Sirianni’s career pointed in right direction as Colts prepare to face Bills
The yellowed Post-Journal newspaper clipping, preserved in a file folder, sports a headline that reads: “Springville Hands Trojans Their First Loss.”
More than 22 years later, the setback still has Nick Sirianni chapped.
“I dropped a big fourth-down pass,” the 1999 Southwestern Central School graduate recalled Wednesday night. “It would have kept the drive going.”
Instead, the Trojans wound up losing, 26-14, a frustrating setback that would derail their hopes of playing for a Section VI championship. Armed with the benefit of time, however, Sirianni calls that personal disappointment a “turning point.”
“I worked my tail off so that it didn’t happen again,” he said.
While Sirianni may have dropped the ball as a 17-year-old on an October night in Springville, he’s figuratively held on tight ever since then to a game he loves, successfully navigating a series of defining moments in a journey that has taken him from Charles A. Lawson Field; to the University of Mount Union; to Indiana University of Pennsylvania; and, ultimately, to the National Football League.
Now, on Saturday afternoon, Sirianni, the 39-year-old offensive coordinator of seventh-seeded Indianapolis (11-5), will be on the visitors’ sideline when they take on No. 2 Buffalo (13-3) in the AFC wild-card playoff game in Orchard Park.
“They are a heck of a football team,” Sirianni said of the Bills.
The same could be said about the Colts. In his third season in Indy, Sirianni’s role in making that happen cannot be overstated. The guy who grew up in West Ellicott as the youngest son of Fran and Amy has made a name for himself throughout the NFL. In a career that has taken him from Kansas City to San Diego/Los Angeles to Indianapolis, Sirianni has been a coach and mentor to, among others, quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck; wide receivers Keenan Allen and T.Y. Hilton; and Colts’ rookie running back Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for a franchise-record 253 yards in Indy’s playoff-clinching victory over Jacksonville last week.
Brother Jay couldn’t be more proud.
During Nick’s first training camp with the Colts in 2018, Jay and father Fran were sitting in the back of the room during the team’s offensive meetings. Invited to join the session by head coach Frank Reich, Jay and Fran were in their glory.
“I’m watching Nick install a segment of the offense,” Jay said, “and I’m watching him break it down and watching him teach NFL players concepts. … He did a tremendous job. He was really good. He was teaching. It was very impressive. At that moment, I’m like, man, he’s legit.”
Nick, who graduated from Mount Union with three Division III national championship rings as a player and later added a fourth as an assistant coach, admits that he’s “addicted to football.”
“I think one of the things that is cool about football is, one, I’m able to be part of a team still,” he said. “A lot of people don’t get to be part of a team. I’m 39 years old, but I’m still on a team and, in my opinion, it’s the most complete team game there is.
“What I do affects what Philip Rivers does and what Philip Rivers does affects what I do. If I don’t do my job right, everybody can suffer. … It’s the ultimate team game. I love that about the sport.”
Nick added: “Whether we win and we’re celebrating in the locker room or it’s a Friday walk-through, I love it. … There are so many things that I love, and so many friendships and bonds through the game that will last forever. The game has provided a good life for myself and my family. It has done a lot for me.”
The foundation for that “good life” started at home.
First, Fran, a Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame inductee, played college football at Clarion and coached Southwestern from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s.
Oldest brother, Mike, 48, is the head coach at Division III Washington & Jefferson College where he has compiled one of the best winning percentages in the NCAA and is a member of the CSHOF Class of 2021. He was the first from the family to attend Mount Union and left there with three national championships (one as a player, two as a coach), blazing a trail for his brothers to follow.
Meanwhile, Jay, 45, a history teacher at his high school alma mater, coached Southwestern to a pair of New York State Public High School Athletic Association championships in 2008 and 2009 and is now the Section VI football co-chairman. He was a player on one of the Purple Raiders’ national title teams.
“We pounded on (Nick) growing up,” Jay said, almost proudly. “Mike and I didn’t tackle anybody when we played, but we tackled Nick. … He had to fight every day in that house and he had to compete every single day. That makes him the competitor that he is.
“We’re competitive in different ways. Mike and Nick are a lot like my dad. They’re very emotional. I took the different route with that.”
Their approach to football is a bit different, too.
“For Mike and Nick that was always their end goal. That’s their career. It wasn’t for me,” Jay said. “I enjoy teaching and I enjoy where I’m at. Nick and Mike always knew they wanted to be a football coach. Me? It took me a little longer to figure that out.”
Figuring out how the Colts’ offense will attack the Bills’ defense on Saturday has been Nick’s challenge this week.
“I see good players at each level,” Nick said. “Jerry Hughes is a good pass rusher; Tremaine Edmunds is a really good linebacker; the safeties are active; and I’ve got a ton of respect for (cornerback) Tre’Davious White. They’ve just got good players at all levels. With Coach McDermott and Coach Frazier it just seems like anytime I go against one of their defenses, they’re always very sound schematically. When you have good players and good coaches, it’s no surprise they’ve won 13 games.”
Nick also gave a shout-out to Reich — “He’s not only a great football coach but a great man” — and Bills’ offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who has been a friend and mentor since they worked together when they were members of the Chiefs’ coaching staff.
“(Daboll) taught me more about football than anyone,” Nick said. “I love that guy. He’s one of the best football minds I’ve been around. He took my coaching ability to another level.”
The rest of the NFL has taken notice, too, as Nick has often been included on short lists for head coaching openings the last few seasons. When, or if, that happens remains to be seen, but one thing appears clear: He’s the same guy today as he was growing up, because nothing was handed to him.
“If we don’t go to Mount Union, I don’t think Nick is in the NFL,” Jay said.
As the story goes, Nick happened to be working out at the Lakewood YMCA a number of years ago during the same time that former Kansas City head coach Todd Haley was. Haley, who was vacationing in the area, was intrigued by the Mount Union gear that Nick was wearing, prompting them to engage in a football conversation. Ultimately, Nick was hired by the Chiefs.
“I just know I was at the right place at the right time,” Nick said.
Added Jay: “There are so many different events that kind of all added up.”
Since their college days, Mike, Jay and Nick have made a practice of wearing swag on game days from their high school alma mater, which is located a short drive from the home they grew up in.
To affirm that practice, Nick texted friends a photo last season that showed him wearing a Southwestern cap and sweatshirt as he walked through the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis the morning of the Colts’ game against Denver.
The symbolism was intentional.
“I like wearing that stuff,” Nick said, “because it reminds me of where I came from.”
Noted Jay, the social studies teacher: “History is all about turning points. It’s all about how one event can change the trajectory of people’s lives.”
Who then could have possibly known the events during a high school football game in Springville a generation ago could have actually served as a springboard?
“I didn’t work at school like I did at football,” Nick admitted, “but football taught me how to work and it taught me a lot of things. … You have to be mentally tough to coach football. It prepares you for life’s ventures.”
The next one will happen at One Bills Drive tomorrow afternoon.