Paul Tortorella wanted to take his wife to dinner after a week of football practice at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but he needed someone to watch his four children. So who better to babysit than the entry-level assistant who coached the wide receivers? Tortorella, then the defensive coordinator, said the assistant was lucky if he was making $10,000 at the Division II school in western Pennsylvania.
And that’s how Tortorella’s four children came to know Nick Sirianni as “Uncle Nick.”
Nearly 20 years before Sirianni was preparing the Eagles for Sunday’s Super Bowl, he was a 24-year-old eager to climb the coaching ladder. His job at IUP was his first full-time position after spending two years as a graduate assistant at Mount Union, the Division III school in Ohio where he had been a star receiver.
Sirianni’s opportunity at IUP was much greater than the salary, so the future Eagles head coach spent a couple of hours every Thursday night in Tortorella’s backyard and left with some cash in his pocket.
“I have four kids, so it was like a romper room out there,” said Tortorella, who is now IUP’s head coach. “They’d have balls flying everywhere. The whole deal. He did a good job. I’d give him a $20 bill. I’d rather give it to him than a regular babysitter, plus he probably did a better job because he kept them active instead of sitting in the house. I figured he could use the money.”
Sirianni spent three years at IUP after being recommended for the job by the team’s secondary coach, D.K. McDonald, whom he met while they were counselors at a youth football camp in Erie, Pa.
Then-IUP head coach Lou Tepper had an opening, so McDonald told him about the guy coaching at Mount Union who loved football and was filled with passion. Sirianni interviewed with the entire coaching staff — “He wore the one suit he owned,” said Jim Smith, then the Crimson Hawks’ passing game coordinator — and won the job by stressing how important it would be that his receivers blocked on running plays. He was their kind of guy.
“Everyone kind of wants to get to Z in the alphabet without doing A, B, and C,” Tortorella said. “The thing that was great is that sometimes young guys come in and they think they have all the answers. He knew that he didn’t know. He came in and learned.”
McDonald got Sirianni the job and then landed him a room in the house he rented near campus on Fourth Street. McDonald signed the lease and covered the utility bills while charging the other assistants $200 a month. It was the “single guys’ house,” McDonald said.
Sirianni was a messy roommate but at least he paid his rent. Sometimes.
“He owes me a lot of money,” said McDonald, now the Eagles’ assistant defensive backs coach. “A lot of IOUs from him. I cut them a good deal in all honesty. He makes enough now that he should be able to pay me back.”
Sirianni was only three years removed from playing in college, allowing him to easily connect with his new players. He won three national championships catching passes at Mount Union and now he was standing in the front of a meeting room demonstrating how to run routes while wearing penny loafers.
“We had this one player from Florida named Ricky,” former IUP receiver Anthony Cellitti said. “And he goes, ‘What are you wearing them for? What are you doing?’ The receivers room was a lot of fun. We’d jaw back and forth and talk trash. He expected a lot out of us, but also joked around with us.”
Sirianni was intense on the sidelines, where one time a referee had to warn him to get off the field before he threw a penalty flag. And he was competitive in practice, where he created a game to play on Thursday afternoons where they would try to punt, throw, and kick the ball from end zone to end zone while using Sirianni’s scoring system. He was always looking for a way to compete.
“He was probably Nick 2.0 when he was with us,” Tortorella said. “He’s a head coach now so he’s still energetic, but there’s times where I see him catch himself and say, ‘I’m the head coach.’ There was none of that ‘catching himself’ when he was an assistant.”
Sirianni joined Smith in recruiting southeastern Pennsylvania as his job at IUP provided an introduction to the city he would eventually call home.
They borrowed a state-owned Ford Taurus for a week, drove to King of Prussia, and spent their afternoons trying to discover a football star in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. The coaches recruited all day, saving their per diem for dinner that night at Chili’s across from their hotel. “We didn’t have the budget to eat at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House,” Smith said.
Sirianni’s inquisitive nature made him a strong recruiter as he had no trouble making connections. He was an information gatherer, Smith said.
“If he’s not from your area or in your realm and he’s with you, he’s going to pick your brain,” said Smith, who’s now IUP’s associate head coach. “He’s going to try and figure out, ‘Who is this person I’m with?’ and try to learn something from [them].”
“He’s true as true can be. Who Nick is today is who Nick was back in 2006 when I met him. He’s the same guy. I think that’s the great thing about him. Nick has always been Nick. He can mix and mingle in every room he can go into.”
The coaches finished one afternoon at Strath Haven High School and Smith told Sirianni they would ditch their sport coats before heading in. It was an unseasonably warm January day and Tepper — the old-school coach who started his career in 1967 — would never know his two assistants had broken the dress code.
As they walked in to meet their prospective recruit, Penn State assistant Ron Vanderlinden was walking out. The Nittany Lions were hoping to land the same player as a walk-on. Vanderlinden stopped the coaches, seeing the IUP logo on their jackets, and asked if Tepper was still coaching there. Of course, they said. Vanderlinden, who coached with Tepper at Colorado in the 1980s, remarked how Tepper must be easing his ways as they always had to wear jackets and ties when recruiting. The coaches were caught.
“Nick’s like, ‘He’s going to tell Coach Tepper we weren’t in a coat and tie. We’re going to be in trouble. How are we going to explain this?’ ” Smith said. “I said, ‘Just don’t bring it up.’ We held our breath all year.”
Tepper didn’t find out about that transgression until recently, so Sirianni’s job was safe. Perhaps his Super Bowl dream could have been sidetracked in the Strath Haven parking lot had Vanderlinden dialed up his old buddy. Sirianni soon moved to the NFL as his climb continued.
Tepper said the team’s motto was “tough and classy,” and the dress code was defined in its handbook. He said he would have disciplined the coaches, but he could not have fined them as they weren’t making much money. After all, his wide receivers coach who is now headed for the Super Bowl was still a babysitter.
“For every young coach, you have to have a start and you have to want it,” Tortorella said.
“He basically worked it from the bottom up,” Smith said. “I feel like he’s done it the right way. He’s never forgotten where he came from. What better story to have a guy like that? A guy who paid his dues and earned it. We have a saying around here, ‘Earned. Not given.’ He definitely earned it. If anyone tries to say otherwise, they don’t know Nick Sirianni.”