Northern Michigan University graduate Robert Saleh’s hiring as head coach made official by New York Jets
NEW YORK — Robert Saleh has made history that extends far beyond any football field.
The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the country, celebrating the first known Muslim American to hold that position in the NFL.
That’s a source of great pride for a group that has been generally underrepresented in the league’s on-field leadership roles.
“It’s something that shows the growing diversity of our nation, the inclusion we’re trying to achieve at all levels of our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “And I think it’s a very positive sign.”
The 41-year-old Saleh was officially announced as the Jets’ new coach on Tuesday after agreeing to terms five days earlier.
“Throughout the interview process, it became clear that this is the right place to call home,” Saleh said in a statement issued by the team.
Saleh was one of nine candidates interviewed by the team, but the first to get an in-person meeting on Jan. 12 at the team’s facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.
He left a strong impression on chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, team president Hymie Elhai and general manager Joe Douglas.
“After a thorough process and meeting with a number of talented coaches, it was clear to us that Robert was the right person to help us move forward,” Johnson said in a statement. “He is a collaborative leader with proven success in the NFL. In addition to his work as a coach on this level, his passion and knowledge of the game along with his vision for establishing an identity for this team sold me.”
Saleh is scheduled to be formally introduced by the team at 2 p.m. Thursday in a Zoom news conference.
“There are no shortcuts to success, and I am committed to working with Joe to build this team the right way: with talented players that play fast and smart, and a staff that supports and helps develop them through it all,” Saleh said in his statement. “To Jets fans, your passion and commitment are priceless. I understand your expectations and embrace them. We have a lot of work to do and can’t do it without your support.”
When the team began its search after firing Adam Gase on Jan. 3, both Johnson and Douglas spoke about finding someone who had strong character, was a leader and would be a “partner” with them in leading the Jets back to respectability. Johnson said Saleh would be exactly that for them to “help foster and develop the winning culture we are striving to establish.”
New York has not made the playoffs since the 2010 season — currently the longest active drought in the NFL.
Saleh is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States per capita.
“I think he’s just a trailblazer for a lot of coaches who are Muslim, to let them know that they do have a chance to be a head coach,” said Lions offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, a practicing Muslim who has played in the NFL for eight seasons — including his first two with the Jets.
“He shows them you do have a chance to be a defensive coordinator, you do have a chance to grow up and have a job at the professional level,” Aboushi added. “As long as you’re professional and you’re passionate about it like he is, I think a lot of people will look to him as a trailblazer, as far as everyone feeling like they could do it themselves and it’s an attainable dream.”
After Saleh’s college playing career as a tight end at Northern Michigan University from 1997-2000, he got his start in coaching in 2002 by working as an assistant at Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia before being hired as a defensive intern by the Houston Texans in 2005.
Then came stints with Seattle and Jacksonville before Saleh became San Francisco’s defensive coordinator in 2017, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl last year with his No. 2-ranked unit. He was a popular candidate among the seven teams looking for a new coach this offseason, and quickly emerged as the favorite for the Jets job.
“As a pioneer in the sports world, Saleh will serve as an inspiration to many young American Muslims,” Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey chapter, said.