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Matt LaFleur vs. Robert Saleh: Close friends vying for a spot in the Super Bowl

On the morning of their most important recruiting weekend of the season, Central Michigan’s football coaches awoke to an unwelcome sight.

A powerful overnight storm had buried the campus in more than a foot of snow, hardly the ideal backdrop for wooing out-of-state prospects accustomed to warmer weather.

The unenviable task of clearing the snow fell to the two lowest-ranking members of the coaching staff. At daybreak, graduate assistants Matt LaFleur and Robert Saleh emerged from the sparsely furnished apartment they shared, clad in jackets and gloves and armed with snow shovels and rock salt. 

They began by removing the snow from head coach Brian Kelly’s driveway and sidewalk so that no recruit or family member would slip when they arrived. They later cleared the midfield logo at the football stadium so that recruits could stand there, hear their names over the PA system and envision what it would be like to play for Central Michigan.

“It’s one of those moments we always joke about now,” said Butch Jones, Central Michigan’s offensive coordinator at the time. “They had to do it all as grad assistants and no responsibility was ever too big or too small. Whatever you asked them to do, they were going to do it and do it to the best of their abilities.” 

In the 15 years since they shoveled snow for meager wages at Central Michigan, LaFleur and Saleh, both 40, have climbed from the base of their profession to its peak. The former roommates and close friends will match wits as play callers during Sunday’s NFC championship game, LaFleur as Green Bay’s youngest first-year head coach since 1921 and Saleh as the architect of San Francisco’s formidable defense.

The parallel ascent of LaFleur and Saleh began during their transformative season together at Central Michigan. It was there that both men learned skills that would become their trademarks, made contacts that would recommend them for future jobs and forged a lasting bond with each other that would withstand their obstacle-laden journey. 

“You knew they were going to be special guys in the profession,” Kelly said. “They were guys who were sponges. They wanted to know more than the traditional guys that break down film. They wanted to know about both sides of the ball.”

Robert Saleh’s big gamble

Matt LaFleur, left, and Robert Saleh were part of Brian Kelly's staff at Central Michigan in 2004. (Courtesy of Central Michigan)

Before he began his pursuit of coaching in the NFL, Saleh had to find the courage to take a bold risk. He had to toss aside the financial security of a stable career to pursue a dream that had the potential to leave him penniless.

The son of Lebanese-American parents who made a comfortable living investing in real estate and operating furniture stores, Saleh initially assumed his future also lay in the business world. The all-league tight end at Division II Northern Michigan majored in finance and began working as a credit analyst in Comerica Bank’s commercial lending department after graduation. 

Only a few weeks into Saleh’s new job, his outlook changed when his older brother endured a harrowing scare. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, newly hired financial adviser David Saleh was going through training at the Morgan Stanley offices inside the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Though David managed to escape the building minutes before the South Tower collapsed, he was unable to call home to assure his family he was safe until that afternoon. The terrifying wait spurred Robert to contemplate the fragility of life and to reconsider what he wanted to do with his own. 

Over the next few months, he realized his purpose wasn’t finance. It was football. 

In February 2002, Robert dialed David from his office, crying so hard he could barely speak. He confessed that he was dissatisfied with the career he had chosen and he wouldn’t feel fulfilled unless he took a crack at pursuing coaching.

“He had a bit of a breakdown,” David Saleh recalled. “It was a big risk because he was making good money, but the family supported him 100 percent. We felt like he was better off chasing his dream as opposed to living with never knowing if he could have done it.” 

What followed was a job change that many coaches warned Robert defied common sense. He quit a stable job that paid nearly six figures to accept a graduate assistant position at Michigan State with a salary of $650 per month.

No closer to landing a better-paying gig after two years at Michigan State, Robert moved on. He didn’t have many coaching colleagues willing to vouch for him at that point, so his older brother offered a particularly bold suggestion: cold calling a newly hired coach who was still putting his staff together.

“I told him, ‘Go down to Central Michigan, wait for Brian Kelly to walk out of his office and go ask for a job,’” David said with a chuckle. “In retrospect, I can’t believe he did that.”

Ninety minutes into his stakeout of Central Michigan’s football office, the younger Saleh brother at last spotted Kelly and managed to gain an audience with him. Luckily for Saleh, Kelly remembered recruiting him years earlier and offered another low-paying graduate assistant position, not the stable job he was looking for but enough to at least keep his football dreams afloat.

Students of the game

Matt LaFleur spent one season with Central Michigan, then made eight more stops before landing the head coaching job with the Green Bay Packers. (Courtesy of Central Michigan)

The other graduate assistant on Kelly’s 2004 Central Michigan staff arrived via a much more traditional route. 

Coaching was the family business for LaFleur, whose father was an assistant football coach at Central Michigan for 21 seasons and whose mother taught and also coached cheerleading and track. They groomed LaFleur to become a coach even as he was earning all-state honors at Mount Pleasant High School and quarterbacking Saginaw Valley State to three straight Division II playoff appearances. 

When Denny LaFleur approached Kelly in 2004 about hiring his son as a graduate assistant, he didn’t need to make much of a sales pitch. As a sophomore making his first college start a few years earlier, Matt LaFleur threw two touchdown passes and engineered a stunning upset of Kelly’s powerhouse Grand Valley State team. 

“I had a great feeling about Matt,” Kelly said. “He was an incredible competitor. He was smart, savvy and tough. When I had an opportunity to hire him, it was an easy one for me.”

Whereas today’s college football programs often have a conga line of support staffers to assist the coaching staff, Central Michigan didn’t have that lavish of a budget 15 years ago. As a result, Kelly called upon Saleh and LaFleur to contribute to all facets of the program, from cutting video of upcoming opponents, to reformatting the playbook, to preparing the scout team for practices, to maintaining equipment, to providing on-field instruction. 

Coaches who worked alongside Saleh and LaFleur at Central Michigan praised their relentless work ethic, voracious desire to learn and uncommon football intelligence. It was common for both of them to arrive at the football office by dawn and not leave until after midnight.

“You could tell at a very early age that both of them were going to be very successful,” Jones said. “The term ‘student of the game’ really fits both of them. They were always in the football office breaking video down, talking ball and looking to learn.”

The confidence that Kelly had in LaFleur was evident in how he relied on the graduate assistant to develop the quarterbacks he recruited. LaFleur tutored them on footwork, balance and arm angles, taking special interest in a promising 6-foot-3 dual-threat quarterback from Illinois who would eventually go on to capture the MAC’s Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2007 and 2009.

Several times, homesickness nearly drove Dan LeFevour to transfer during his redshirt year as a true freshman. In each instance, coaches recall LaFleur playing a key role in calming LeFevour down and persuading him to return.  

“Now that guy’s probably the greatest quarterback ever to play at that school,” said Joe Danna, Central Michigan’s wide receivers coach at the time. “Matt deserves a lot of credit for that.”

While Saleh also established himself as a well-rounded coaching prospect, it was his detail-oriented approach and mastery of cutting-edge technology that impressed other Central Michigan staffers most. Recognizing that there had to be a more efficient way to draw plays than the antiquated method Central Michigan used, Saleh taught himself to use Microsoft Visio and utilized it to redo the entire playbook. 

“He was an innovative guy,” Danna said. “He was always looking for a better way to do things. That program wasn’t made for football coaches to make a playbook, but he took it and applied it to football. He was able to make his job easier and produce a product that nobody had seen anything like before.”

One of the most memorable moments from Saleh’s year-long stint at Central Michigan came during a mock job interview co-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco conducted. 

Saleh, a notorious fitness buff, made the mistake of donning his suit and tie for the interview minutes after putting himself through a strenuous workout. Sweat stains were visible on his suit even before he began his powerpoint presentation.

“When he gets up to present, he literally passes out,” Kelly said. “After he went down, Diaco is running down the hallway yelling, ‘Call 911! We have a man down!’”

Thankfully, Saleh recovered quickly — except, perhaps, for his ego. 

“He gave a great presentation,” Kelly joked. “I’m sure he hasn’t been dehydrated since.”

Saleh and LaFleur grow close 

Robert Saleh spent one season with Central Michigan. He then had stops at the University of Georgia, and with the Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars before landing as the 49ers' defensive coordinator. (Courtesy of Central Michigan)

It’s common for graduate assistants to form lifelong friendships working long hours side-by-side for little money, but Saleh and LaFleur quickly grew unusually close. Rooming together in a tiny apartment with few pieces of furniture besides a borrowed washing machine and dryer, and a kitchen table purchased from Goodwill, they found they had more in common than just their unglamorous lifestyle and mutual passion for football. 

Their fierce competitive streaks brought out the best in each other. Their self-deprecating jokes kept the mood light. And they were quick to encourage one another to dream big and to pick each other up whenever it felt like a big break would never come. 

“They were forced to spend a lot of time together, and it just so happened there was good chemistry,” said Plas Presnell, a former longtime Central Michigan position coach and director of football operations. “They were together all the time. They were like brothers.”

In summer 2005, Saleh got his foot in the door in the NFL, thanks to a recommendation from Tony Oden, the former defensive backs coach at Central Michigan. He joined the Houston Texans, first as a defensive intern before earning a promotion to defensive quality control coach.

Three years later, as LaFleur was in his first season coaching full-time at Division II Ashland University, the Texans had an opening for an offensive quality control coach. Saleh stumped for his close friend and former roommate, helping LaFleur land the job and break into the NFL. 

They haven’t worked together again since the 2009 season in Houston, but the brotherly bond between LaFleur and Saleh remains strong as ever. David Saleh said his brother and LaFleur were groomsmen in each other’s weddings and typically exchange calls or texts a few times a week. 

Before the 49ers routed the Packers, 37-8, in November, LaFleur told Bay Area reporters that he messed with his old friend. He shot Saleh a text message that said, “Hey, would you give me a call? I have a couple questions about your defense.”

Asked by reporters in Green Bay on Monday if in that November matchup he may have gotten too caught up in the cat-and-mouse game with the 49ers’ staff and overthought his game plan, LaFleur admitted that “tends to happen.” In addition to LaFleur’s longtime friendship with Saleh, he has worked alongside 49ers coach Kyle Shanhan at several stops and his brother Mike is the 49ers’ offensive passing-game coordinator. 

LaFleur insisted he won’t even think about his friends on the opposite sideline once the ball is kicked off on Sunday. He shouldn’t expect anything different from his former roommate clad in red and gold. 

“Robert doesn’t care if it’s his mom on the other side,” David Saleh said. “You’re going to be an enemy until the game is over.”

For former Central Michigan colleagues of Saleh and LaFleur, Sunday’s matchup is gratifying yet surreal. Their two former graduate assistants have gone from shoveling snow off the head coach’s driveway to matching wits for a spot in the Super Bowl. 

Quipped Jones, “With Matt in Green Bay now, he and I joke that his snow-shoveling skills have really come in handy.” 

Additional reporting provided by Pete Thamel.

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