Sean McDermott ’98 does not have an ego. In place of an ego, he has a passion. And every Sunday, and occasional Monday, that passion, coaching football, is on display in NFL stadiums.
McDermott’s debut as the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive coordinator came this past Sunday, 12 years after concluding his playing career as a standout free safety for the College. Following in the footsteps of deceased Eagles’ coach Jim Johnson is no easy task, yet McDermott got off to a strong start as his defense limited the Carolina Panthers to 10 points, causing seven turnovers, returning one for a defensive touchdown.
Despite his speedy rise to coaching prominence, it was not always clear to the now 35-year-old McDermott that football would be his calling. He entered the 1993 season as a walk-on at the College and was redshirted. Intense weight room sessions and a devout work ethic earned McDermott a scholarship, an accomplishment he calls his greatest at the College.
With the scholarship, he garnered playing time. As a redshirt sophomore, he willed himself into the Tribe’s free safety slot, a position at which he would start for the next three seasons, leading the College with 320 tackles over that span.
“He was a player that all of the other players respected because of his hard work and where he had started and what he had achieved,” Tribe Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “He had earned everything that he had gotten. Nothing was given to him, and he got it through hard work and effort.”
During McDermott’s time at the position he started next to future seven-time NFL Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper ’96.
“It was a tremendous honor [playing next to Sharper],” McDermott said with a smile. “Darren was a highly talented individual. We worked well together. I got him lined up, and he made all the plays.”
While Laycock routinely expected Sharper to register game-changing plays, he equally expected McDermott, the team’s “Mr. Consistency,” to be in the right position at the right time to secure the tackle.
McDermott was unable to follow Sharper into the NFL, and instead experimented with a coaching career.
He began as a volunteer defensive assistant under Laycock in 1998, deferring a finance job offer from PricewaterhouseCoopers to remain at the College.
“He had a tremendous work ethic when he came off the field in helping us with all the roles a young coach has to do,” Laycock said. “His attention to detail and his ability to get things done … Some people don’t get them done, he got them done. It was very obvious to me that he would be a very good coach if he decided to go in that direction.”
Despite Laycock’s attempt to keep McDermott on the Tribe’s coaching staff, when the Eagles called in late 1998 about a scout position opening, “Mr. Consistency” made the jump to the NFL. He evolved into a defensive specialist coach in 2001 and has worked with various facets of the Eagles’ defense since then.
“I would have liked to have kept him here, but then he went [to] the Eagles, and I think that proved that he started from the bottom there and worked his way up. That is something that is not unusual for him to do,” Laycock said. “He is not an ego kind of guy, he is in it for the right reasons. He is not in it for money. He is in it because he likes to coach. Whatever he does, he would do very, very well. He just happens to be coaching.”
McDermott has maintained close ties to the College, returning to campus yearly to support the football program. He regards Laycock as a mentor and appreciates how his former coach has welcomed him into his football family — a family whose values are more than just X’s and O’s. McDermott said Laycock instills the vision of always doing the right thing at all times into his players.
“If you have to ask yourself if it is right or not, it’s probably wrong,” McDermott said of Laycock’s policy. “Doing the right thing, treating people the right way, handling yourself the right way on and off the field: it’s a first-class school and a first-class football team and program.”
Regardless of his NFL success, McDermott occasionally ponders where the PricewaterhouseCoopers job would have taken him.
“[If I had taken the job] it honestly would have been [like] living the American dream,” McDermott said. “Maybe having a couple kids and family in the suburbs somewhere of [Washington,] D.C., having a dog and a white picket fence.”
For McDermott, that white picket fence will have to wait. For now, the only fences he sees are the ones held up by passionate Eagles fans cheering on his defense. The one emblazoned with a cutout “D” in front of it, that is.