Obstacles in Jonathan Gannon’s career path led him to Cardinals

TEMPE, Ariz. — You hear Jonathan Gannon before you see him.

A booming “Hey, hey, hey!” announces his arrival through the door of the media room at the Arizona Cardinals’ facility.

Some days, the head coach adds in a few heavy claps to accentuate his greeting, but you can tell pretty quickly how Gannon’s day is going by how loud his “heys” are — and by how many.

The energy the 40-year-old Gannon emits is palpable. It’s contagious. It’s loud.

It’s also, surprising to many, real.

Sitting behind a wide granite desk inside his corner office at the team’s practice facility, Gannon said it’s how he’s wired. But mostly, Gannon is this way because of his late father, Jim.

A Vietnam War veteran who never went to college, Jim Gannon started his own company in Cleveland painting houses and hanging wallpaper. He paid Jonathan $20 an hour to help him in high school and college. It was on those jobs that Jonathan learned he wanted to do something else.

“I don’t know if he loved doing that for a living, but that’s what he had to do,” Jonathan said. “I haven’t worked a day in my life. That’s why everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you have so much energy,’ and like … why would you not? I’ve been on that job site.

“There’s so many people I feel like hate what they do for a living. That’s a hard way to go. I never had to live that.”

In 2009, Jim died of a heart attack on the job. He was 58 years old. Gannon mourned his father’s death, but he said he spent more time worried about his mother, Janice — Jim’s high school sweetheart who still lives in the same house Jonathan grew up in.

“I think everything that I needed to know from my dad, I kind of knew: hard work, treat people the right way, have a good attitude,” Gannon said.

Gannon’s energy continued to be rooted in those days working alongside his father, knowing what he didn’t want to do with the rest of his life.

That approach has been consistent throughout Gannon’s journey to becoming the sixth-youngest head coach in the NFL this season, a journey that included a football-career-ending injury and a detour into scouting. It’s his approach now, 7½ months into his first head-coaching job, helping him navigate the early days of a season that has been defined by the team’s growth amid a rebuild as the Cardinals (1-2) prepare to face the 49ers (3-0) in San Francisco on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox).

It’s how he has faced detour after detour to get to the pinnacle of his journey, starting as a teenager.

A dream to play in the NFL was cut short by a hip injury as a freshman in college. Once Gannon got his first NFL coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons, the 24-year-old made it a goal to be a head coach in 15 years. Although that first job lasted just one season, it led to an opportunity to become a scout and meet coaches and future mentors who would be pivotal in shaping his career path.

Each obstacle Gannon faced along the way led to the next step in becoming a head coach at 40.

BY THE TIME Gannon was 19, a safety playing for Louisville, he knew what he wanted to do with his life: Play 10 years in the NFL, make enough money to be financially independent and become the head coach at his high school alma mater, Saint Ignatius in Cleveland.

“It wasn’t just a dream,” said Brandon Staley, one of Gannon’s childhood friends and now the Los Angeles Chargers head coach. “It would’ve been a reality.

“I don’t think people realize how good of a player he was. This guy would have played 10 years in the NFL, and this guy wasn’t just a try-hard guy. This guy was an outstanding player. I like to say he would’ve been Eric Weddle, you know, before Eric Weddle or, like, during that time. He had that type of talent.”

A two-year starter at cornerback and wide receiver in high school, Gannon was selected second-team All-Ohio in 2000 by The Associated Press, and he was chosen All-Ohio first-team by Ohiopreps.com.

The plan was dashed 10 games into his redshirt freshman season. It was Nov. 7, 2002. Louisville was at Cincinnati for a Thursday night game. Gannon was getting his first career start. His parents were in the crowd along with his future wife, Gina, and her parents. During the third series, Gannon suffered a hip injury that was later compared to Bo Jackson’s career-changing injury. Gannon had the first of two major hip surgeries — and when he woke up, the surgeon told Gannon he wasn’t going to play football again.

Armed with the bravado of a teenager, Gannon fired back: “Yes, I will.”

Gannon said it was the only time he cried to his father.

“Dad, I’m done playing,” he told him through tears.

To this day, nearly 21 years later, Gannon remembers his father’s response:

“Can you still breathe?”

Gannon affirmed that, yes, he was breathing.

“Figure something else out,” he recollects his dad saying.

Though Gannon went through spring practice in 2004, he never played another down.

“That realization was tough,” Gannon said.

Bobby Petrino, who replaced John L. Smith as coach at Louisville the next season, made Gannon a graduate assistant, then brought him to the Falcons in 2007.

There, at 24, Gannon’s coaching apprenticeship began.

Between Mike Zimmer, then the Falcons’ defensive coordinator, and Hall of Fame cornerback Emmitt Thomas, who was the Falcons’ defensive backs coach, Gannon received a crash course in coaching. Every Saturday during their lone spring together, Gannon would meet the 63-year-old Thomas at the office at 6 a.m., and they’d start watching film of the previous week. Then Thomas would have Gannon install the defense, dissect the tape and draw on the board, teaching him how to coach in the process.

“If you don’t get up and preach,” Thomas would say to Gannon over and over, “how are you gonna get up and preach?”

Then the two would golf for four hours and talk more football.

When Petrino abruptly resigned after 13 games, Gannon had a decision to make: follow Petrino to the University of Arkansas and become the youngest defensive backs coach in the SEC or try to find another NFL job. Petrino warned Gannon he probably wouldn’t get another job.

Gannon chose risk over comfort. He wanted to stay in the NFL. But Petrino turned out to be right.

Neither Zimmer nor Thomas was able to help Gannon find a job. Gannon made a last-ditch attempt to catch on with a college, but it was February, and staffs were full.

Gannon had nowhere to go. He moved back to Louisville and took a job in private equity for no other reason than to make a living.

Every weekend, Gannon hit the road to meet with different coaches, trying to find a way back into the NFL.

WHEN BILLY DEVANEY took over as the St. Louis Rams’ general manager in 2009, he knew he wanted to hire Gannon.

But Devaney, who worked with Gannon during his time as the Falcons’ assistant general manager in 2007, didn’t have a coaching position open.

His only option for Gannon to get back in the NFL was on the Rams’ personnel side, and Gannon’s first job was as an NFS scout. He had to start evaluating the prospects a year out, and send grades and reports to National Football Scouting Inc., one of the two primary scouting services NFL teams use. So in the spring of 2010, while the rest of the Rams’ personnel department was working on that year’s draft prospects, Gannon was scouting the class of 2011, from NAIA to FBS players.

“It is a lot of work,” said Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes, who worked as a scout with Gannon in St. Louis. “It’s a lot of work. It’s very detailed and it’s one of the best, if not the best, training grounds a scout can ever have.”

And Gannon dove right in.

“Why not learn how to evaluate a little better?” Gannon said.

Gannon thought it’d give him a better understanding of the entire football operations side of an organization should he ever become a head coach.

And Devaney thought Gannon was good at it.

“If he wanted to stay on the personnel side, he’d probably be a general manager by now,” Devaney said.

In 2010, he was brought in house to be a pro scout, with his eyes still on coaching.

Going from coaching to scouting and back to coaching was, and still is, a rare move. Usually coaches go to scouting or scouts go to coaching but rarely do they then go back.

“I’m glad I did it,” Gannon said of scouting. “But at the time, I was like, ‘God I want to coach.'”

It happened in 2012. After three years of scouting, Gannon landed in Tennessee as a defensive quality control coach under Mike Munchak. Zimmer, who Gannon worked with in Atlanta, became the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach in 2014 and took Gannon with him, setting into motion Gannon’s own rise to the top.

A FEW DAYS after the Vikings lost in the NFC Championship Game in January 2018, Gannon — then the team’s 34-year-old assistant defensive backs coach — answered his phone.

It was then-New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

The two had worked together in 2011, when McDaniels was the Rams’ offensive coordinator and Gannon was a pro scout, and though they never coached together, the two developed a connection through talking football. McDaniels became one of the most influential people in Gannon’s football life.

But it wasn’t the first time Gannon had heard from McDaniels that January. About a week-and-a-half earlier, McDaniel had called to say he was taking the Indianapolis Colts head coaching job and that Gannon should be ready: He was going to be the Colts’ next defensive backs coach.

When McDaniels called again, Gannon had stopped at Chipotle with Gina and some friends who were in town, on his way home from witnessing the “Minneapolis Miracle,” when the Vikings came back on the final play to beat the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round.

McDaniels suggested Gannon go to Indianapolis over the weekend to meet defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and general manager Chris Ballard in person, talk some football and get the lay of the land.

Gannon balked at first.

“I didn’t want to make the trip,” Gannon said. “We can get done what we need to get done on the phone.”

Gina pushed him to go and he relented.

“I’m glad I did,” Gannon said.

Eberflus, now the Chicago Bears’ head coach, had Gannon teach him a front, a coverage and a pressure on the board, and then took Gannon to the field to teach him the corresponding drills.

“I think Eberflus would reiterate, but [we were] pretty blown away by, one, his football knowledge, but also his energy,” Ballard said.

Two days after the Patriots lost the Super Bowl LII to the Philadelphia Eagles, McDaniels pulled out of the Colts job, opting to remain with the Patriots.

“I’m like, ‘Well, s—,'” Gannon said.

Going back to the Vikings was an option, but former coach Mike Zimmer had already started planning his staff without Gannon.

Then Ballard called. “I still want to hire you,” he told Gannon.

Ballard convinced Colts coach Frank Reich to interview Gannon, who got the job — again.

It was a leap of faith, Staley said. “It was one of the best decisions that he could have made.”

Gannon doesn’t think he’d have ended up in Indianapolis if he stayed home that weekend.

Ballard was pretty much sure of it.

“Probably not, being honest,” Ballard said. “We wouldn’t have known him and probably would’ve said, ‘All right, Frank, here’s a list of names. Let’s go down them. Who do we want to go with?’ Because, really, we didn’t have any background with Jonathan. None.”

GANNON DIDN’T LIKE to play the schmoozing game.

Networking wasn’t for him.

He’s also not a big phone guy. He didn’t want to spend time on the phone with another coach trying to grease his wheels. If he was going to talk to them, he wanted to talk ball, he wanted to learn something.

Gannon hasn’t stopped seeking out fellow coaches to talk ball. That’s how he ended up sitting down with 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan to discuss how to block outside zone at the NFL owners meetings in March.

While he might not have liked to network, Gannon’s circle was key to his rapid ascent up the coaching ladder. His close friends hit during the 2021 hiring cycle. Staley got hired by the Chargers. Arthur Smith landed in Atlanta. And Nick Sirianni, who was the Colts’ offensive coordinator, went to the Eagles.

And they all wanted to hire Gannon.

“It was certainly a big part of my plan,” Staley said, “because to have your best friend be your defensive coordinator and know that level of trust that you have in one another, it would’ve been, obviously, a dream come true.”

Smith, who shared an office the size of a bathroom with Gannon in 2011 and 2012 as quality control coaches with the Tennessee Titans, wanted Gannon to be his defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator.

Sirianni wanted to take Gannon to Philadelphia as his defensive coordinator.

Bears coach Matt Nagy also wanted him as defensive coordinator.

Gannon ultimately chose the Eagles.

At 38, having had his own defensive backs room for three seasons, Gannon knew he was a step away from being a head coach. He also felt he had earned it. When he left the Vikings and Colts, they were both top-10 defenses. The Eagles were, too, before Gannon left.

“Is there more people with experience? Yeah,” Gannon said. “Is there people that are better than me? Yeah. Should they have gotten a job over me? Probably, if they got in the door. But, like, the people that kind of bitch about that, well, look, it just so happened that’s how it was: I was on good teams.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if we weren’t good in Philly, you know what I mean?”

GANNON LIKES TO to preach to his players the power of adaptability.

And he talks from experience.

His career path changed course multiple times and he rolled with it, keeping his energy high and his eyes higher.

With the Falcons, though, he decided he wanted to be an NFL head coach. In typical Gannon fashion, he was disciplined in his timeline. He knew he wanted to reach his goal within 15 years. “OK,” Gannon said back then. “I want to do it quick. Well, it’s up to me then. Like, how good can I be?”

Fast-forward to 2023. The day after the Eagles lost Super Bowl LVII to the Kansas City Chiefs in February, and a year after interviewing for the head job in Minnesota, Houston and Denver, and after interviewing with Houston again this year, Gannon sat down with the Cardinals, who had fired head coach Kliff Kingsbury after four seasons. Gannon didn’t have much sleep. For years, he kept notes on how he wanted to run his team when the chance arose, and having gone through the interview process last year, he was already prepared. When he walked into his interview, all Gannon brought was a single notecard and then showed owner Michael Bidwill his call sheet from the Super Bowl.

On Valentine’s Day, he finally got his chance when the Cardinals hired him — seven weeks and a day after turning 40.

Through Gannon’s journey, he remained the same person.

But everyone has a moment when they come down. When Gannon walked into his postgame news conference following his first win as an NFL head coach on Sunday, the familiar greeting didn’t precede him. He wasn’t the upbeat, loud, infectious person.

He was stoic, quiet, business-like. He hadn’t switched out of his game mode, when Gannon shelves emotion in favor of a clear-headed focus on the sideline. If there was one time when Gannon’s energy should’ve been off the charts — after two should-win games, Arizona finally got a victory by upsetting the Cowboys — Gannon went the other way.

Those around Gannon saw this day coming. When, though? That was up for debate. But they knew.

“I don’t think,” Devaney said, “anybody is surprised that Jon has achieved what he’s achieved.”