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Pregame: Unusual Paths to the NFL


To say that the New York Jets have some coaches on their staff with unusual resumes might be an understatement, but maybe that's just more of a commentary on the mercurial path followed by many an NFL assistant.

Eight years ago, Doug Plank, the Jets' assistant secondary coach and the former head coach of the Arena Football League's Georgia Force, owned 20 Burger King franchises and worked as a radio broadcaster for the AFL team in Phoenix. At the same time, Jets' defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was coaching North Penn High School in Lansdale, Pa. Former Falcons defensive lineman Chuck Smith was out of the NFL and soon to begin a radio career.

That's when life began taking all of them back towards the NFL. Plank was given the opportunity by former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White, head coach of the Phoenix AFL team, to join his coaching staff and Plank accepted. In 2005, Plank came to Atlanta as head coach of the Georgia Force where he was the league's coach of the year in 2005 and his team posted the best record in the league in 2007. Last season, he worked as the Falcons' seasonal assistant coach in Mike Smith's first season. Plank had nothing but praise for Smith.

"I really give Coach Smith a lot of respect because when he was first hired he immediately came to my office and introduced himself and just said, 'Doug if there's anything I can do for you, please let me know,' " Plank said via phone on Friday. "Shortly after that I talked to him about being part of his staff and he was in complete agreement that there was something I could do, as far as the football team was concerned, and really gave me total freedom to get involved any aspect of his team."

Plank, 56, played eight seasons in the NFL from 1975 to 1982 as a defensive back known for his hitting and that's where he forged a bond with legendary Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Ryan was constantly experimenting with defenses and he'd name them after players. Plank wore No. 46 and so Ryan named his famed "46" defense after Plank. Ryan joined the Bears in 1978, which is when Plank first met Ryan's son Rex, then age 15, and now the Jets' first-year head coach.

Because of the strong personal bond that Plank has with the Ryan family – he got back into football because he happened to be in Phoenix when Buddy Ryan was introduced as the Cardinals' head coach and general manager in 1994 and was offered a radio position on the team's broadcasts on the spot after stopping by team offices to congratulate his former coach – Plank asked Smith if he could explore a position on Rex Ryan's staff as soon as the Jets hired Ryan.

"Obviously, I was hoping when the season ended that because of the relationship I had with Rex's father and family and that I had with Rex, if he were chosen to be the head coach, he is a person and that is a system I wanted to be a part of," Plank said. "When he was hired I immediately contacted and expressed my interest in being part of the staff. Fortunately I was able to do that. It's exactly what I anticipated. He's really been a pleasure to coach for. The manner in which he runs the organization from a football perspective, there were no surprises. Rex had the history of being successful coordinator [with the Baltimore Ravens] that would translate and I certainly thought that would happen."

In Pettine, the Jets' defensive coordinator, the Jets also have an interesting story. It might not be often that someone who has the job that Pettine does might still be partially in his father's shadow, but in suburban Philadelphia, Mike Pettine Sr. was a legend. At Central Bucks West High School&t=h "Central Bucks High School West") in Doylestown, Pa., Pettine Sr. was the state's second-winningest coach in state history with a record of 326-42-4. When he retired in January 2000 at age 59, his teams had won three straight state titles in Pennsylvania's largest classification and 45 straight games. His teams also posted a 53-game unbeaten streak that began in the late '80s. In 33 seasons, he had 16 unbeaten seasons.

Rex Ryan and Pettine Jr., who became the Ravens' quality control coach in 2002 and first met Rex Ryan then, share the bond of growing up under legendary fathers.

"Mike Pettine, I think is going to be a star in this league," Rex Ryan said. "He's a defensive coordinator, been with me a long time. He's a very smart guy. He's similar to Mike Smith there, a guy that's way ahead of the game. Mike Smith was the best computer guy I had ever been around, really was terrific in that. And Mike Pettine has taken it even up a notch from where Mike Smith had that and I'm sure Mike Smith would tell you that.

"But he's really advanced that way and he's going to be an outstanding coach just like Mike Smith. You knew Mike Smith was going to be a great coach. You feel the same way about Mike Pettine."

In 1999, Pettine's North Penn High team was the subject of an ESPN documentary called "The Season." That team went 11-2 with its only two losses coming to his father's teams at Central Bucks West. In 2001, Pettine's final season at North Penn, his father joined his staff.

"The thing you know about Mike Pettine, knowing him in high school, and stuff like that, I watched those series following him and his high school and he was the guy I never wanted my son to play for," Rex Ryan said, laughing, "but, really, the way he was back then. To be honest with you, it's not a true reflection of who he is. This guy is a tremendous, tremendous coach. And he really cares about his players, puts his players in a great job to be successful and I really think he's going to be a star in this league one day."

So just as the outspoken Ryan is a character out of the usual mold of NFL coaches, so are some of his coaches like former Falcon and 790 The Zone personality Chuck Smith, who is the team's pass rushing consultant. And while the Jets (7-6) need the victory to keep alive their playoff hopes, it also has more special meaning for Plank.

"Does this game mean something more to me than last week's game against Tampa? Yes it does," Plank said. "It's hard to spend many, many hours with the Falcons and their coaches and not feel some connection. And I want to win. I don't really want anything bad to happen to anybody. It's just human nature. You want to compete and do well against individuals that you've worked for or played against. This game is important, especially the way the season is unfolding for us. It's a very pivotal game to have any chance to compete for the playoffs, a very, very important game for me."


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