Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was born to be an NFL coach
EAGAN, Minn. — Three decades ago, John DeFilippo was watching an NFL game with his father at the family home in Kentucky.
Suddenly, during a break in the action, the 10-year-old had something to say.
“He turned to me and said, ‘Dad, someday I’m going to be coaching in the National Football League,'” Gene DeFilippo remembered.
Gene DeFilippo was an associate athletics director at the University of Kentucky at the time. But before becoming a longtime college administrator, he was a football coach, serving as offensive coordinator at Youngstown State and offensive backfield coach at Vanderbilt.
That rubbed off on his son.
“I grew up always knowing I wanted to coach,” John DeFilippo said. “I’ve always set my goals really high ever since I was a little kid.”
DeFilippo, 40, in his first season as offensive coordinator for the Vikings, has reached many of those goals. He has 11 years of experience as an NFL assistant, and last season won a Super Bowl ring as quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.
DeFilippo and his father say his declaration as a 10-year-old wasn’t necessarily that he wanted to become a “head” coach but many believe that could happen, too. DeFilippo interviewed for head coaching jobs in Arizona and Chicago in January, and could be a hot candidate for 2019 if the Vikings have a successful season.
“If it happens one day for me, great,” DeFilippo said. “But, oh, boy, I’m the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. … My job is I want to the best offensive coordinator in the National Football League and be the most thorough and put our guys in the best chance to have success.”
It’s a high-profile position, for sure. Last season, the Vikings were No. 1 in the NFL in both scoring defense and total defense. Now, chasing their first Super Bowl victory, they’ve beefed up the offense, adding quarterback Kirk Cousins, who signed a three-year, $84 million contract in March, and DeFilippo to coach him.
CBS analyst Rich Gannon, a former Vikings quarterback who knows DeFilippo well, believes he’s up to the task.
“I think he’ll do a great job,” Gannon said. “I’ve known him for a long time. I’ve watched him as an assistant coach. I’ve watched him as a coordinator. I think he sees the game through the eyes of the quarterback. I think he’s a wonderful teacher.”
It has taken a lot of steps for DeFilippo to get where he is today at the relatively young coaching age of 40. Counting summer internships he had as a student at James Madison University with Carolina and Indianapolis, he’s had 13 college and NFL stops, including two with the Oakland Raiders.
“He knew what he wanted early in life, and he really began to focus on that,” said ESPN analyst Bill Polian, a hall of fame executive who hired DeFilippo for his summer internships in 1997 and 1998. “He’s achieved it, and that’s great.”
Gene DeFilippo said when his son was 10 or so, he really started getting into looking at football from an X’s and O’s standpoint. He used to ride his bike to University of Kentucky practices after school, and he would watch for hours.
“He was ahead of his time for being that young,” said his father.
There was still time for DeFilippo to play sports, and he dabbled in football, baseball and track. He became a solid quarterback at Radnor High School in suburban Philadelphia, where he made a memorable game debut.
Gene DeFilippo moved the family there in 1993 when he became Villanova’s athletics director. DeFilippo was a sophomore when he joined the football team, which was on a 31-game losing streak.
The streak was up to 34 when DeFilippo took over as starting quarterback. In his debut, Radnor scored two touchdowns in the final 6½ minutes, including a 10-yard TD pass from DeFilippo with 12 seconds left, to stun Penncrest High School 16-14.
“I remember everything about that play,” DeFilippo said. “The play was Double Right N3, so everybody ran a slant, which we called Lion. I dropped back to throw. I was 15 at the time and 6-foot-1, maybe 152 pounds.
“I saw an opening on the inside slant, and I’ll never forget when I let the ball go, how blue the sky was. I didn’t have a very strong arm at the time, and I closed my eyes and I threw it as hard as I could. Luckily, I hit Bobby Wright right in the chest with the football.”
DeFilippo never had any illusions about getting to the NFL as a player. He was good enough to earn a scholarship at James Madison in Harrisburg, Va., but mostly was a backup during an injury-riddled college career.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, as an athlete I was probably a 5,” DeFilippo said. “In college, it’s part of the reason why I’m here today, because I set my goals somewhere else.”
As general manager of the Panthers in 1997 and the Colts in 1998, Polian hired DeFilippo for training camp internships. DeFilippo was good friends with Polian’s son Dennis in the Philadelphia area, and Polian liked what he saw.
“He did whatever needed to be done,” Polian said. “He was diligent. He had a good work ethic. He understood the game, and he had the kind of personality where he knew he could connect to players. He was a model intern, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
DeFilippo has fond memories of working in the Panthers camp with quarterbacks Kerry Collins and Steve Beuerlein, and in Colts camp with Peyton Manning, who was a rookie that season. He’ll never forget Manning, whom he had greatly admired when he played at Tennessee, taking Colts rookies to a ribs restaurant and asking the intern to tag along.
After college, DeFilippo landed a job as quarterbacks coach at Fordham in 2000. Then it was on to Notre Dame as a graduate assistant in 2001-02.
The Fighting Irish coach who hired DeFilippo was Bob Davie, who had been a tight end at Youngstown State under Gene DeFilippo. During the interview, DeFilippo was asked about his goals, and he repeated what he had said at age 10.
“He said he wanted to coach in the NFL,” said Davie, now coach at New Mexico. “That impressed me that he had that kind of confidence but I also banked it so I’d be able to use it in the right situation to bust his chops.”
That situation came after Notre Dame’s 34-24 victory over West Virginia in 2001. Davie was handing out game balls to offensive assistants when he got to DeFilippo.
“He then said in front of the whole team, ‘And finally our graduate assistant who doesn’t think Notre Dame is big enough for him,'” DeFilippo said.
Davie, who was fired after the 2001 season, said DeFilippo impressed him at Notre Dame with his “great skill set” and “communication skills.” He still remembers DeFilippo once working past 2 a.m., long after all other coaches had gone home, and calling the police after someone entered the football office for what he figured was a burglary. DeFilippo was back a few hours later for a 6 a.m. staff meeting.
On to his dream:
After spending 2003-04 as Columbia’s quarterbacks coach, DeFilippo finally landed his first full-time job in the NFL, a 2005-06 stint as quality control assistant with the New York Giants. DeFilippo called it a “perfect way for me to break into the NFL” because he could learn under the very disciplined Tom Coughlin, who went on to win two Super Bowls with the Giants.
“John was an outstanding, young, aggressive, intelligent rookie quality control coach,” said Coughlin, now a Jacksonville Jaguars executive. “He learned a work ethic, he learned organization, he learned detail.”
DeFilippo went on to stints as Oakland’s quarterbacks coach in 2007-08 and 2012-14 sandwiched around seasons as the New York Jets quarterbacks coach in 2009 and San Jose State’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 2010-11.
During his second stint with the Raiders, DeFilippo really got noticed. In 2014, the Raiders drafted quarterback Derek Carr in the second round. The Raiders went just 3-13 but Carr had a strong rookie season, throwing for 3,270 yards with 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
“(DeFilippo) did an amazing job with Derek,” said Gannon, who was the NFL MVP with Oakland in 2002. “They had no offensive line, they had no speed at wide receiver, they didn’t have a tight end, and the running situation was awful. (Carr) took a beating every week, but John did a good job managing a rookie quarterback.”
That would pay off in DeFilippo getting his first NFL offensive coordinator job with Cleveland, where the Browns were 25th in the NFL in total offense and went just 3-13 during an injury-riddled campaign.
Coach Mike Pettine and his staff were fired after the season, but DeFilippo called it a “100 percent positive experience” getting his feet wet as an NFL offensive coordinator. And it didn’t take long for him to get his next job in 2016.
“(Eagles) coach Doug Pederson called John and said, ‘We’re going to draft a quarterback and you did a really good job with Carr and we’d like you to come in and coach our quarterbacks,'” said Gene DeFilippo, now retired after finishing his career as athletics director at Boston College. “John didn’t know Doug at all but he hired him on the spot on a phone call.”
The quarterback the Eagles drafted was Carson Wentz, out of North Dakota State with the No. 2 pick. By his second season, Wentz was an MVP candidate entering the season’s final month.
That’s when Wentz went down in Week 14 with a torn ACL. Enter backup Nick Foles, who surprisingly led the Eagles to three straight wins in the playoffs, including 38-7 over Minnesota in the NFC championship game and 41-33 over New England in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We felt awful for Carson and we felt awful at the time for our football team for a brief second, but nobody panicked,” DeFilippo said. “We had 100 percent faith in Nick.”