Saleh and LaFleur face off Sunday at Lambeau Field for the first time as opposing head coaches. There have been meetings before when they were both assistants or when Saleh was the 49ers defensive coordinator taking on LaFleur with Green Bay, most notably in the 2019 playoffs.
But this is different.
Two men, who met as graduate assistants at Central Michigan University in 2004, now hold two of the most coveted jobs in football as NFL head coaches. It is more than they could have dreamed of when they were sharing an office and crashing at LaFleur’s parents’ house.
“Back then it was just trying to get a job, right?” Saleh said. “We were GA’s at Central, so it was I don’t know if either one of us when we were together at Central in that small little office ever dreamed that it would be like this, so we’re very blessed, very fortunate, but no, I don’t know if we ever actually talked about it.”
There is a double connection in this game with Mike LaFleur serving as the Jets’ offensive coordinator. Mike is the younger brother of Matt and someone Saleh first met through his friendship with Matt. Back then, Mike was in high school. But when Saleh got the job with the Jets, he knew he wanted Mike to run his offense.
“He’s every bit as deserving, I know you can call it, ‘Oh, you just hired a buddy’, he wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t good at his job,” Saleh said of Mike. “He’s a very smart young man, he’s a very capable young man. He knows how to put the players in the best position possible for them to take advantage of all of their athleticism. He’s growing every single day too.
“I look at him very similar to when I was a first-time coordinator in terms of taking our Seattle system, branching off, and adding my flavor. I think he is doing the same thing and finding his niche and finding what he likes and what he wants to get done, and I think with each passing week, he’s only going to get better and better. You have to be a really smart, ego-free man to be able to continue to evolve and build, and I think he is every bit capable of that.”
All of the coaches will do their best to downplay the meaning of this one this week, but the players know this will have some extra meaning.
“I think it will mean a little bit more something to [Mike],” Jets wide receiver Corey Davis said, “especially going up against your brother, you want to prove a little something to the fam, going home for Thanksgiving or whatever it is, you want something to talk about. I think it’s going to be a big one for him.”
Matt said Wednesday that he usually speaks to his brother every day.
“We’re not talking quite as much this week,” he told reporters in Green Bay.
Matt said he is not focused on facing his friend or his brother.
“You hate beating up on your buddy in this league but it is what it is,” the Packers coach said. “It’s about our football team. It’s never about myself or another football coach going in against your buddy.”
This is the second week Saleh and Mike LaFleur will face someone they are close to. Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel worked with them and is a close friend, too.
Saleh helped Matt break into the NFL. Saleh was a low-level assistant with the Texans when an offensive job opened up in 2008, and Saleh went to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to recommend Matt.
“I got his name to the desk, but he did the rest, he did the rest,” Saleh said.
The two worked together in 2008 and 2009 with the Texans, then their careers went down different paths.
Those paths converge again Sunday with both running their own NFL teams.
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