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Protégé Staley meets mentor Fangio in key AFC West game

Staley recalls league-entering interview with Fangio in vivid detail.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Just five years ago, Brandon Staley was finishing up his second season at John Carroll University, a football program that would be unknown if it hadn’t peculiarly produced so many future NFL coaches and executives.

Staley was a 33-year-old, second-year defensive coordinator there and as it so happened he had been a distant disciple of the Vic Fangio defense. A couple months later, in early 2017, Staley was granted an interview with his defensive coaching hero. Fangio, as defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, was looking for an outside linebackers coach.

“I like to let them do a lot of the talking rather than me asking a ton of questions,’’ Fangio said of his interview technique. “Just how they would be as a teacher teaching their position. I kind of do it that way and then let it take off from there.”

Today, Staley is the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers who play Fangio’s Broncos this Sunday in a potentially pivotal AFC West Division game at Empower Field at Mile High. Asked to recall his interview that brought him into the NFL and started his meteoric rise, Staley delivered a 2 minute, 55-second answer in a conference call Wednesday afternoon with the Denver media.

“The advantage I had was I had been studying Vic for a long time,’’ Staley said. “When I was in junior college, defensive coordinator at Hutchins Community College in Kansas, that’s when Vic was at Stanford.’’

That was the 2010 season. Staley was 27 years old then. Fangio in one year took a Stanford defense that ranked 69th in points allowed in 2009 to 10th in his one season of running the Cardinal defense in 2010.

“I just remember thinking, how did this guy do this?’’ Staley said. “I didn’t know who he was. And just started following him then.’’

Fangio followed Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL and San Francisco in 2011. The 49ers defense ranked 16th in points allowed the year before Fangio took charge. It ranked No. 2, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 10 in scoring defense in his four seasons from 2011-14. And then No. 18 the year after he left.

“What I tried to do in the interview was show the installs I had of him in San Francisco with my clips of John Carroll and other places, and try to catch his eye and let him know that I’d been studying, that I’d been doing the work,’’ Staley said. “I think that’s something that Vic appreciates. You guys know how detailed, how specific and how intense he is about preparation and I think I was able to catch his eye because he knew how far back I went and he knew it was real and how hard I’d been working.’’

No wonder Staley got the job. Communicating a deep devotion to the teachings of the interviewer will help the interviewee get the job every time. Problem was, Staley had no idea how well his interview was going with his silent interviewer.

“The interview was tough because if you know Vic he didn’t give me any feedback,’’ Staley said. “I mean, at all. There was no expression. No sort of energy one way or the other. I just felt like I was just talking.

“I had a lot of stuff prepared and I was going through it and kind of looked at him and said, ‘We good?’ And we’d go to the next thing. We took a break and I talked to a couple of the guys that were on the staff and they kind of asked me how it’s going and I was like, ‘Well, he hasn’t said anything at all.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, that’s a good sign.’

After the break, Fangio came back and started talking. He’s not naturally a great conversationalist but in Staley, he had a captive audience about his defensive principles.

“When you study something from afar you don’t have the intimate knowledge,’’ Staley said. “You think you know what you see and you have a strong sense of it but he was able to unlock some details for me where you’re like, “Oh man.” It kind of changes you.

“And I knew he wasn’t unlocking those details unless I was getting the job. It was a great feeling leaving Chicago that day knowing that I was going to have an opportunity to work and learn from him. It was certainly an opportunity of a lifetime and I was ready for it and that’s why I was able to knock it down because as you guys know with Vic, he’s a tough customer. He’s not going to just offer jobs to anybody so it was certainly a moment that changed me and I’m forever grateful.”

Staley spent two years as Fangio’s outside linebackers coach in Chicago then followed him to Denver to take the same job with the Broncos in 2019. Fangio’s defense had always impressed Los Angeles Rams’ offensive guru and head coach Sean McVay to the point he hired Staley away to be his defensive coordinator.

The Rams went from No. 13 in total defense, No. 17 in scoring defense in 2019 to No. 1 in both categories in Staley’s first season of 2020. That got Staley the Chargers’  head job just four years after his league-entering interview with Fangio.

“I knew he had the good ability to be a really good coach,’’ Fangio said. “For me to predict that he would be a head coach four years later—I didn’t predict that, but I knew Brandon had special abilities as a coach. He had a really good understanding of the game on both sides of the ball. I was really happy to hire him and thought he would progress very well, and he did.”

Staley’s Chargers are 6-4 and a 2.5-point, road favorite for the game Sunday against Fangio’s 5-5 Broncos.

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