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Exclusive with former Steelers TE, XFL Head Coach Jonathan Hayes

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Our Ron Lippock spoke with former Steelers tight end and current XFL St. Louis head coach Jonathan Hayes. They talked about Hayes’ opportunity with the XFL, his son’s basketball career and his own playing days. 

First, congratulations. A lot of stuff happening! Tell me first how the son of a football coach gets drafted round one in the NBA?!

Well, it’s the dream of a lot of kids whether it’s athletics, music, to achieve a goal and dream like he has. It’s been a really great experience for the entire family and to share in the fun with him. He’s been a great role model for his younger siblings.

My wife was an All-American basketball player, a hell of a player, and she coached him and helped instill in him the fundamentals and foundation to succeed.

From there, the rest of it was hard work and perseverance. I’m not sure how many know his story but he wasn’t highly ranked going into his college class from high school. His first year, he played AAU basketball and got some experience and things started to line up for him. He played versus Zion [Williamson] in a tournament and blocked a few shots and pinned one of his shots against the backboard. After that tournament he got a lot of offers, and after a few more tournaments he got a lot more offers.

Those are the things people don’t see though, the hard work he put in and his commitment to the game and to being competitive. He wasn’t highly ranked but he committed to the game and it worked out for him so far.

And you have your own great opportunity – how did that come about?

It was just the right time and a great opportunity. I’m grateful to Jim Haslett, James Harris, Marvin Lewis, Doug Whaley and others who pushed for me. When you have guys like that in your corner that helps create opportunities. I think people were aware what I did as a coach and player and the way I approached the game. Now, I have daily challenges including everything from making sure the facility is running smoothly to making sure we have furniture in the building! I didn’t have to pay attention that as much before so now there’s a lot I’m learning to take care of us a general manager and coach!

How do you learn to handle and take care of those details?

Well, when you coach in Cincinnati and in college you wear a lot of hats. With the Bengals, I was part scout. I attended personnel meetings, and we’d have to watch our spending when we were on the road. So you had to take care of those little things. Even in college, as a head coach you run the program like a CEO. You run it the way you see fit, of course with oversight from the athletic director. It’s fun and a great experience so that helped me a lot now.

You have to make sure you find people you can co-exist with and people you like to work with – and I think I’ve done that here and brought in hard workers I can trust.

How does the XFL differ from the NFL?

It’s still football — still tackling, passing and running. Some things are a bit different. We’re using some things from the Big 12 like having a ref who is there to spot the ball every play. That helps speed up the game. And some smaller adjustments to the kicking game and extra points. But those are little things. We’re just using things others have used, but in a different way we thing will make the game faster and more exciting for fans.

As someone who experienced free agency, how do you use that experience to build a team that will be comprised of so many free agents as well?

We still have the draft too and player showcases in the cities we play in. We rank and rate every player and still have some to look at that won’t stick in the NFL. We also have the advantage of using players that may want to leave college earlier, who want to forego years of college.

For us, it’s still about football and finding the right players for what you want to do. We have great guidance with guys like Oliver Luck and Doug Whaley who have done this at the NFL level already and in other leagues and know how to put this all together, and have the backing of Vince McMahon.

How has your free agency experience informed what you do – and why did you choose the Steelers in free agency?

The experience for me was a bit different than the free agency you know today. We had Plan B free agency, which meant the other team got compensation for me leaving.

I was already vested when I left Kansas City. I had just redone my contract and they asked me to redo it again and I said I wouldn’t do that. I asked them to let me go then and they did and I signed with Pittsburgh. Eric Green holding out gave me an opportunity and I already knew Bill Cowher from his time in Kansas City.

So many guys in Pittsburgh — Mark Bruener, Walter Rasby, Sean McHugh — talked about your role as a mentor to them. How hard is that as a veteran knowing guys are fighting with you for reps as well?

I never looked at it that way. Maybe because my mother was a school teacher and my dad was in law enforcement, and they always taught me to pass it forward.

Bruener and those other guys will tell you, I took those guys under my wing because you always want to see someone else have it better than you. You prepare yourself to play and work your butt off, and of course you want the reps and to be in at critical times in the game, but that’s all you can do. The better guy deserves to play. Today Mark is a dear friend. His friendship means the world to me.

I think people get that mixed up. The most important thing is that the team is growing as a whole and is reaching and improving towards it’s goal. If you’re not, you’re not going to win games.

How do you bring that mindset to your team?

You have to evaluate your guys and do it well. It’s never perfect. It’s never that way anywhere, completely. Not in the NFL, XFL, or college. Sometimes there are guys you think would work out who don’t, but that’s just part of it. Hopefully you put together a group of young men that work hard and show those attributes.

Who were your mentors?

For me, my parents. My father and mom were easy people to look up to. They showed you love and care and encouraged you even when you made mistakes. My dad was a big man, no-nonsense. A lot of people in Pittsburgh knew who he was. He expected a lot. He had high standards for all of us. Once you joined something, whatever it was you wanted to do, you weren’t allowed to quit. You had to see it through.

That’s the lesson my son has shown. So many parents now pull their kids from one place and another to make their situations better when they don’t get enough playing time or aren’t happy – instead of having them take responsibility for themselves and their situations. Instead of blaming others, you have to look at yourself to make your situation better. My parents instilled that in me and that was instilled in our son. I think that helped create the man he is today. He’s a kid who didn’t quit, and that’s the kind of guy we want on our team to find success.

Any fun stories you can share of your time in Pittsburgh before I let you go?

Kids are reading this, right?

Well, Dermontti [Dawson] and I used to room together when I got there, and John L. Williams came to Pittsburgh the same time as I did as a free agent.

John L. and I used to hang out together. We got to camp a couple of days before the other guys as free agents. I had played against the Steelers the year before when Kansas City knocked them out of the playoffs. That game, Kevin Greene and I got into a big argument. He accused me of holding on a big play near the end of the game that helped us win, and I told him it’s not holding if it isn’t called! Well he was angry and hated me then. He actually jumped off their bus and tried to fight me after the game. Marvin Lewis had to step in then.

Well, when Kevin and Greg Lloyd got to camp, they wanted to go against me on one on ones all of the time. First Kevin, then Greg, then all over again, every day. I told John L. that we can do this every day and we’ll just all wear each other out. Well, John L. and I are in a bar after meetings and I see them walk in and they tell me we can knock it off now. But I told them that they started it, so no way, I’m finishing it now!

Now, we’re good friends. But you can tell they were hurting after that loss. People don’t always understand the culture and pride they have in Pittsburgh. Even though they accepted me as a Steeler, it still hurt them to see me every day knowing I was part of why they lost in the playoffs.

Oh, and Dermontti, he loved to bake. He used to bake cookies and bring them to me after the weekends – hey Jon – I brought you cookies! He was the nicest guy. He could rip your throat out, but he’d always stand you up afterwards!

Ron Lippock is the author of Steelers Takeaways and has interviewed over 650 past and present Steelers players, coaches and personnel. You can purchase his book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Steelers-Takeaways-Memories-Through-Decades/dp/1681570076

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