Why Dean Pees joined the Atlanta Falcons and is still scheming up defenses as he turns 72

The dean of NFL coordinators in 2021 is Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who turns 72 on Saturday. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Dean Pees was in retirement -- his second retirement -- and it gnawed at him. The routine was similar, watching film every week and looking for nuances he could exploit. The reason was vastly different.

Instead of game-planning to face quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Lamar Jackson, Pees watched opponents for a radio show on Fridays in Nashville, Tennessee. He liked it. But football, coaching football, has always been his love. The half-in, half-out approach -- studying minus the rush of Sundays -- wasn't quite what he wanted. At age 71, Pees needed more.

Pees already contemplated returning to the NFL when first-year Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith called him to inquire about his interest in the team's open defensive coordinator position. Pees talked to his wife. Told some old coaching friends. And then unretired once again.

Never mind he is the oldest coordinator in the league -- offense or defense -- or that he had his first coordinator job three-plus years before Smith was born. Or that so often it seems like a young coach's game.

"I just felt that last year I wasn't done," Pees said. "And that I was looking forward to getting back if the situation presented itself."

That he wanted back in surprised few people. Not his family. Not Smith. Not players whom he has coached nor the bosses he has had throughout his career. They've all seen how competitive he is, how he thrives around the game. They wanted to make sure he was healthy after an in-season scare in 2018, but as long as he was capable of doing it, there was no question he would.

Pees insists he wouldn't have returned for just any job after retiring from the Tennessee Titans following the 2019 season. It was more than the culture and players; it was everything about the game he'd been involved in for decades. It was working for Smith, whom he knew from their days in Tennessee.

Smith had no doubt, either. He felt he could get Pees, who turns 72 on Saturday, back into coaching again. That Pees still felt like he could do what he has done for decades, what made him one of the best coordinators in the game at any level.

Pees, through it all, is a coach. And it's hard for coaches to stop. Bob Davie, himself recently retired from coaching and Pees' one-time boss at Notre Dame, knows this well. The desire follows you.

"I could see why he would do it, you know," Davie said. "Dean is a guy that at the core of it is a football coach. That's what his passion is and it didn't surprise me."

The core of Pees' coaching starts in a small Ohio town just off Interstate 75. To a place where Pees was more than a defensive coordinator. He helped develop an entire culture.

Dick Strahm knew that when he took over at the University of Findlay in 1975. His first year, Findlay went 2-8. By 1978, he went 11-1 and lost in the NAIA Division II championship game. Following the season, he needed a new defensive coordinator to pair with his then-offensive coordinator, Steve Mohr.

Strahm got a tip there was a coach at Elmwood High School with promise. There was an ambition there, Strahm was told, and he should meet with him. Strahm arrived at the school and sat with Pees. Strahm told him to visit the campus the next day and they'd talk about it.

The next day, over lunch, Strahm asked Pees to be his defensive coordinator -- with a catch. Pees would also have to teach a driver's education certification class. This was no problem, and Pees admits now he was a "pretty easy A."

This was a job. A chance. His first year, in 1979, Findlay won the NAIA Division II national championship.

"He made our defense go. ... I kept my eyes on him a couple times, but he's a guy that, he has a temper, for sure, but he's going to explain things to the defensive backs, linebackers," Strahm said. "When it gets to that level, [players] don't ask a lot of questions, but he would ask the questions and then answer them.

"So Dean was very important to us."

Pees was also instrumental in recruiting -- part of the reason driver's education certification was the class he taught. It gave Pees a car to go recruiting in, although he didn't want to use it because of the obvious driver's ed sign on it. Not the best look showing up to the homes of kids you're trying to convince to sign with you.

His style, though, sold players. He mastered the 3-4 Michigan-style defense teams were running at the time, and some of his former players still use the techniques and schemes he taught with their high school teams 40 years later.

Every year, even after decades, the 1979 team gets together. Strahm, now 87 and retired, sometimes shows up. Pees usually can't make it because of his NFL responsibilities. Either a former player or Mohr, who became one of Pees' closest friends and went on to an almost quarter-century-long career as the head coach of Division III power Trinity College in Texas -- usually phones Pees to say hello and reminisce.

Pees turned down other job offers to stay at Findlay. But 150 miles south, in the spring of 1983, Tim Rose's defensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio) left after spring practice.

"I told him, 'Dean, if you can get a job at Miami of Ohio and it's a good job,' I said, 'Take it,'" Strahm said. "If I would leave, you would be the first guy I would recommend to the head coach, but I'm not going anywhere.

"And obviously I was there another 25 years."

It wasn't easy. Strahm gave Pees his first chance. They had success -- which coaches know can be fleeting. Strahm was more than his boss. Strahm is like a second father to Pees, whose dad died in 1975 before he saw his son coach a game. It's still a steady relationship, with regular phone calls and visits almost four decades after they stopped working together.

"I learned so much from him," Pees said. "And to win like we won, to win a national championship and all that kind of stuff was just so rewarding."

Still, Strahm and Pees knew it was time to go. This was a Division I job at a school known for skyrocketing coaches and the relative big time by comparison to Findlay. He wouldn't have to teach driver's ed or sports and society anymore.

But his innovation was just beginning.

When Pees arrived at Miami, the team ran a 3-4 slant-and-angle defense in part due to lineage from the school's former coach, Bo Schembechler, who left for Michigan. He learned it. But once he settled in, Pees saw need for a change.

"We sat down as a staff at Miami of Ohio and built our own defense," Pees said. "Kind of took it from scratch and put it together and called it what we wanted to call it, and that's kind of how things started."

He went to Wisconsin for a clinic, where he learned and then implemented a 4-3. At Wisconsin, Pees met with defensive coordinator Jim Hilles -- the future father-in-law of his current secondary coach, Jon Hoke.

This showed Pees different ways to create pressure in the front seven, to affect change with scheme and use his personnel to their strengths instead of the rigidity of the defense. By 1985, the Miami defense was Pees' creation.

In 1986, Pees' final year at Miami, it won the MAC championship. More stunningly, Miami upset No. 8 LSU in Baton Rouge with five forced fumbles, two interceptions and three goal-line stands. It also was one of the only times Rose made an in-game suggestion to Pees -- telling him to stay in zone because the Tigers couldn't solve it.

Pees was still a couple of evolutions away from the semblance of the defense he runs now, but this was the beginning. This is where the thoughts really started of multiplicity and creating problems for offenses so commonplace in today's football.

Pees went from Miami to Navy, where he was secondary coach for three years and learned the nuances of option football, which would be beneficial later. In 1990, Nick Saban called Rose to ask about Pees. In his first -- and only -- year at Toledo, Saban considered hiring Pees as his defensive coordinator.

"I said, 'Man, he's the guy,'" Rose said. "I don't know if that was the final word for Nick Saban or not, but when he called me, I said, 'Dean Pees will do a great job for you.'"

If there was an overarching influence on Pees' current philosophy, it came from Saban -- first at Toledo and then Michigan State. Versed in a 3-4 and 4-3, Pees ran a version of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 4-3 defense at Toledo.

When Saban left to be the Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick in 1991 -- Pees made a similar move years later, departing a head-coaching job at Kent State in 2004 to go work for Belichick and the Patriots as a linebackers coach -- Pees remained in college.

With Saban gone, Pees wanted to use the same defense but didn't have the players. So he improvised, taking the concept of what would be his three-technique lineman (typically a high-level pass-rusher) and instead having a standup linebacker do everything the three-technique would normally do.

"I noticed it really messed a lot of people up and they thought we were playing a 3-4 and we really weren't," Pees said. "We were playing a 4-3, but the guy who was playing standup linebacker was really a three-technique.

"And so then I started adding guys from the secondary and saying, if this is screwing up the front, maybe we can screw up the quarterback by bringing secondary guys and dropping linebackers [into coverage] and kind of making them interchangeable and that's kind of where it all started."

Pees, like all coaches, pilfered ideas he liked from other schemes -- but the genesis of his pressure existed. He credits Saban as the coach from whom he borrowed the most, including his philosophy of trying as much as he could even if it seemed unconventional.

At Notre Dame as the secondary coach in 1994, he introduced pressure from nickel and dime defensive backs to Davie and Lou Holtz -- a concept Davie kept as defensive coordinator even after Pees left after a year to go work with Saban at Michigan State.

"He's one of the top coaches that we've ever had on our staff on the defensive side of the ball," Saban said. "And I think the success that he's had in the NFL probably bears that out, along with the great job he did for us."

It's the philosophy Pees still uses, in part, today. Bring pressure from everywhere. Everyone in his defense has blitzing capability. Pees insists all his linebackers learn every position within their group. Same with his cornerbacks and safeties. Why he stresses teaching concepts.

It helps with pressure and confusion of offenses, allowing his creative mind to do almost whatever it would like to try. It creates more versatile players who can also understand the defense and make their own suggestions.

Pees is willing to try anything and often pushes for suggestions from players. If it works, great. If it doesn't -- and more often than not he knows now what will and won't -- at least they were being different.

"Don't pigeonhole yourself," Pees said. "Do what your players can do best but also be a little inventive. Work on trying to find new ways to do things. It may end up playing the same way, but don't be stale."

The innovation was clearly there in 2019 when he was coordinator of the Titans' defense. In the playoffs, his defense bested Tom Brady in what would be his final game in New England. He then pulled out Navy option strategies to contain Jackson and upset Baltimore, leading to an AFC title game against Kansas City.

A couple of hours before the game, Pees was going through his process. Nearby, his son, Matt, was on the sideline working with him. Years ago, when Pees was coordinating his way through college and the NFL, they talked about this possibility. Of coaching together, working together.

And here they were, a game away from the Super Bowl, a dream realized.

"It just dawns on you," Matt Pees said. "It wasn't necessarily a moment. It's just a special thing."

The Titans lost. Pees retired the next day. Matt, in a full-circle kind of moment, became the head coach at Findlay High School -- the same town that gave Pees his first big break.

Then the Falcons' Smith called. Separately, Matt was also talking with Smith about a job. It's not the reason Pees returned to coaching, but it didn't hurt.

Pees may be the oldest defensive coordinator in the league. But he's not done. Not yet. He has seen his peers still going -- Rose, his old Miami boss, is the defensive coordinator at Ashland University at 79 -- and figures if he still loves it and has it in him, why not.

"If I feel like I can't get the job done, I will not make anybody keep me or I would not put a team or the players or anybody else in that situation if I didn't think I was on top of my game," Pees said. "If it ever comes to that, I will gladly step aside."

Pees says he knows when he'll actually be done. He doesn't see himself doing what his predecessor in Tennessee, Dick LeBeau, did -- coaching until he was 80. But he's in no rush to leave. He's enjoying it too much. He's an artist -- literally, Pees is a published musician -- in love with football. Has been for decades. And if a man is doing what makes him happy, why would he leave?