Sean McDermott: Naturally wired to succeed

Posted Jan 3, 2018

This past Sunday, Sean McDermott became just the fourth head coach in team history to lead the Bills to the playoffs in his first full season. He had a vision and a plan for turning the Bills into contenders.

This past Sunday, Sean McDermott became just the fourth head coach in team history to lead the Bills to the playoffs in his first full season. He had a vision and a plan for turning the Bills into contenders. Results of that plan have come sooner than most expected. But if you know where and what Sean McDermott comes from, the results won’t be surprising in the least. 

It’s 1988 and 14-year old Sean McDermott is spent. His shirt is soaked through with perspiration. His legs are throbbing as he has just wrapped up a 90-minute leg routine at Eskimos gym in Allentown, Pennsylvania. As part of his wrestling training, McDermott’s father, Rich, drives him the hour each way from their home in Lansdale, PA, as Sean’s wrestling career has already seen widespread success at the youth level. What comes at the conclusion of the 90-minute workout however, is unexpected.

The teenage McDermott is handed a pair of 20-pound weights and is told to repeat the workout he just finished. The routine that includes a leg lifting routine, 45 minutes on the treadmill and a session on the stair master is grueling. It’s a direct challenge to his mental toughness, much like wrestling itself. A test of stamina, heart, will.

Without a second thought, the young McDermott takes the 40 pounds in dead weight he’ll be carrying around with him for the next hour and a half and repeats the routine.

It’s just a small example of the unwavering, steadfast and determined leader the Buffalo Bills now have as their head coach. An example provided by someone who knows him better than anyone else, his older brother and only sibling Tim McDermott.

As Tim sees it, his kid brother Sean has always been naturally wired to push the limits knowing more often than not it will yield successful results.

“I think if you look at the type of person that Sean is, the thing that stands out in my head the most is his determination,” Tim said. “He’s got a way of pushing beyond what most people can mentally or physically handle. Whether I saw that in football, in wrestling, in working out. At the point where most people would say I can’t, he had this amazing ability to push through a pain threshold that is incredibly high.”

Disciplined household
Growing up in the northwest Philadelphia suburb of Lansdale, a town historically populated by factory and foundry workers, the two brothers were raised in the strict, but loving household of Rich and Avis McDermott.

“We were brought up in a very disciplined family,” said Tim, currently the Chief Business Officer of the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer. “My mom and dad did an amazing job raising us.”

“I grew up in a family that really enforced core values, going to church on Sunday. It wasn’t the Cleavers. It wasn’t that type of family, but it was supportive like that,” said Sean McDermott. “A family that was based on a lot of tough love. So from a mindset standpoint it was, ‘Hey you come home, we’re going to love you to death, but at the same time you need to do this better or that better.’ Rather than, ‘Come here little Johnny I’m going to wrap a blanket around you and love you up,’ it was tough love. That has basically prepared me for a job like this.”

The McDermotts sacrificed a lot for their kids. Outside of the summer drives to Iowa to visit their mother’s parents, most trips revolved around the boys’ sports camps.

Rich McDermott was a high school and college football coach, who pushed his sons to participate in athletics. Sports were used as a vehicle to reinforce the core values of the household. Meanwhile Avis McDermott pushed academics.

“Whether it was grades and studying or working out. We were just taught that there was a right way to do things,” said Tim. “I think we learned a lot from each one of those sports. The wrestling side was great from a discipline standpoint. Sean has just always had this passion for wrestling and for football. I think Sean saw that and felt that from my parents, but it was also a part of who he was.”

One day Sean’s passion for football went a bit too far for his parents’ liking. A big fan of Brian Bosworth, when the Oklahoma linebacker was at the height of his national popularity, Sean decided he wasn’t just going to try and play like him, but look like him as well.

“If you recall Brian Bosworth had a flat top with lines cut in the hair on the side of his head,” said Tim. “My brother at the time admired the ‘Boz.’ He went and got his hair cut at the barber and he came home and my dad said, ‘What did you do?’ And he followed that up with, ‘You’re not coming inside the house with that haircut. You get on your bike and you ride back to the barber and have him cut the rest of it off.’ It was a unique day for sure. He looked more like he does now when it was all over with.”

While Rich McDermott’s approach was very direct, Avis McDermott had a more subtle way of emphasizing what was important.

In his freshman year, Tim McDermott had come to discover all the benefits that high school social life had to offer. Soon Sean’s older brother was spending a lot of time on the phone in the evenings talking to girls. That behavior was not met with a stern lecture from mom. Instead a list was posted.

“She came in one day and didn’t say a word,” said Tim. “She put a list on my door and it simply said, ‘Priorities.’ Number one was God. Number two was family. Three was school. Number four was sports. Number five was social. Both my brother and I got one of those lists. I’m going to tell you that list was there for 10 years on a piece of paper. It stayed there through college and years after college that list was in the same spot on my door for my brother and me.

“There weren’t a whole lot of words spoken about it. I could tell she put that up there for a reason. It was because we weren’t living by those priorities. It was her way of saying, this is where your priorities need to be and you better get back on the right path.”

Wrestling it out
Wrestling was obviously a big part of both Tim and Sean’s upbringing. They also played football and baseball. The brothers grew up the best of friends, and when there were disagreements they were usually resolved with an impromptu wrestling match.

“We played together on each other’s sports teams,” said Tim. “The only thing was when it got heated we just wrestled a lot. We would go to wrestling practice and we would come home and wrestle each other. We’d be in the living room wrestling. We’d be upstairs in the bedroom wrestling. That’s the thing that we probably did the most. My mom, you’d hear her constantly yelling, ‘Stop wrestling!’

“It was either that or playing football in the living room on our knees. I think she probably yelled the most because we were inevitably breaking stuff. We were always best of friends and really never that I can remember had a single fight.”

Sean’s wrestling exploits eventually eclipsed those of Tim, who went on to kick and punt for the Cornell football team in college.

“I think it’s fair to say that he became a lot better wrestler than I was and got bigger than me and stronger and faster. He was just really talented,” said Tim. “Ever since he was a little kid, eight, nine or 10-years old he won multiple state championships in Pennsylvania and carried that through and won a couple of national prep championships in high school. He was just one of those guys who was very talented.”

“I knew growing up that I wanted to be the best in everything I did,” Sean said. “I wanted to kick my brother’s butt every day. I loved him and he loved me, but when mom came home and we were upstairs wrestling he was going to feel it because he was making sure I felt it. That’s just my mindset. I just love to compete, just like our players. That’s how I live life.”

“Beyond his skill set, I think the thing that I remember the most was he was just nasty,” said Tim of his younger brother. “He was tough and nasty, whether it was football or wrestling. From a football standpoint I remember if there was a ball coming across the middle and Sean had a chance to intercept it or hit somebody he liked to hit somebody. That nastiness was just baked inside of him. For me wrestling could only last for so long. I could tell this kid was going to be special.”

Coaching path
As special as Sean was on the wrestling mat, his number one passion was football. So it didn’t surprise Tim in the least that his younger brother chose to walk on to the football team at William & Mary rather than take one of the many college scholarship offers he had to wrestle.

“It was kind of what he always wanted to do. It’s what he loved the most,” said Tim. “While we truly do love the sport of wrestling, it’s a really, really disciplined and challenging sport in college. He just had a love for football. It’s just kind of what he always saw himself doing was playing football in college. I don’t think it was so much that he wasn’t following wrestling. It was about what he loved more.”

Coaching football however, was not on Sean’s radar until his college coach Jimmye Laycock offered him a graduate assistant’s position.

“I accepted a job with Price Waterhouse Coopers during the fall of my senior year and then the spring of my senior campaign, the head coach at William and Mary came to me and asked if I would like to coach,” McDermott said. “So that spring when all my buddies were going through their senior year drinking and partying like seniors do, I was on my way to spring ball practice. I helped with the defensive backs.”

“I have to say I never really saw Sean as an accountant or working for an accounting firm,” said Tim. “I didn’t see that being who he was. Sports is who he is. Coaching, playing, being around football. When I think of my dad, that’s who he is and who he was when he was coaching.

“There are certain people in life who know what they want. They know their passion. They know their calling in life. Then other people they search for it and never find it. I think my dad and my brother, that’s who they are.”

Behind the drive
According to McDermott’s older brother, the Bills head coach doesn’t really have hobbies. Tim McDermott has tried for years to get his younger brother to spend a few hours with him fly fishing. Deep down he knows Sean can’t stand still in a river that long.

“That’s definitely not his cup of tea,” said Tim chuckling. “I think I’ve seen a person in Sean who has matured and changed. There was a time where the statements of him sleeping in his office four or five nights a week were true. He would go to bed at one in the morning and get up at 3:30 or four in the morning. That’s what he did for a large portion of his career, and I do think as he’s gotten older he’s changed some things and re-focused on some areas of his life to strike a better balance. But the reality is he’s a football coach, so there are certainly a lot of trade-offs and sacrifices that he makes.”

Working out is the closest thing to a hobby that Sean McDermott has, along with spending time with his kids in youth sports. Sports however, aren’t really McDermott’s hobby. They’re his life.  

Behind the more public McDermott, who possesses a relentless desire to be the best in everything he does, is a man who has a deep respect for the people for whom, and with whom, he works. 

“I think those things you see as far as his drive and determination are one-thousand percent true,” Tim McDermott said. “I think the part of him that’s hard to get to, at the core of Sean, is someone who deeply cares about people and doing the right thing always. At the highest level of that is his integrity. Hopefully that comes across in his daily life.

“He’s a very conscientious individual who does think a lot and ensures that he’s treating people the right way. Although he might be driven or determined and going one-thousand miles per hour, people matter to him.”

Achievement over spotlight

For Sean McDermott the daily grind is what appeals to him the most because he’s experienced the positive outcome it yields time and again.

“Sean is not going to be a spotlight person,” Tim McDermott said. “That’s not who he is. He’s definitely about team. He’s definitely about family. He does not need to be the center of attention. He does not need to be the person on whom the spotlight shines. But he is a person who is very dedicated to a goal.

“He’s very focused. He was just wired as a strong, strong individual. So when he gets a goal in his mind, he’s a dog on a bone, and he will give so much of himself physically and mentally to achieve the goal. That’s what stands out to me. It becomes his priority.”

That priority now is to lift the Buffalo Bills out of the doldrums of mediocrity. As McDermott has done so many times before, a plan has been put in place to accomplish just that.

When all that work put in by himself, his coaching staff and his players will bear fruit is unknown. But knowing what makes McDermott tick, it’s hard for anyone to doubt that he will get his team there.

“I just always want to be the best,” McDermott said. “It’s something that I’ve always had in me. That’s how I attack this job. I’m not going out there to middle it. I’m not doing that. I’m going out there to win every damn game. I’m driven that way.”