Sean McDermott fights.
The day I spent at Buffalo Bills camp was the most intense day of training camp I saw during my 5,500-mile road trip this summer. Players were angry, constantly yelling and occasionally brawling. McDermott, meanwhile, ripped into his players but managed to calm them down at the same time. The head coach is soft-spoken, but has an edge to him.
In a league where the most common coach hobby is golf and the second-most common hobby is talking about golf and the third-most common hobby is watching golf, McDermott instead spends his free time fighting. While a defensive coordinator in Carolina, he trained in mixed martial arts, and he is so devoted to wrestling that he has a wrestling mat in his home. He even taught the son of Bills general manager Brandon Beane how to wrestle.
“I’ve watched some of his stuff,” said Beane, the general manager. “I think I’d have my face beaten in.”
Beane describes McDermott as the most disciplined person he knows—and says McDermott likes to fight because it marries the “mind, body, and spirit.” The coach says he gets a “clarity” from fighting. If all the NFL coaches enter a royal rumble, I’m taking McDermott. “He makes me sick watching him eat,” Beane said. “I’m eating eggs and sausage and he’s over there with green stuff, berries, it looks like he just came out of the woods. He is so disciplined.”
I spoke with McDermott about why he fights and how he plans to build a tough culture in Buffalo.
Kevin Clark: With the wrestling and with the MMA, that’s very common for the players but it’s not for a coach. Why did you do that?
Sean McDermott: I got out of playing and you get into life after college, right? And you kind of look for something. You compete your whole life and then it goes away. And then you look for something that—to keep the edge, you know. And I did some half-marathon-type things, and those were good. But I was always looking for something to help me keep the edge. I just like that, you know? If my family was here they’d be laughing because they know me.
KC: What’s your morning regimen?
SM: I like to train. Sometimes you get low on sleep and need a little bit of recovery, but I just feel better when I train. I try and do weights a couple times a week. I’d like to do them more, but then I try to do some distance running, and a little bit of yoga or some MMA just to cross-train every once in a while.
KC: Is the MMA for fitness or for coaching?
SM: Yeah, it’s both. It’s, you know, strong mind, strong body. Strong body, strong mind. This job is challenging. I find it gives me some clarity. To get some time on my own, and do that.
KC: Your MMA trainer in Charlotte was a black belt, so he had to take it easy on you.
SM: I tell you, it’s a heck of a workout. Even the boxing. There’s the boxing part. There’s the grappling part, which I’m used to with wrestling, and there’s the kickboxing part which, talk about a workout for your core and hips and everything. It’s pretty intense.
KC: You talked about clarity. What is it that brings clarity? Is that just being able to physically release everything and then your mind is clear?
SM: I like the breathing part of it in terms of the clarity you get when you’re forced to breathe deeply. I think I find I get some clarity from that.
KC: When did you transition to MMA?
SM: Just a couple years ago, really. I like to cross-train because I see some of these older coaches who can’t walk anymore because all they’ve done is jog. So I’m trying to learn from them and have two good knees when I’m done.
KC: With wrestling, obviously it’s a huge part of your life. Does it help you as a football coach to have that background?
SM: I believe it does. I think it helps you in life. We had Jordan Burroughs, who’s an Olympic gold medalist, [come to speak to the team] and he’s over representing the USA right now in the World Championships, so he and I were just sharing life—getting life skills from wrestling. [With wrestling] there’s no one to blame but yourself, for the most part. It’s all about preparation, work ethic, dedication, adversity, grit, so those are things that come up in everyday life.
KC: You hear all the stories about Bill Belichick or other coaches loving college wrestlers. Do you look for those sort of skill sets?
SM: No, there’s definitely overlap. I was talking with one of our players yesterday who did some wrestling in high school, and he was raving about his experience and how it helped him with his football career. And I think there’s definitely overlap, and you know, leverage and hips, that’s all part of what we look for.
KC: You taught Brandon Beane’s son how to wrestle when you were both in Carolina. What happened?
SM: Wrestling just isn’t as big in the South where we were, and his son—his one son, he he’s got two—his one son, I had heard he was going out for the wrestling team, and Brandon knew my background so I invited him over one day. We’ve got a mat at the house, so we just did—I just, I think we [worked on wrestling] once or twice. He’s done a nice job with his career so far, so I’m excited to see him up north now, which is considerably more tense.
KC: Is the mat coming to Buffalo? Is it already in Buffalo?
SM: It’s here, yeah. It’s already here.
KC: Same mat?
SM: Same mat.
KC: Do you build a room, I guess, around it?
SM: No, I wish I could. I don’t think my wife would let me get away with building a room or else I would. Yeah, it’s not a real big mat but it’s at least 10 by 10, so I can get out there, because my son wrestles. So it’s a tough sport. Tough sport, and you can get burnt out if you go at it too hard, too early. So he’s kind of taking the approach of the marathon not a sprint at this point.
KC: What do you do out there when you’re on the mat? Do you just give your son pointers?
SM: Yeah, just fundamentals. Like you were saying, same thing I do with the team with fundamentals, the technique, and kind of just the theory behind wrestling and how the sport works, you know? It’s such a different sport. It’s not like—you see kids really pick up a basketball, let’s go shoot hoops. You don’t do that [with wrestling]. You don’t grow up doing that.
KC: Obviously there have been plenty of successful head coaches who were not in great shape, but do you think players respect a coach who works out, hits the gym, and has that sort of edge?
SM: I think at the end of the day they respect coaches that help them achieve their goals. That’s the bottom line. And coaches that care for them. Having said that, I would say that they appreciate the fact that when they’re in the weight room sometimes I’m in the weight room, or I’m trying to keep myself in shape the same way I ask them to be in shape, you know? So, that’s probably more of a question for them.
KC: Do players know you do practice MMA?
SM: I don’t know. They don’t know here because I haven’t done it since we’ve been in Buffalo, but I miss it. I miss it.
KC: You’ll get back there.
SM: Yeah, I’d like to pick it back up.
KC: Obviously you guys have remade the roster in a way I don’t think anyone expected. In a full year you would expect that, but not in a couple of months. What is the key to establishing what this culture is going to be? And how do you go about establishing it?
SM: Well I think a big part of that is the people. We have to make sure that we continue to get the right people on the bus, and then get people that are on the bus that we want to keep in the right seats. And then the other part of it is the plan and the communication with the plan, and Brandon and I have a vision for how we want it to look along with Terry and Kim [Pegula, the Bills owners]. There’s daily communication that’s necessary for us to continue to move this organization in the right direction for many years to come.
KC: What about with the trades of Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby? You see some bottom-of-the-roster guys traded this far into training camp but not guys like that. What does that say about the culture you’re building?
SM: Well, I think probably the bottom line of it all is you watch a lot of head coaches and GMs and they’ve been in these positions like Brandon and I are in now. And it’s very easy to take, I don’t want to say the easy way, but take the way in which it’s less disruptive, if you will. But you get to a point where it gets too late for those type of decisions. And this was a difficult decision, and one that took a lot of communication. Took a lot of support, and also courage to do something like this, but we knew if we were going to do it we had to do it now.
KC: You started wrestling at 4 and stopped at the end of high school. You switched from wrestling to football full-time then. If you could have kept going in wrestling, would you have?
SM: Yeah, absolutely. I had chances to go to college for wrestling but I decided to play football instead. I was probably a better wrestler than I was a football player.
KC: Why’d you choose football?
SM: Just, you know, I always dreamed of playing football in college. My dad was a football coach, so, college football coach, so I just always dreamed of that arena. Not that I didn’t dream of wrestling. I did. But, shoot, maybe I should’ve wrestled, right?