(Written by Dave Hanneman, sports reporter for The Courier. Story originally published on Sept. 5, 2018. Dean Pees was an assistant football coach for Findlay College and was inducted into the University of Findlay Athletic Hall of Fame in 2018 as a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the second in a five-day series about individuals from this area who play or coach in the National Football League. The NFL’s regular season begins Thursday.
NASHVILLE – Dean Pees has spent half a century around the game of football.
But he’s not ready to join the BarcaLounger Brigade just yet.
From his playing days at Hardin Northern to his early coaching stints at Elmwood High School, the University of Findlay and Kent State, to his role as the defensive coordinator of Super Bowl-winning teams in New England (2004, 2005) and Baltimore (2013), Pees has spent his last 50-some summers preparing for one thing – another football season.
Even when his coaching career seemed over, it wasn’t.
“It only lasted three weeks. I don’t even count that as retirement,” Pees said during the Tennessee Titans’ training camp in Nashville in late July.
Pees, who turns 69 this month, originally announced his retirement as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens in January. Three weeks later, he was back on the NFL payroll, this time with Tennessee.
“I retired (from Baltimore) on, like, Jan. 2. I took the job here on Jan. 22,” Pees said.
Despite a second straight 9-7 regular season, Tennessee’s first playoff appearance in eight years and its first playoff win in 14, the Titans’ coaching staff underwent a major overhaul following the 2017 season.
Mike Mularkey was out as head coach, Mike Vrabel was brought in to replace him, and the transition began.
Former offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie was replaced by Rams’ offensive coordinator Matt LaFleuer. And to run the defense, Vrabel looked to Pees, who had been his position head coach and then the defensive coordinator when Vrabel (2001-2008) and Pees (2204-2009) were with New England.
Pees said his decision to un-retire was due to a “bunch of things,” but cited three key reasons in particular.
“No. 1 was coach Vrabel,” Pees said.
“No. 2 was Nashville and Tennessee. I knew this area down here was a good football place. I’d been at two great football places before (New England, Baltimore) and I thought, ‘Well, let’s get a third one.’”
Reason No. 3 was a bit more personal.
“The other thing was the opportunity to coach with my son,” Pees said. That was a huge thing in my life, kind of a bucket list thing. To have that opportunity that coach Vrabel made possible was incredible.”
Pees’ son Matt, who joined the Titans’ staff this season as a quality control coach, breaking down film, agreed.
“When Dad retired in January, I thought, well there went our opportunity of every coaching together, which had always been kind of a dream of ours,” said Matt Pees, who was a quarterback at Bowling Green High School when the Bobcats faced Fostoria in the 1996 Division II playoffs, then an assistant coach at Ridgemont High School and more recently the head coach at Green Mountain High School in Colorado.
“So when this thing came along, we felt really fortunate and very thankful to Ms. Amy (Amy Adams Strunk, controlling owner and co-chairman of the board of directors), Jon (Jon Robinson, executive vice president and general manager) and coach Vrabel for giving us this opportunity to coach together. It was something we just could not pass up.”
Matt Pees walked on as a quarterback at Kent State, and later became the video coordinator for the program. He’s the tech guy in the family, while his father is more into Xs and Os. Both feel it’s a good combination.
“There wasn’t any bickering. It was a lot of me just listening,” Matt said when the conversations on the home front turned to football.
“Being around dad and the game so much, I developed a deep passion for it. I love the Xs and Os as well, so I’m always trying to learn as much as possible from him. He’s a wealth of knowledge. Anything he can teach me, I’m just trying to take it all in.”
“Hey, I don’t mess with his job, and he don’t mess with mine,” Dean said. “We work pretty well together.”
The overhaul of the Titans’ coaching staff has not only an Ohio, but also a Blanchard Valley Conference, undercurrent to it. Of the 24 men on the Titans staff, eight were born in Ohio and another eight have college or pro coaching experience in the Buckey state.
Included on the staff are McComb’s Craig Aukerman, who was elevated from assistant to the Titans’ special teams coach this season, and Arcadia’s Ryan Crow, who was hired by Tennessee this season after serving as an assistant at Ohio State, Purdue and Baldwin Wallace the past few years.
“All these Ohio guys and BVC guys, I love it,” Dean Pees said. “What’s really great is, I’ve known guys like (secondary coach) Kerry Coombs for 25 years, I’ve known Ryan Crow from Arcadia, I’ve know Auk (Aukerman) from McComb… That’s what makes it nice. Coach Vrabel is not only an Ohio guy, but having coached with him before (in New England) makes the transition easier.
Luring Dean Pees out of his short retirement was a strategically crafty move by the Titans’ new head coach, who knew he was getting one of the best in the business and one of only eight defensive coordinators to make the Super Bowl with two different teams.
During the four years Pees was defensive coordinator at New England, the Patriots’ 17.3 points-allowed average was second among NFL teams. In his six seasons in charge of Baltimore’s defense, the Ravens were ranked among the NFL in takeaways (33) and turnover margin (plus 17).
Pees may be an NFL football coach, but he credits his first profession – teaching – as a foundation for his success.
“I think that sometimes some pro coaches just take for granted that they have great players and a great scheme,” Pees aid. “But the players still have to be taught. That’s why I think it was such an advantage coming up the way I did, being a teacher first at Elmwood and then Findlay College.
“I’m really grateful I came up that way, because even now I think it makes a better teacher out of you, and that’s what we’re doing out here, we’re teaching.”
But Pees proved to be an astute student as well. And he learned from some of the best during his stops on the college and pro ranks.
“If you look at where I’ve been and who I’ve worked with: Lou Holz (Notre Dame), Nick Saban (Michigan State), Bill Belichick (New England), John Harbaugh (Baltimore), Gary Pinkel (Toledo)… When you take all of those guys and combine all of their different styles and talents and personalities, I can truly say I’ve never worked for a bad boss.
“I’ve tried to learn something from all of them, and all of those guys have had an influence on me in some form or fashion.”
After thousands of miles and hundreds of games – high school, college and pro – Pees still looks to home, where it all began.
“The coach that influenced me first off was coach (Dick) Strahm,” Pees said of the University of Findlay coach who won four NAIA national championships and accumulated a 183-64-5 record in 24 years as UF’s head coach.
“Dick gave me the opportunity to get into college football right after Elmwood (High School). He taught me a heckuva lot about football, and coaching in general. I didn’t have a father at that time. I’d lost my dad when I was coaching at Elmwood, but Dick was kind of like my dad in a way. I looked to him as a father figure.”
I would say Dick (Strahm) was my first influence, along with Tim Rose, who was head coach at Miami (Ohio) and is at Ashland College now.
“Man, that’s been a while. I guess you could say I’ve been around a long time.”
(Hanneman, 419-427-8408, firstname.lastname@example.org)