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    Michigan’s Minters: Father-son combo drives Wolverines’ stingy defense

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    “The following information deals with the one thing that makes or breaks a football team — a philosophy. This is the most important information that you will receive from us as a staff. You must read and understand this philosophy. Only those committed to this philosophy will play.”  

    — Rick Minter, defensive coordinator at Ball State, in a handbook dispersed to players

    ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In the early 1980s, shortly before his second son was born, Rick Minter and some colleagues at North Carolina State hatched a plan that was ahead of its time. As the linebackers coach under Monte Kiffin, an eventual Super Bowl champion with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rick teamed with two other future Super Bowl winners — Pete Carroll and Greg Robinson — to meld the data from their football world with computing power that would change the sport.

    They plucked a professor from the school’s Department of Computer Science and asked him to write a program that could ingest information about things like down-and-distance tendencies for playcallers or usage rates for different formations and spit out a linear summation of opposing offenses on old-school, dot matrix paper. 

    “I could decipher all that and decide to put game plans together based on those things,” Minter said in an interview with FOX Sports last week.

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    Four decades and many jobs later, Minter incorporates similar principles into his work as a defensive analyst at Michigan, where the insight he gleans from studying an opponent’s rushing attack informs the game plans now assembled by his son Jesse, the Wolverines’ wunderkind defensive coordinator who was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award earlier this week.

    Father and son joined Michigan’s staff earlier this year when head coach Jim Harbaugh tabbed Jesse as the replacement for Mike Macdonald, a Baltimore Ravens expat schooled in the same defensive philosophy that resurrected the Wolverines in 2021. Now the Minters have embarked on a fifth shared coaching experience in their heavily intertwined careers, with all the knowledge Rick accumulated at places like Ball State, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Kentucky and Cincinnati, where he served as head coach for 10 seasons, passed down to Jesse both literally and osmotically.

    At 39 years old and in his eighth season running defenses, Jesse has expanded on last season’s strong schematic foundation to maintain third-ranked Michigan’s standing in the upper echelon of college football. The Wolverines lead the country in total defense (241.3 yards per game), rank second in rushing defense (79.6 yards per game) and fifth in passing defense (161.7 yards per game). They’ve allowed just 11.7 points per game and have four second-half shutouts in their last six games.

    Now the only thing separating the Wolverines from a second consecutive trip to the Big Ten Championship game is an offensive juggernaut in No. 2 Ohio State, who they face in Columbus on Saturday (Noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). 

    Jesse, Rick and the defensive staff are tasked with stopping a Buckeyes squad tied for first nationally in scoring at 46.5 points per game. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, the Heisman Trophy frontrunner (2,991 passing yards, 35 touchdowns), will have to contend with Jesse’s dynamic pressure package that has produced 12 players with at least 1½ sacks through creatively blitzing corners and safeties. Star wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. (1,037 yards, 11 TDs) will try to exploit a secondary that is holding opposing offenses to an NFL passer rating of 72.7 — more than 19 points lower than last season. And a three-headed rushing attack of tailbacks TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden (1,857 yards, 24 TDs combined) that will seek to poke holes in a run defense tied with Georgia for the fewest 10-yard runs allowed this season. 

    Those are the tools in play, and it’s precisely the kind of highbrow chess match Jesse and his father live for. 

    “He’s been such a big influence on my career,” Jesse said, “and (he’s) lived in these moments before.”

    *** *** ***

    “The game of football is a game of emotion. Don’t be hesitant to show your feelings of excitement and joy over making a good play.” — Rick Minter

    The early foray into analytics wasn’t enough to prevent Kiffin and his staff from getting fired after three seasons (1980-82) without a bowl appearance at NC State. And while Rick was enchanted by the applications of their newly created software, he stepped away to relocate his wife Ellen and their expectant family to Little Rock, Arkansas, her hometown, and grieve the sudden passing of a relative. He’d swiped a copy of the computer program — or the code needed to recreate it — on his way out of Raleigh without knowing if the sport was still in his future. 

    But the hiatus only lasted a year. Rick returned to coaching the following summer at New Mexico State in 1984 and parlayed the job into a defensive coordinator position at Ball State. That’s where the Minters settled into their football life: Rick, Ellen, Josh and infant Jesse in Muncie, Indiana.

    The Minter boys, from left: Jesse, Rick and Josh. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McEwen)

    Soon enough, the boys began attending their father’s practices. Photos of 2-year-old Jesse in full Ball State uniform are among the most prized in his mother Ellen McEwen’s collection given everything that’s happened since. Jesse’s oversized socks came equipped with faux kneepads. His red jersey was emblazoned with the No. 12. And a white helmet heavy enough to topple the toddler’s head had Cardinal decals affixed to both sides.

    Former members of the Ball State program recalled that when Jesse wasn’t in uniform, he would don any black gear he could find to match his father’s preferred attire. Jesse ran around the field for high-fives and loved playing catch after practice.

    “He was a mini-me of Coach Minter,” said Copatric Dartis, a defensive back who notched four interceptions for a unit ranked 11th nationally in total defense during Rick’s final season in 1991.

    As Rick worked late in the football offices, the responsibility of ushering Josh and Jesse through youth sports fell to Ellen. She had a standout athletic career of her own in softball, basketball and tennis, with the latter producing a scholarship to Henderson State, her shared alma mater with Rick. She ran a marathon at age 40 and taught physical education for most of her adult life.

    It was Ellen who coached Josh in tennis and Jesse in baseball and soccer. And it was Ellen who spent hours shooting hoops in the driveway or playing home run derby at the fields near their house. If Jesse wanted to work on his pitching, Ellen crouched down behind the plate to catch. There were times when she played quarterback while Jesse and his friends ran routes in the high school gymnasium.

    “I gotta admit,” said Ellen, who had an amicable split from Rick when the boys were in elementary school. “I’ve had some empty-nest syndrome at moments because that was so much fun and I just absolutely loved their childhood and all that we did.”

    Jesse’s mother Ellen used to play quarterback while Jesse and his friends ran routes as kids. (Photo courtesy of Ellen McEwen)

    Meanwhile, Rick’s success at Ball State made him one of the more noteworthy assistant coaches in the country in the early 1990s. He’d built the Cardinals into a top-30 scoring defense for three consecutive years from 1989-91 — the only seasons for which FBS stats were available during his tenure — and that propelled him into his first high-profile job when Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz hired him as defensive coordinator. The Fighting Irish had won the national championship four seasons prior, in 1988, and finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll three times in a four-year stretch. 

    To Jesse, there was nothing greater.

    “I am 9 and 10 years old in the state of Indiana and going to Notre Dame games every weekend, like right at the height of Notre Dame,” Jesse said. “So those two years, I think, was probably when it hit me like, ‘Man, this is pretty cool.’”

    *** *** ***

    “A lack of knowledgeable players will mean a limit as to what we can do.” — Rick Minter

    There was a dimly lit room in the football offices at Ball State that personified Rick’s ethos as a defensive coordinator and housed an origin story for Jesse’s coaching bloodlines.

    Back then, Rick and his staff worked with 16-millimeter film to analyze practice footage and scout upcoming opponents. They labeled notecards with different personnel groupings or coverages like ‘Under G’ and ‘Over G’ or ‘Cover 2’ and ‘Cover 6’ and hung them on the walls around the room. The film from each play would pass through the projector and onto the floor, at which point it was cut and taped to the proper notecard.

    “The worst thing that could happen is after they stayed up there a day or two, or (if) it got moisture in the room,” Rick said, “they’d fall off the wall.”

    Film rooms around the country are where Rick developed his reputation as an obsessive, where he earned a cherished two-word descriptor bestowed upon coaches known for routinely burning the midnight oil. “Rick is all ball,” said Luke Huard, who worked with the Minters at Georgia State. “He was all ball,” said Trent Miles, the former head coach at Indiana State and Georgia State. 

    A page from Rick Minter’s notebook at Ball State, outlining part of his philosophy. (Courtesy Todd Finnell)

    Stories about Rick’s fanatical preparation flow freely among former players and colleagues. He was known for monopolizing the remote during lengthy film sessions to critique every player on screen, one by one, before position coaches were permitted to speak. He distributed a six-page manifesto at Ball State with sections detailing his coaching philosophy, schematic preferences and a wide-ranging list of practice procedures that included a ban on abusive language. Scouting reports for each opponent contained pages of hand-drawn plays broken down into categories: running game, pass protection and favorite passes. 

    “He would have us so prepared for games that the offense would come out and line up, and guys would start calling out what play they’re getting ready to run,” former Ball State defensive back Todd Finnell said, echoing what Michigan’s players have said about Jesse and Macdonald the last two years. 

    Rick was known for exuding patience early in the week as a new game plan was installed before growing far less lenient as kickoff approached. Punishments for mental errors or missed assignments included running laps and five-minute segments of up-downs. Behavioral or off-field issues were addressed by running stadium stairs before dawn. He once left two Cincinnati players at the team hotel because they were late for the pre-game bus.

    A portion of Rick Minter’s scouting report of Toledo, while at Ball State. (Courtesy Todd Finnell)

    Yet players adored him for striking the proper balance between holding people accountable and demonstrating he cared about their wellbeing. He provided meals for players willing to attend 5 a.m. film sessions and grew close enough with some of them to earn wedding invitations. Several former players described Rick as a father figure known for being “a hard-ass like a loving parent; it wasn’t hard-ass demeaning,” Finnell said. 

    And earlier this year, when the Bearcats honored Rick’s ‘97 team that went 8-4 and won the Humanitarian Bowl, he posted a heartfelt, 253-word message on Facebook thanking his former players and explaining how much that game meant to the program since the Michigan schedule precluded him from attending.

    “That desire to be successful, that passion,” said former Ball State linebacker Greg Garnica, the three-time Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year, “that’s rang true in all my careers and being a dad, being a husband, being a business person, you know? 

    “Incredible impact on my life.”

    *** *** ***

    “Discipline yourself to be consistent every day. Work hard to improve and you will be more than consistent — you will be consistently better.” — Rick Minter

    In December 1993, Cincinnati athletic director Rick Taylor was searching for a head football coach. Taylor knew Rick was “a fairly hot assistant coach at the time” following his run at Ball State and two strong seasons at Notre Dame, so he called Holtz to ask permission for an interview. 

    “After we decided to hire him, (Holtz) says, ‘How can you do that? How can you hire him away from me?’” Taylor recalled. “I says, ‘You gave me permission, Lou!’”

    Rick Minter was head coach at Cincinnati from 1994-2003, where young Jesse caught the coaching bug by observing a talented staff that at various times included John Harbaugh, Rex Ryan and Mike Tomlin. (Credit: David Seelig/Allsport)

    Rick held the job at Cincinnati from 1994-2003 and compiled an overall record of 53-63-1 as Jesse and Josh matured from high school to college and beyond. The boys had grown accustomed to attending practices and games when Rick was at Ball State and Notre Dame, but their father’s elevation from defensive coordinator to head coach afforded them unfiltered access to the program and university at large.

    Josh enrolled in Cincinnati’s Department of Theatre Design and Production; Jesse enjoyed “all-access” to the football team by attending recruiting weekends, mingling with players in the locker room and conversing with Rick’s stellar cast of assistants: John Harbaugh from 1989-1996 (now head coach of the Baltimore Ravens); Rex Ryan from 1996-97 (former head coach of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills); and Mike Tomlin from 1999-2000 (now head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers), among others.

    “Just remember having a chance to be around guys like that and just thinking how cool it was,” Jesse said. “That’s when I was like, ‘OK, this is something I want to do.’”

    So Rick presented his son with a choice: Jesse could either pursue Division II or Division III football as a talented but undersized wide receiver, or he could enroll at Cincinnati and work through “a favorable family plan,” as his father called it, to progress from an on-field manager as a freshman to a position in the video room as a sophomore, from a partnership with a position coach as a junior to a true student-assistant or graduate assistant role in his final year.

    Jesse chose the latter and navigated his first season with aplomb. The assistant coaches on staff gravitated toward him, Rick said, because of Jesse’s strong work ethic and likable personality. But Jesse missed playing football and informed Rick of his decision to transfer somewhere that was possible. He enrolled at nearby Mount St. Joseph University and earned four varsity letters as a wide receiver. It’s also where he met his future wife, Rachelle.

    “That’s when I was like, ‘OK, this is something I want to do,’” said Jesse Minter about working under his father, Rick in the past. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

    He broke into coaching in 2006 as a defensive intern at Notre Dame, reuniting with his father who was back in South Bend for a second stint as defensive coordinator. They grinded through long days in classrooms and film rooms by practicing the same habits Rick honed across more than 30 years of coaching — and then they lived together at night. The eight or nine months at Notre Dame represented Jesse’s first true immersion on the defensive side of the ball, and colleagues on staff could estimate how long the father-son duo had been working by how much dry-erase marker Rick had on his clothes. He was never much for erasers.

    “I didn’t know anything going on other than general small talk stuff,” Jesse said. “So I learned a ton.”

    *** *** ***

    “We, as a coaching staff, do not demand discipline to build up our images as tough guys or to inflate our egos. We simply have a responsibility to you to do all we can so that you can be a champion.” — Rick Minter

    The Minters went their separate ways when Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis dismissed them following a 10-3 season that ended with a blowout loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl. But they reunited a few years later, in 2010, for an intensive rebuild at Indiana State with Rick as defensive coordinator and Jesse coaching the defensive backs.

    Their approach was as hard-nosed at the FCS level as it was anywhere else. The defensive staff worked from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily in June — long before players arrived for fall camp — to begin studying future opponents. They ate the same meal schedule each week: buy-one-get-one subs every Tuesday night; Chinese food every Wednesday night; pizza and beer on Thursday nights with a brief reprieve once the season began to watch whichever game was on TV. Rick always paid for the food. 

    “I was a little jealous of the fact that Jesse got to be with him every day,” said Brian Polian, who coached with the Minters at Notre Dame and whose father, Bill Polian, was a longtime NFL executive best known as the president/general manager of the Indianapolis Colts. “My two brothers at one point or another had worked in an organization with my father. And I never got the chance to go to work every day with my dad.”

    Rick and Jesse’s overhaul of the ISU defense was rooted in their belief that smarter football players make better football players — another refrain paraphrased throughout Schembechler Hall in Ann Arbor. Before revealing anything about their playbook, the Minters brought the defense into a classroom to diagram every offensive formation or concept players might encounter and the nomenclature to match. They encouraged players to call these things out on the field and scored immediate buy-in when positive results soon followed.

    That season, Rick and Jesse made a shrewd decision to convert wide receiver Calvin Burnett to cornerback the same way Mike Sainristil flipped from receiver to nickelback at Michigan earlier this year. They recognized Burnett’s toughness and physicality while watching practice film and made the change two days later. Burnett went on to lead the team with six interceptions. (Sainristil is the only Wolverines’ corner yet to allow a touchdown pass among primary contributors and has flashed enough versatility to register two sacks and six quarterback pressures as a blitzer, according to Pro Football Focus.)

    “We always thought both of them were geniuses,” Burnett said, and the Sycamores improved from 92nd in total defense during the Minters’ first season to fifth nationally by 2012.

    A year at Indiana State propelled Rick to a job at Kentucky and opened the door for Jesse to become a coordinator for the first time in 2011 — at which point some differences in their personalities grew clearer.  Where Rick had been known for his stern demeanor, Jesse flashed a stronger set of people skills that enhanced staff camaraderie and strengthened bonds between coaches and players.

    He hosted players for dinner and maintained an open-door policy with his office to encourage free-flowing dialogue about football, life or anything in between. And at Georgia State, where the Panthers improved from 107th in total defense during Jesse’s first season as coordinator in 2013 to 46th in his fourth and final year, he went for daily runs with colleagues and moved his and Rachelle’s residence closer to other coaches, so their families could spend more time together.

    “Some of those traits, especially early on, helped cement who he was going to be,” said Larry Knight, a former outside linebackers coach with the Panthers.

    The Minters were driving through Atlanta in January 2016 when Jesse received a call from his defensive line coach at GSU. The coach informed Jesse of his intention to accept another position. This left a vacancy at a time when Rick was looking for a job after getting fired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Father and son agreed to reunite for the third time, but it was their first with the roles reversed: Jesse as the boss; Rick simply part of the staff.

    And Rick was uncertain how well he’d handle the transition, how easily he could change gears from the father who spent decades teaching his son to a father accepting directives from said son about a sport he’d been coaching since 1997. He and Jesse butted heads at times as Rick adjusted to being more of a sounding board than a decision-maker. Colleagues who worked on the ‘16 staff said Rick and Jesse handled the situation well in part because of the latter’s willingness to plant a flag when he needed to. 

    “I was going to have to stay in my lane a little bit, swallow my ego a little bit,” Rick said. “But it worked out great. He did a good job. You began to see he had visions on how to call a game. 

    “And then you found out it was not so hard to let him do all the work.” 

    *** *** ***

    “At all times, practice like the ‘Champions’ that you will be.” — Rick Minter

    These days, watching tape is much easier for Rick than his years spent cutting and splicing film in damp and dreary staff rooms. He focuses primarily on the opposing team’s running game in normal downs and distances while other analysts handle things like red zone and passing offense. The single push of a button queues every clip he needs.

    “It’s very fun to do,” Rick said. 

    He’s one of roughly a dozen cogs in Michigan’s defensive coaching machine that includes four full-time assistants, a few graduate students, some analysts and Jesse as “the CEO and leader,” according to Rick, whose clear-cut voice directs the pack. 

    Rick Minter, shown as a Philadelphia Eagles assistant in 2013, now reports to the son he taught. “I was going to have to stay in my lane a little bit, swallow my ego a little bit,” he said. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty Images)

    The transition from Macdonald to Minter couldn’t have gone any smoother for the Wolverines, which is exactly what Harbaugh envisioned during the hiring process last winter. Harbaugh first interviewed Jesse nearly two years ago — before offering the job to Macdonald — and kept the name in mind as a potential ready-made replacement if or when the position next opened. Both young coaches were on John Harbaugh’s staff in Baltimore when former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale reworked the team’s playbook to “kind of streamline a lot of the terminology, kind of modernize it,” Jesse said, after Dean Pees retired in 2017. 

    That kind of schematic familiarity allowed Jesse to pick up right where Macdonald left off. If things go well against Ohio State, the Wolverines could finish the regular season as the outright No. 1 team in total defense for the first time since winning the national championship in 1997.

    “It’s been a seamless fit thus far,” Jim Harbaugh said earlier this year.

    Jesse’s personal life settled into place as well. His three kids have fallen in love with the area through ice cream parties after games, chances to run around on the Michigan Stadium turf and plenty of time with their grandparents. Ellen flew in for an extended visit earlier this season to attend the Wolverines’ first game, and Rick can drive a few minutes to see Millie, Monte and Mac whenever he wants. 

    There are still young children attending practices dressed like their father. Only now they belong to Jesse instead of Rick. 

    “It means the world to have my dad close by,” Jesse said. “He’s able to be a part of our journey as a family, and it’s great that we can all share in the good times together.”

    Read more:

    Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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