Dennis Thurman a product of HOF pedigree


His name is most often associated with the head coach under whom he works, Rex Ryan. And once again Dennis Thurman will be serving as Ryan's defensive coordinator in Buffalo. As accomplished as Ryan is as head coach in his own right, the caliber of tutelage Thurman received from his coaches as a player is unmatched.

Thurman, 58, was a decorated defensive back at USC, winning a national title in 1974. He was recruited by a College Football Hall of Fame coach, John McKay. His last two years as a Trojan he was again coached by a College Football Hall of Famer in John Robinson.

"Coach McKay was patient and kept practices short, which was a beautiful thing," said Thurman smiling. "We kept things pretty simple. John Robinson came in and took over after that and he was a lot more enthusiastic, with again the simplicity of teaching and coaching."

As a senior, Thurman found himself doing some teaching and coaching of his own. As a teammate he helped tutor a young safety on the roster by the name of Ronnie Lott, who mentioned Thurman specifically in his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech two decades later.

His ability to help bring Lott up to speed in the Trojans defense also did not go unnoticed by his head coach.

"John Robinson was the first to mention it to me after my senior year at USC," Thurman told of a career in coaching. "I didn't really think about it because all I wanted to do was play."

A knee injury in a Pac-8 all-star game kept him from testing for teams prior to the NFL draft and from participating in a pro day. Thurman, who had NFL skills, was not drafted until the 11th round with the 306th pick.

"People were wondering about me," said Thurman. "They tell you put it on tape, and I did put it on tape, but for whatever reason they waited on me. But once I found out where I was going, the Cowboys were my team when I was a kid growing up so everything worked out fine."

Taken by Dallas, who had just won Super Bowl XII, Thurman was added to a deep secondary and was warned that head coach Tom Landry's 'Flex defense' wouldn't be as easy as the schemes he played in college.

"Everybody was saying, 'Well learning the flex defense is going to be pretty difficult,'" recalled Thurman. "But I pretty much learned the flex defense my rookie year."

Although Dennis Thurman's name is most often associated with Rex Ryan, his coaching roots include working with legends Tom Landry, John McKay, and John Robinson.

Thurman also learned an awful lot under one of the more renowned defensive minds in the game in Landry, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. He also had a defensive backs coach by the name of Gene Stallings, who has his name enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

"Coach Stallings was my position coach and he's a disciple of Bear Bryant," said Thurman. "Football is football he would say. Keep the game simple."

As Thurman's playing career wound down coach Landry approached him in much the same way coach Robinson did seven years earlier.

"After my seventh year at Dallas coach Landry asked me if I ever thought about coaching," Thurman said. "I said, 'No, I majored in journalism and minored in communication. I wanted to talk about sports on television.' I didn't want to get into coaching, but he said, 'You prepare like a coach. You might want to give it some thought.'"

Come the following summer Thurman showed up early at training camp to help coach Stallings break in the rookies. He was still playing on the Cowboys roster, but dipped his proverbial toe in the coaching pool.

Two years later Thurman retired and did not give coaching another thought, at least until a police officer showed up at his house.

"I was actually taking voice and diction classes to get back in front of the camera, and a sheriff's deputy comes and knocks on my door one morning about 8:30," said Thurman. "I open the door and I look at this uniformed police officer. He says, 'Oh don't worry you haven't done anything wrong. Coach Stallings wants you to give him a call.' My heart was beating fast. I didn't know if I had a warrant for not paying a traffic ticket or whatever."

All Gene Stallings wanted was a phone call. Why he chose to dispatch a police officer is anyone's guess, but Thurman called the now head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals.

"He flew me to St. Louis before the Cardinals moved to Arizona and asked me if I wanted to coach defensive backs," Thurman said. "I went and discussed it with my wife at the time and it led to where I'm at now."

His coaching stops after the Cardinals included his alma mater, where he coached one of the best safeties in the most recent generation in Troy Polamalu. He later coached the other top safety of the most recent era in Ed Reed in Baltimore.


Thurman later had a chance to coach one of the best cornerbacks in the game today in Darrelle Revis while serving as New York Jets defensive backs coach, and arguably another top 10 corner in Antonio Cromartie.

No matter the talent level of the player he was dealing with he always went back to the roots of his football education.

"For me it's about the simplicity of teaching and getting your message across without using a lot of verbiage and big words," he said. "It's a simple game."

Simplicity however, does not mean easy. As Thurman sees it the game only becomes simple when you've mastered the nuances of it.

"If you have the natural God-given talent the thing that begins to separate you from the others is your attention to detail," Thurman said. "Your ability to be consistent with the things that you're doing. It's the knowledge of the game and understanding what's coming from this formation, what's coming from this look. Understanding where certain guys are supposed to be. Where is your help? Where am I supposed to be? Am I supposed to be helping someone? The guys that do it the best are usually good with recognition. So it's all about preparation."

And Thurman has every intention of having the 2015 Bills defense prepared.

"We have a tall order but we never run any of that and our expectation has always been to be if not the best defense in the league, to be one of the best defenses in the league and it's all based on talent and can you get the talent all going in the right direction," said Thurman. "All 11 guys playing for one another pulling on the same end of the rope, understanding exactly what you want them to understand philosophically and the number one goal, go out and prevent points."

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