Bills head coach Doug Marrone made decisive moves in hiring his offensive and defensive coordinators this week. He sounded wholly confident that Nathaniel Hackett and Mike Pettine were the men he wanted calling plays for his offense and defense. Both bring a wealth of knowledge on their respective sides of the football and it’s largely due to being raised by a father who was also a football coach.
For Hackett, he practically grew up on the sidelines. Hackett’s father Paul Hackett had a 41-year coaching career that was spent exclusively on the offensive side of the ball. In fact the elder Hackett, who had many stops in his coaching career, worked for three seasons with Marrone on Herm Edwards’ New York Jets coaching staff. Hackett served as offensive coordinator and Marrone was the offensive line coach.
“He worked at the New York Jets when my father was there,” said Hackett of Marrone. “I would also go out there when our season at Stanford was over and try to shadow a bunch of guys. I just wanted to learn football, learn from them. That was when the Jets had a real good team—Curtis Martin and all those guys.
Ironically, Hackett’s coaching career was ending right as his son’s was taking off. In 2010 Nathaniel Hackett was hired as Marrone’s offensive coordinator at Syracuse, the same year that his dad was finishing his last year in coaching as the Oakland Raiders quarterbacks coach.
“I think Coach Marrone saw me as the Coach’s kid who was around to really work. I really wanted to learn,” said Hackett. “I love the game and I was passionate about the game, and I think that really stuck with him. I think that made him say, ‘Hey, I really want to interview this guy.’”
Over the past two years while enjoying retirement, the younger Hackett kept his dad in the game.
“I would send him DVDs of our upcoming opponents,” said Hackett. “We only had four coaches on offense at Syracuse. I was running the offense, coaching quarterbacks and tight ends. So I’d send him our upcoming opponents and he’d do advance scouting for us. He was great.”
The time that the younger Hackett enjoyed most to this point in his career were the two years when he and his father served on the same coaching staff with the Buccaneers.
“Our two years together in Tampa Bay really gave us the opportunity to work together and learn how to help each other. I was offensive quality control and he was coaching quarterbacks,” said Hackett. “It really established a solid peer to peer relationship that still exists today.”
Hackett still uses his father as a sounding board whether it is over the phone a day after a game or right after a game face to face if the elder Hackett is in attendance.
“He would come to watch us sometimes and he used to criticize me all the time,” said Hackett chuckling. “What are you doing this for? Why are you doing that? But if you do have a question he’s always got an answer for you. Sometimes he thinks his answer is always right and there’s always a little battle there, but it’s always great to have a guy with that much experience that you can just bounce even the smallest things off of him. That’s how you can get better as a coach every day.”
For Pettine his football lessons were at an even more grassroots level. The son of one of the most decorated high school coaches in Pennsylvania state history, Buffalo’s defensive coordinator played for his father, Mike Sr., in high school at Central Bucks West in Doylestown, PA.
All Pettine’s dad did was post a career record of 327-46-4. His winning percentage of .867 is a state record. Along the way Mike Pettine Sr. won four PIAA state titles, had 13 perfect seasons and a state record 59-game winning streak.
The younger Pettine began coaching under his father before landing a head coaching job at a school in the same league.
“The coaching against him part was not very fun. I was 0-5 against him lifetime,” said Buffalo’s new defensive coordinator. “The headline ‘Father Knows Best’ was getting a little old for me. But he’s just such a valuable resource for me, just a great football mind.”
When Pettine made the jump to the NFL, and began coaching outside linebackers in Baltimore, he would send his retired father DVDs of game footage.
“I’ve been fortunate where I’ve been that we’ve been able to send him film on a weekly basis of the games we’ve played as well as some opponent film as well,” he said. “He’s got such a sharp football mind, especially when it comes to the fundamentals of the game and a lot of the common sense things. Sometimes in the NFL you get caught up in scheme too much and you can’t see the forest for the trees and there’s this outside expert perspective and he’s been very helpful for all these years.”
Pettine says his father’s critiques are especially helpful after games, especially when he feels his unit has had a pretty good outing.
“I’ll get a Wednesday email from him saying, ‘Your corners can’t get lined up, you can’t tackle and your D-linemen are doing this wrong and the linebackers’ stances are bad.’ It’s just a tremendous thing to have and he just loves doing it.”
Getting coaching counsel from their fathers has just become part of the natural order of things for Hackett and Pettine. It’s so deeply woven into their father-son relationships. Both men believe it’s an added benefit that not every coach has.
“Foundation came from my Dad, and that still continues today,” said Pettine. “He’s quick to point out when you don’t play well, and I’m sure that will continue here in Buffalo. But whenever he sends me something more than 90 percent of the time he’s right.”
“Ever since I decided to do this profession, he’s been right there for me,” said Hackett. “And now that he’s retired, he’s been there even more. Whenever you have a legend, a guy that’s been through it all-he’s won a Super Bowl, he’s won a National Championship—he’s been through it all. He’s been around the best quarterbacks that have ever played the game.
“It’s great to be able to say, ‘Hey, what do think about this, Dad.’ Or, ‘Hey, Dad, will you just watch me coach, am I doing a good job?’ You get some things that nobody else can give you.”