Chargers’ new leader a family man: ‘I am from the Bruce and Linda Staley coaching tree’
It was a single line — just 10 words — from a news conference that stretched beyond an hour and a half:
“I am from the Bruce and Linda Staley coaching tree.”
When Detroit unveiled its new head coach on Jan. 21, the guy talked about biting kneecaps and kicking teeth, Dan Campbell’s bizarre fit of passion stirring national attention.
On the same day, just a short time later, almost no one noticed when Brandon Staley was introduced by the Chargers and talked about his mom and dad, calling them “my heroes.”
This is a coach whose first NFL job came with the 2017 Chicago Bears and noted defensive mind Vic Fangio.
When he was coaching collegiately at John Carroll, Staley was so enamored with Fangio’s concepts that he would finish his meetings and game-planning, and rush off to study whatever Fangio was up to next.
Back then, Fangio was San Francisco’s defensive coordinator and catching the 49ers on television in Ohio sometimes meant having to go to a nearby sports bar, where Staley would sit alone in wonderment.
After the 2018 season, Fangio left Chicago to become the head coach in Denver and took two assistants with him. One of them was Staley.
Barely a year later, Staley was hired by the Rams to be their defensive coordinator and brought along everything he had learned from his handpicked mentor.
Still, when asked to declare his roots, Staley put family over football, which is understandable given how much this family, bonded by hard reality, has persevered together and kept alive a tradition of teaching.
“I am from the Bruce and Linda Staley coaching tree.”
That is Brandon Staley’s line and this is the story behind that line.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley says he has been preparing for this job since he was a kid, always thinking about the day he and the NFL would meet.
Everyone else saw him coaching Jalen Ramsey that day, in a moment especially poignant and peeved.
Television cameras showed Staley reasoning with the Rams’ all-everything cornerback shortly after Green Bay had taken a one-touchdown lead on an Aaron Rodgers pass.
Ramsey, his team en route to a crushing 32-18 NFC divisional-round playoff loss last month, was visibly upset on the field and now well short of pleased on the sideline.
Sitting at home just outside Pittsburgh, nearly 700 miles from Lambeau Field, Jason Staley watched his twin brother coaching, too, but saw something else entirely.
He saw the woman whose impact was so profound on the Chargers’ new coach that it resonates still today, nearly 17 years after her death.
“Watching Brandon teach those guys, I get a little bit of my mom back,” Jason said. “I get to see that, and it’s just so cool. It’s the reason I pay whatever DIRECTV charges me to get his games.”
Linda Staley taught sixth-grade English in northeast Ohio before the breast cancer won, ending her 9½-year battle against a disease doctors estimated would take her life in less than one year.
Bruce Staley also was a teacher — fourth-grade math — before he and Linda learned their first child instead would be children, twin boys. A combined annual income of $22,000 wasn’t going to work for a household about to double in size.
So Bruce took a second job that eventually became a second career in adhesive materials. He was a coach, too, mostly AAU basketball, working with the twins from fifth grade through their junior years at Perry High, about a 45-minute drive from Cleveland.
He always had an even, measured demeanor on the bench and an equally steady point guard on the floor, Brandon possessing sublime ball-handling skills and the sort of passing ability that led to him setting assist records in high school.
Two decades later, while watching the Rams play the Packers, Jason said he laughed more than once at the images of his brother at work.
“He looks like my dad, kind of stalking the basketball sideline,” Jason, 38, said. “It’s like a flashback: ‘That’s my dad. That’s what he would do.’ ”
Brandon knew only two positions growing up: point guard and quarterback. He was the sort of player who almost never was taken out of a game. He was athletic but — at 6 feet, 160 pounds — there just wasn’t enough of him.
So he ended up at Dayton, which plays non-scholarship football, arriving as a fifth- or sixth-stringer. During that first year, buried on the depth chart, Brandon attempted to walk on to the school’s Division I basketball team. He made the final two before being cut.
He’d end up starting for two seasons in football, operating the Flyers’ option offense, being voted a captain and winning 16 of 21 games.
“He was as good as any player we had on the chalkboard,” said Mike Kelly, Dayton’s coach at the time. “He would always ask why. Most athletes don’t ask why. It’s, ‘OK, Coach, got it,’ and they just go to it. Brandon wanted to know why all the time.”
As the Chargers’ new offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi says he will build around Justin Herbert and apply what he learned during a doomed stint with the Detroit Lions.
The call to return home came during Brandon’s junior year. It was his father. Mom was dying. Originally diagnosed with 21 cancerous lymph nodes, Linda’s fight had been an extended and courageous one.
The disease showed up when the twins were 11 and not quite two months after they’d lost an aunt, Ann Maltarich, also to breast cancer. The first two years weren’t as bad as the seven that followed as Linda’s condition intensified, even as she long outlived the forecasts.
“An incredible will,” said Bruce, a two-time cancer survivor himself. “Nothing ever negative, either. Not a ‘why me’ kind of thing. Incredible resolve. Just graceful. That’s what I saw.”
Linda would spend weeks at a time in the hospital, typically isolated and communicating with her three children — the Staleys have a younger son, Michael — mostly through journals the boys would write.
So they didn’t always see the pain, but seeing the struggle was as unavoidable as the sound of their mother in the bathroom getting sick again. Jason said he never saw his father cry, those tears also coming only in private.
“That kind of fight leaves a mark,” Jason said. “As kids, you see that and there’s no way that doesn’t affect you. When you think back to how they handled it and how she fought, those are the things that empower us.”
At his introductory news conference, Brandon called his mother “the most graceful, loving, strongest person I know.” He also said she remains his inspiration today “as a coach, as a father, as a husband.”
He didn’t include “as a teacher” but only because there’s little difference between teaching and coaching to Brandon, who became more than a son to Linda after she was diagnosed. He and his brothers also became her students.
‘I think once they lost their mom, they really realized the value of family and time’
Mercyhurst College football coach Marty Schaetzle
No longer able to work, Linda taught her sons instead, showing them the importance of building relationships with students and recognizing how each one learns and then using that foundation to build something special.
“She’s the best teacher I’ve ever seen, certainly,” Brandon said. “She was always able to reach people that were more difficult to reach. Seeing that up close when I was a little kid, I saw the power in that. I’ve tried to embody a lot of that as a coach.”
The lesson remains powerful today and so, too, does the memory of Linda’s goodbye. Jason said the turnout at her funeral was eye-opening in the number of lives his mother touched, all that love expressed after she died on Valentine’s Day 2004.
Two busloads of players arrived from Dayton and two more from Mercyhurst College, where Jason played linebacker and was student body vice president. Jason that day even had to help a few of his teammates tie their ties.
Brandon Staley’s introductory news conference revealed little about the man whose rise into the Chargers’ head coaching job remains a bit of a mystery.
“You would have thought the funeral was for a superstar,” Bruce, 63, said. “The line to get in this place was unbelievable. It was more than you could have hoped for. I’m sure she would have been thrilled.”
Mercyhurst is a small liberal arts school in Erie, Pa., hardly known for its athletes but famous for its underdog. Former heavyweight champion Buster Douglas was recruited to play basketball for the Lakers in the early 1980s before giving up hoops for boxing.
In 2005, the school was home to another long shot — a reunion of the Staley twins, Brandon transferring to play football with his brother one final time, both now graduate students.
They lived together and worked out together, even took a class together. Jason had considered not using his final season of eligibility, but Brandon talked him out of it.
Marty Schaetzle wrote all about the twins that season for one of the school’s game-day programs. He knew their story well since Schaetzle also is the Lakers’ football coach.
“I think once they lost their mom, they really realized the value of family and time,” he said. “I think they believed it would be a very good thing to play one more time together. We were fortunate to be able to make that happen.”
Brandon practically dragged Jason to watch film with him and catch his passes. As one of the team’s new captains, Jason had no choice but go along, refusing to be outworked by someone who had just arrived on campus.
He also had no interest in looking bad in front of his big brother. See, Brandon is the older twin, by two minutes. Still, there were times when big brother was almost too driven.
Brandon Staley, the former Rams defensive coordinator who was hired as the Chargers’ new head coach, has had a meteoric rise in the NFL coaching ranks.
“He was a classroom rat, a film rat,” Schaetzle recalled of Brandon. “It was natural for him to try to put everything together, from the protections to the routes to what was going on in the backfield. It came to him very naturally.”
By that point, Brandon was on his coaching path and, the next year, was a graduate assistant at Northern Illinois. Those 2006 Huskies made the Poinsettia Bowl.
It was on that trip to San Diego that the night sweats and the flu-like symptoms turned worse. Brandon, who also had a growth in his chest, called his dad, and Bruce remembers telling him, “You need to get home and get home now.”
The doctors determined it was lymphoma.
“As a twin brother, it’s the worst day of your life, scariest moment of your life,” Jason said. “I’m feeling guilty because I don’t have it. I would have given anything, anything to take that cancer out of him and put it into me.”
These twins would eventually serve as each other’s best man. They got engaged only two weeks apart and married just six weeks from one another.
They competed plenty as kids but, more often, teamed up. Brandon was always the better athlete. Yet, to this day, the only thing that really bothers Jason is the fact that Brandon, despite being an inch shorter, was the one who could dunk a basketball.
Brandon now calls the six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation that followed his “cancer journey.” He phoned his twin brother after every treatment, reassuring Jason that things would work out, the patient also the healer.
As a former college quarterback evolved into an NFL defensive coordinator, Brandon has been touted for his ability to see football from both sides. His vision goes even deeper than that.
“I looked at it as a chance to compete,” Brandon said of his diagnosis. “It was a chance that could really bring out all the best in me. When you get to the other side of it, there’s an energy, there’s a strength, there’s a feeling that you can do anything that you dream of. That’s what I’ve been trying to do every day since.”
And now, he’s the Chargers’ head coach, a young, sharp leader ready to pair with Justin Herbert, the team’s young, sharp quarterback.
Brandon’s first call after accepting the job was to his wife, Amy. His second was to Herbert.
On the day he was introduced by the Chargers, Brandon called Herbert again, this time for a video chat, explaining later that he wanted to loop in his quarterback as a way of gaining Herbert’s trust.
The call included not only Brandon but also Amy and couple’s three young sons — Colin, Will and Grant.
“That meant a lot to me,” Herbert said. “He had so many other things to do that day. To set aside some time like that was special. I thought that was a pretty cool moment.”
They talked family and relationships before they talked football, this disciple of Vic Fangio leaning instead on the lessons from home, the lessons taught by his most favorite of teachers.
At the Perry Cemetery, a family friend recently hung a Chargers lanyard over Linda’s gravestone and sent the twins a photo.
Thinking back to his mother, Brandon said, “She’s not here, but she’s with me.”
And that won’t change anytime soon, not for someone who comes from a coaching tree carved from his family tree.
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