De­ci­sion to change ca­reer on the money

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - SPORTING GREEN - By Eric Branch

Be­fore he was the 49ers’ de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, Robert Saleh was a credit an­a­lyst at Comer­ica Bank’s world head­quar­ters in Detroit.

Then 23 years old, Saleh was poised to fol­low in the lu­cra­tive foot­steps of his older brother, a fi­nan­cial ad­viser, and his fa­ther, a busi­ness owner. He was set. And he was sob­bing un­con­trol­lably.

In Fe­bru­ary 2002, less than five months into his job an­a­lyz­ing mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar loans, Robert called his brother, David, and told him he wanted to ditch fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity to pur­sue a dream. At least, that’s what the hulk­ing for­mer col­lege tight end said when he could fi­nally form the words.

“I was try­ing to get him to get a grip and talk to me,” David said. “I couldn’t un­der­stand a word he was say­ing. Have you ever cried so hard where you can’t even speak or breathe?”

Said Robert: “It was the kind of cry­ing when you get the hic­cups.”

Fif­teen years af­ter that call, Robert, 38, was mak­ing calls last week as the NFL’s thirdy­oungest de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in the 49ers’ sea­son opener.

For the rookie, who is be­lieved to be the league’s first Arab Amer­i­can co­or­di­na­tor, it was a strong de­but: The 49ers al­lowed just 287 yards — their fifth-fewest in their past 38 games — in a 23-3 loss to the Carolina Pan­thers.

Now, he re­turns Sun­day to Seat­tle, where he won a Su­per Bowl in 2014 while work­ing un­der Sea­hawks head coach Pete Carroll, his most in­flu­en­tial men­tor.

For David, 41, who was at Levi’s Sta­dium for the sea­son opener, the game was a re­minder of the some­times pen­ni­less path his brother trav­eled, and the courage it re­quired to be­gin the jour­ney. In­stead of earn­ing a six-fig­ure salary, Robert didn’t pocket more than $800 a month un­til his fifth year in coach­ing. He spent his first two sea­sons liv­ing for free in the home of fam­ily friends.

He didn’t start with much, but he also be­gan with­out re­grets.

How many peo­ple be­moan late in life the de­ci­sion to work at a job in­stead of pur­su­ing a pas­sion?

“God bless him,” David said. “There’s some­thing to be said about some­one who knows at that age that he didn’t want to be do­ing that. He had to travel the un­known, work pretty much for free and slave at it.”

Foot­ball was a pas­sion for the Saleh fam­ily and their home­town of Dear­born, Mich.

Their fa­ther, Sam, was a line­backer at East­ern Michi­gan who spent a train­ing camp with the Chicago Bears. Their late un­cle, Os­sum, was a guard at Michi­gan State. Robert and David also played at Ford­son High, and David, who has re­mained in fi­nance, is an as­sis­tant coach at Dear­born Heights Crest­wood High.

When he was 5, Robert be­gan fill­ing his falls with foot­ball as a wa­ter boy for David’s pee-wee team. But Robert fig­ured his 17-year re­la­tion­ship with the sport was fin­ished af­ter he was a four-year starter in col­lege at Di­vi­sion II North­ern Michi­gan.

And that’s what was ex­pected in his com­mu­nity. In Dear­born, which has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of Arab Amer­i­cans in the United States, sta­bil­ity and prox­im­ity are prized. Robert, the son of Le­banese par­ents, was work­ing less than 30 miles away from home at Comer­ica.

“We come from a very closeknit com­mu­nity,” said Brian Mos­al­lam, a Dear­born na­tive and close friend of the Salehs who helped Robert get into coach­ing. “It’s a very in­su­lar com­mu­nity where we are al­ways around fam­ily. So what Robert did was very dif­fer­ent. Our kids don’t go away and live in eight cities in six years.”

Robert missed foot­ball. And he might have lived with his empti­ness, if not for his fa­ther’s ex­pe­ri­ence. Sam still re­grets de­clin­ing an of­fer to be grad­u­ate-as­sis­tant coach at East­ern Michi­gan be­cause, as Robert says, he chose to “chase money.” Robert de­cided to chase the sport he felt rud­der­less with­out.

“I’d be in my cu­bi­cle and think, ‘I’m not sup­posed to be here,’ ” he said. “And I fi­nally reached a break­ing point. I knew if I went into coach­ing, I’d lose my girl­friend, I’d have to leave home and I wouldn’t have any money. I just reached a point where I didn’t care. I wasn’t go­ing to live with the re­gret.”

The prob­lem: How to get a coach­ing job.

Robert and David en­listed the help of their coach at Ford­son, Jeff Ster­galas, and a group of for­mer Michi­gan State foot­ball play­ers that in­cluded their un­cle and Mos­al­lam. The ex­play­ers made calls to their alma mater on Robert’s be­half, while won­der­ing: What was the kid think­ing?

“He could have done very well (fi­nan­cially) and I just thought he was wast­ing his time, quite frankly,” said Mos­al­lam, 43, a fi­nan­cial ad­viser who is on Michi­gan State’s board of trustees. “I just thought it was a crazy de­ci­sion.”

Robert Saleh knew many thought he was fool­ish. Be­fore he landed a job as a grad­u­ate as­sis­tant at Michi­gan State, he was dis­cour­aged from tak­ing the job dur­ing his in­ter­views. Mike Vollmer, who played at Ford­son and worked in MSU’s foot­ball per­son­nel depart­ment, was briefed on Saleh by their high school coach.

“He told me, ‘Ster­galas told me you’d be overly pre­pared,’ ” Saleh said, laugh­ing. “‘You don’t want to do this. You can make so much money in bank­ing.’ ”

In­stead, Saleh made $650 a month dur­ing his two sea­sons in East Lans­ing and lived with his un­cle’s for­mer MSU team­mate, John Shin­sky, 65, and his wife, Cindy.

Saleh re­peat­edly says it took a “vil­lage” for him to beat long odds. The Shin­skys took him in (“You talk about a god­send,” he says), his par­ents gave him their bless­ing and fi­nan­cial sup­port and his first door opened be­cause of a flood of calls on his be­half.

At some point, though, he had to prove he could coach. And he slowly rose through the ranks with a blend of cre­ativ­ity and abil­ity.

In 2004, he drove to Cen­tral Michi­gan and showed up unan­nounced at head coach Brian Kelly’s of­fice to ask for a job. He hoped Kelly would re­mem­ber re­cruit­ing him seven years ear­lier. Kelly did, but he had bad news: He could only of­fer him a de­fen­sive grad­u­ate as­sis­tant po­si­tion that paid $700 a month. Saleh’s re­ac­tion: A raise? “I said, ‘OK, that’s great. I’ll take it!’ ” Saleh said, laugh­ing.

His de­ci­sion quickly paid off. A year later, Saleh landed in the NFL based on the rec­om­men­da­tion of Tex­ans de­fen­sive backs coach Tony Oden, a for­mer as­sis­tant at Cen­tral Michi­gan.

Saleh’s po­si­tion: de­fen­sive in­tern. His salary: $5.25 an hour.

It was the start of a six-year stint in Hous­ton dur­ing which he was pro­moted to qual­ity con­trol coach (2006-08) and as­sis­tant lineback­ers coach (2009-10). He went to Seat­tle as a de­fen­sive qual­ity con­trol coach (2011-13) be­fore serv­ing as Jack­sonville’s lineback­ers coach from 2014-16.

Dur­ing his for­ma­tive years in Hous­ton, Saleh im­pressed de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Richard Smith, whose strong rec­om­men­da­tion landed him in Seat­tle, and then-Tex­ans of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Kyle Shana­han. The 49ers’ head coach hired Saleh in Fe­bru­ary af­ter Saleh pre­sented him with a bulging binder that painstak­ingly de­tailed his plan for his first nine months on the job.

“I had this co­or­di­na­tor book,” Saleh said. “And Kyle grabbed it and was like ‘Geez.’ ”

Saleh also made an im­pres­sion years ago on 49ers lineback­ers coach Johnny Hol­land, a for­mer NFL player who spent five sea­sons with Saleh in Hous­ton. Hol­land isn’t sur­prised the for­mer in­tern is now his boss.

“Back then, I knew he was spe­cial — such a smart and de­tailed guy,” Hol­land said. “Robert will be a great de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in this league. And there’s no doubt he’ll be a head coach in this league.”

About his smarts: De­spite no for­mal train­ing, Saleh has a near-ex­pert chess rat­ing, and he also taught him­self Vizio, the com­puter pro­gram NFL teams had start­ing us­ing for their play­books when he en­tered the league.

As a low-level as­sis­tant, he stood out be­cause of his abil­ity to pro­duce moun­tains of work in a rel­a­tively short time. And Saleh’s tech savvi­ness gave Shin­sky, who ini­tially ques­tioned Saleh’s ca­reer choice, the first inkling that Michi­gan State’s new grad­u­ate as­sis­tant coach might have a fu­ture.

“Robert would come home every night from work and get on his com­puter to get plays set up,” Shin­sky said. “He was so good with tech­nol­ogy and that re­ally en­hanced his op­por­tu­nity be­cause he pre­sented ev­ery­thing in an or­ga­nized and de­tailed way.”

Saleh is a long way from liv­ing in the Shin­skys’ up­stairs bed­room. And he’s even fur­ther re­moved from the day he called his brother cry­ing hys­ter­i­cally.

“It just came down to: I could make money,” Saleh said, “or coach foot­ball.”

Fif­teen years later, it was noted that he’s cur­rently do­ing both.

“Knock on wood,” he said. “It’s been good so far.”

Michael Za­garis / Getty Images

The 49ers’ Robert Saleh took an un­con­ven­tional path to be­com­ing the team’s de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor.

Paul Chinn / The Chron­i­cle

49ers de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Robert Saleh is known for be­ing mo­ti­vated, de­tai­lo­ri­ented, and tech savvy.

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