘Yes sir, no sir. Yes coach, no coach.’ He was a joy.”

Saleh learned about hard work and respect growing up in an immigrant household. His dad, Sam, was born in Michigan but spent part of his childhood in Lebanon. He went on to play linebacker at Eastern Michigan and got a training camp audition with the Bears before suffering a knee injury. Saleh’s mother, Fatin, was born in Lebanon and emigrated during her teenage years.

Now their son is the first Muslim head coach in NFL history after four years as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.

Holm remembers Saleh’s family being an involved one. There was this one time NMU went to play Wayne State in Detroit, a short drive from the family home in blue-collar Dearborn. Saleh’s parents insisted on hosting the Wildcats’ entire traveling party – upwards of 60 people – for a team meal. That’s no small task, but the family loved every second of it.

For Holm, the memory perfectly sums up Saleh’s roots and the person he grew into.

“They relished us being there,” Holm said of Saleh’s parents. “You could just tell that’s where Robert came from. In watching him as an adult and as a coach, he just seems to be the epitome of a servant leader and it comes by naturally.”

The family of Jets head coach Robert Saleh, from left: brother David Saleh, sister Jehan Saleh, mother Fatin Saleh, father Sam Saleh, Robert Saleh and sister Krystal Saleh. (Jehan Saleh/Special to Detroit Free Press via Imagn)

Saleh has been a defensive coach throughout his NFL career, but he was a “classic tight end” for Holm, someone with sure enough hands to catch the ball and a big enough frame to block. Saleh, who earned all-conference honors, wasn’t the fleetest of foot, but it was clear that he understood the game well as a young adult.

Holm believes having played on the opposite side of the ball has helped Saleh as a defensive coach and will continue to aid him now that he’s responsible for an entire team. Ironically, Holm namedropped Gregg Williams to further his point. He and the ex-Jets defensive coordinator were teammates at what is now known as Truman State, where Williams was the quarterback long before he became a defensive schemer.

“There’s something to be said for having experience on both sides to give you an overall perspective,” Holm said. “It’s kind of like seeing the chessboard. You not only have to understand where you’re moving your pieces, but you have to understand where the other guy is going with his.”

The Jets’ last head coach, Adam Gase, was strictly – and ineffectively – offense-oriented, essentially allowing Williams to be the head coach of the defense. That structure backfired in Week 13 this past season when an unchecked Williams called a game-blowing, all-out blitz against the Raiders. He was fired the next day, while Gase was relieved at the end of the season after compiling a 9-23 record over two seasons in New York.

New York’s brass made it clear it was going to look for a CEO-type this time around, someone who could lead an entire team, build a staff and collaborate with everyone in the building. Saleh, after two interviews, convinced Joe Douglas and Christopher Johnson he was the man for the job.

“We spoke to some tremendous coaches, but Rob is the right partner and leader for us,” Douglas said in a statement. “His vision for this team aligns with what we have been working to establish here the last two years.”

Saleh, who will be introduced as the 20th head coach in Jets history on Thursday, is well-aware of the tall task ahead. The franchise owns the longest playoff drought in the NFL and hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2015. Never mind that New York’s first and only Super Bowl win was back in the 1968 season.

In addition to all the losing, the Jets have lacked talent, identity and culture in recent years. That’s a lot for a rookie head coach to take on, and it won’t all change in one offseason. Saleh admitted “we have a lot of work to do” in his first official quote as a member of the Jets.

Holm, for one, is thrilled that his former pupil will get the opportunity to turn Gang Green around after years of observing Saleh from afar. Division II football isn’t exactly a breeding ground for NFL head coaches, but Saleh has risen from the gridiron at Northern Michigan to the largest media market in the country.

His old college coach believes the feat is a testament to his dedication.

“When you’re a Division II coach or player, it’s much harder to picture yourself being an NFL coach. It’s just the way the system is kind of set up,” Holm said. “Everybody takes a different path to ascend to that level. It says so much about him that he didn’t have the natural thing where you’re a star player or you’re at Division I and you have these connections or these ties. For him to come from where he came from to become an NFL coach, especially at his young age, says everything you need to know. You have to work at it. You have to earn it.

“He’s earned it.”