FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The phone calls came in rapid-fire succession: One, two, three. Each one delivered the same message.
Adam Gase was three years out of college, making a $12,000 salary as a recruiting intern for LSU. His dream was a career in football, scouting or coaching, but he didn’t have enough money to pay his college loans and career advancement was going to be difficult because he wasn’t a former jock with a big name to open doors. His father, concerned about his future, started asking some dad questions. You know the kind: Is it time to get a real job?
Gase had reached a crossroad in his life, and you might say it was the corner of East Pickard and South Isabella Roads in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan — home of Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill + Bar. He made the two-hour drive from his parents’ home in Marshall to meet at the restaurant with one of his father’s friends in the insurance business — a job interview. It was tempting. The starting salary was $38,000, with the promise of flexible hours and business meetings on the golf course.
Sell insurance, settle down to a steady life. Gase considered the offer.
Then his phone started ringing.
A football obsession
Six months removed from one of the most awkward introductory news conferences in NFL history, Gase is poised to begin his first training camp as head coach of the New York Jets, a wayward franchise that hasn’t reached the Super Bowl in a half-century. His objective is to disprove the theory that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and he knows the best way — the only way — is to win. If he supplies a partner for the lonely Lombardi in the Jets’ trophy case, the wandering-eye memes from the presser will be history and he will be a New York legend.
“I don’t do it for that; that’s not me,” he said in his office at One Jets Drive, insisting he doesn’t want to be a coaching star. “That’s why I look like a f—— jackass in press conferences and stuff like that. I like seeing [the players] reap the benefits. That’s what I love. I love being out there with those guys and watching those guys eat that stuff up and get better, and have success. That’s the fun part for me.”
Gase never was good enough to be a player — he and the Denver Broncos’ Vic Fangio are the only current NFL head coaches who didn’t play college ball — but he believes he was put on this earth to make players better. Though he can’t reach them by showing off his old varsity letters or punching up his highlight films in a team meeting, he can impress them with his knowledge and relentless drive, two traits that have carried him from anonymous grunt to NFL head coach.
“I just stuck around. I just kept doing stuff. I said, ‘I’m going to make them kick me out.’ I just never got kicked out.” Adam Gase on working his way up the coaching ladder
At each step of his journey, Gase discovered that being “annoying as s—,” as he put it, has value. Whatever he was doing, whether it was serving as Nick Saban’s gofer at Michigan State or calling plays for Peyton Manning in Denver, he hung around the office and tried to outwork everybody. He knew that offered his best chance to break into (and later excel) in a fraternity that doesn’t accept too many non-jock football nerds. Except for that one trip to Applebee’s in 2003 — his only moment of hesitation — his singular focus for the past 23 years has been football.
“It was pretty obvious to me the guy had a really, really good work ethic,” Saban told ESPN. “[He was] very bright, really a quick learner when it came to football concepts and things that make good coaches. He was extremely loyal to the people he worked with. … I recognized right away this guy is going to be a very good coach someday. He continually worked his way up and has proven, I think, that he’s been fairly successful.”
Gase’s obsession with the sport started at Marshall High, where he played wide receiver for Rich Hulkow. He quickly realized he didn’t have the athletic ability to play beyond high school — “He wasn’t a ham-and-egger, but he wasn’t an all-stater, either,” Hulkow recalled — so Gase focused on the cerebral side.
A stats-hungry kid who studied baseball box scores, Gase helped the coaches by breaking down game film. By Monday’s team meeting, he’d have every play catalogued on a computer spreadsheet. Hulkow said Gase was the only player in his 35 years of coaching who did anything like that. He was so impressed with his diligence that he recommended him to Michigan State assistant Dean Pees, who came to the school to recruit All-American quarterback Ryan Van Dyke. Their conversation went something like this:
Hulkow: “There’s a kid here you guys really need.”
Pees: “Yeah, Ryan Van Dyke.”
Hulkow: “No, Adam Gase.”
Pees was introduced to Gase, gave him a business card and told him to stop by the football office when he arrived on campus that fall as a freshman. He did exactly that. After he moved into his dorm, Gase walked across the street to the football building and flashed Pees’ card to the secretary. After waiting an hour, he finally got in to see Pees, who assigned a daunting project. He handed Gase a two-inch binder of the 1994 Cleveland Browns’ playcalling tendencies, and he wanted him to replicate that in an Excel program. Gase used the laptop he received as a graduation gift.
And so it began.
Gase became an undergraduate assistant, a four-year gig during which he immersed himself in the world of football minutiae. His job after each game was to type the call sheets — down, distance, play call — into a computer program and print it for the coaches. He worked out of his dorm room, but his personal printer was too slow to handle the 90-page assignments. He started to spend more time in the football office, meeting people and working 12-14 hours some days. On game day, he sat in the coaches’ box and wrote the opponents’ defensive formations on cards.
“I just stuck around,” Gase said. “I just kept doing stuff. I said, ‘I’m going to make them kick me out.’ I just never got kicked out.”
Gase went to Michigan State to study mechanical engineering but changed majors because he couldn’t maintain a passing GPA and stay involved in the football program. His unofficial degree choice was a Bachelor of Football Science, and everybody knew it. A typical weekend night, according to friends: Gase — known by friends as “Goose” — got home around 11 p.m. after a long work day, hung out to drink a couple of beers and would be up and gone early the next morning while everybody was sleeping. There was always film to break down and there were always plays to input into the system.
“That’s all I did in college,” he said. “I almost failed out of college because of that, but it was worth it. I feel like I went to college for this.”
This consumed his life. At Sparty, Gase lived a Spartan lifestyle. One of his college buddies, Jeff Sablack, said Gase’s wardrobe consisted of five gray T-shirts and five pairs of jeans. He said it stayed that way until Gase met his future wife, Jennifer. His primary mission at State was to serve Saban, hoping to make an impression on a coach who was going places. Gase was a 24/7 grinder.
“I think the guys that came up that way — that’s how I came up with Don James — I think they make the best coaches,” said Saban, who has won six national championships, including five at Alabama. “You come up the hard way, so you have a lot of appreciation for the opportunities you get.”
Gase said Saban spoke to him only once his freshman year. There was a chance meeting in a hallway, where Saban asked, “Hey, are you the kid who does the self-scout?” Gase nodded. Saban pointed out a mistake in one of his reports, an error with one of the defensive fronts.
“Oh my God,” Gase thought to himself, “I’m done.”
He wasn’t done. He was just getting started, actually.
When Saban took the LSU job in 2000, he hired Gase as a graduate assistant — the only person on his Michigan State staff to accompany him to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At LSU, he learned an important lesson from safety Ryan Clark, who would go on to a 13-year career in the NFL. Clark kept picking his brain, and he wondered why a proven starter would be interested in listening to a GA with no playing experience. Clark told him his informational nuggets were helping him make two or three extra plays per game.
Gase’s takeaway: Players will listen to anyone, whether it’s a former player or former mechanical engineering student, if the knowledge makes them better.
“Ryan Clark helped me gain a lot of confidence,” Gase said. “That was a huge stepping stone for me.”
Gase flunked out of the LSU graduate program because, well, he didn’t go to many classes. He stayed on as a recruiting intern, but the money wasn’t great. He was 25 years old, feeling stagnant. The opportunity in insurance sales opened up, and soon he was on his way to Applebee’s for the interview.
A turning point in his life.
Even though he spent a good chunk of his Michigan State years as one of Saban’s anonymous grunts, “Goose” made a few good friends outside the football society. He managed to have fun, too. As a senior, he lived in a house where the living room included an inflatable pool — their happy place for TV-watching. Anyway, those friends — namely, Sablack, Scott Angove and Nate Lambertson — rallied together when they heard Gase was contemplating a career change. They weren’t going to let him go through with it and each made his call: One, two, three.
“Everybody has a dream, and his dream was football,” Sablack said. “I understood the situation, but he was with Nick Saban. Obviously, Saban saw something in him. Me, Scott and Nate, we were dead serious. We told him, ‘We’ll drive 18 hours [to Louisiana] and beat you to death if you don’t stay.'”
Recalling the decision, Gase said, “My buddies from college were like, ‘Are you crazy? Do it until you can’t. Do not sell insurance.’ I was like, you know what? They’re right. Screw it, I’m gonna keep grinding on this thing.”
He stayed — not at LSU, but in football. He landed an internship in the personnel department with his hometown Detroit Lions, making $1,000 per month and living with his aunt and uncle outside the city. He made extra money on Sunday nights, 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., digitizing and cataloguing the game tapes that came in from the rest of the league.
“I think the guys that came up that way — that’s how I came up with Don James — I think they make the best coaches. You come up the hard way, so you have a lot of appreciation for the opportunities you get.” Nick Saban on Adam Gase’s humble start as a football coach
It was in Detroit where he discovered his passion for coaching. He craved interaction with players, and he wasn’t getting that in the personnel department. Once again, he made himself “annoying as s—,” bugging the coaches for a chance. Running backs coach Tom Rathman opened his door to Gase, assigning him projects. One of them was Artose Pinner, a running back who struggled to learn in the classroom setting. Gase worked with him one-on-one, serving as his personal tutor.
It also was in Detroit where he was introduced to Mike Martz, who became a coaching mentor. The Lions’ offensive coordinator, Martz gave Gase his first coaching job, putting him in charge of the quarterbacks in 2007. Not only did he learn Martz’s aggressive passing concepts, which he still employs today, but Gase marveled at the way Martz handled himself in front of the team.
“He just had this sweet swagger about him,” he said of Martz, who was several years removed from his “Greatest Show on Turf” days with the St. Louis Rams. “It was really cool to be around.”
Gase said his own confidence “soared through the roof” from being around Martz, a working relationship that continued in 2008, when he moved on to the San Francisco 49ers. From there, Gase experienced his Manning years in Denver, where the offense set records and he made his bones as a legitimate head-coaching prospect.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, Peyton Manning, anybody can coach him,'” former Denver coach John Fox said. “Not really true. All quarterbacks want answers, and Adam did a fantastic job of giving him answers.”
Gase’s big opportunity came in 2016, when he was hired by the Miami Dolphins and led them to their first playoff appearance in eight years. After the promising start, it went sideways and he was fired after last season. Looking back, Gase said, “that was between me and the owner [Stephen Ross]. That’s on me.”
He walked into a similar situation with the Jets, another franchise desperate for success. Their eight-year playoff drought is the third-longest active streak in the league. They’re hoping Gase, with his offensive background and headstrong personality, can rebuild the losing culture.
Gase has been touched by greatness in his career, from Saban to Martz to Manning, and now it’s time to fulfill the potential he demonstrated all those years ago. An early power struggle, resulting in the ouster of general manager Mike Maccagnan in May, only intensified the spotlight. Gase was portrayed as a conniving control freak, which he disputes. Amid the tumult, he got his man, Joe Douglas, whom he describes as his football soulmate.
“Joe D. is the best, man,” Gase said. “The thing that impressed me was how much coaches respect him, because coaches think they know f—— everything. They don’t say that about Joe. They say he knows players. When offensive line coaches say a scout is a really good offensive line evaluator, that’s, like, rare. You don’t hear that a bunch. They say this guy is as good as it gets when it comes to quarterbacks and offensive line evaluation. That’s the key to everything.”
At 41, already a veteran of 16 years in the NFL, Gase still doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring. He came close once, reaching Super Bowl XLVIII after the 2013 season, but the Broncos were blown out by the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8. It was one of the low points of Gase’s career, and it happened in his new home, MetLife Stadium.
“I was this close to being part of a Super Bowl championship team, and we got our ass stomped,” he said. “Like, we were never in the game. I want to get back there. I want to win one so bad. That’s the pressure I put on myself.”
After a few uneven months on his new job, Gase can get back to football, back to the grind that first enraptured him as a teenager and carried him from gofer to the top of his profession, with only one temporary detour.
That fateful day at Applebee’s.