Adam Gase will lead the Jets for the first time on Sunday, when they open the season against the Bills. This is the latest chapter in a football life for Gase, who fell in love with football at Marshall High School in Michigan and made it to the NFL coaching ranks despite never playing college football.
Here is a look at Gase’s journey to this point, through the eyes of some of those who traveled it with him.
The Spartans were recruiting quarterback Ryan Van Dyke at Marshall High when coach Rich Hulkow told Michigan State assistant Deen Pees he should take a look at Gase — then a high school senior — as a coaching assistant. Gase went to East Lansing and became an undergraduate assistant, learning his craft from then-Michigan State coach Nick Saban, who would go on to win six national championships at LSU and Alabama.
Nick Saban: “There was a guy that played on our team from his high school that was a quarterback. They were friends. He ended up coming around a little bit when he was a student and had a genuine interest in the game, and wanted an opportunity to create a role for himself where he could do something.
“I think a couple of things stick out. The first thing is the guy has a great work ethic. The second thing is he’s very intelligent, and you could kind of see right off the bat that he was a conceptual thinker that really understood the game well and picked up quickly on things that young guys learn. It was no surprise to me that he blossomed in the profession and he’s done a really good job.
“It was pretty obvious that he had the right stuff. He was a very loyal guy, too, which I really appreciated.”
When Saban left Michigan State to go to LSU in 2000, he brought Gase with him. He was the only person on Saban’s staff to go from East Lansing to Baton Rouge with the coach. Gase served as a graduate assistant and then a recruiting intern. It was there he mentored a young safety named Ryan Clark, who went on to play 13 NFL seasons and now works for ESPN as an analyst.
Ryan Clark: “Adam taught me how to learn football. I was always curious and always wanted to learn and always had questions. At the time, he was the dude that sat there and answered them all and talked to me about film and really just helped me — I didn’t know it then — become a pro. He was the dude that took the time to help me.
“At that time, it was just about conversation. He did the grunt work. When there was something that was talked about in meetings or there was information that he understood that I didn’t, he was who I went to to break it down. I think sometimes it’s not even necessarily that you’re being taught things. It’s that somebody is taking the time to have a conversation with you about something you think you know but you’re not sure.
“He came over with Saban. So, for me, it was not necessarily a direct line, but it was a branch from Nick that was easier to talk to. At that time, I think he understood that.
“He would be like, ‘Hey, man, I think Nick is crazy.’ When you’re a 20-year-old kid and you’re coming off a year where you’re one of the best safeties in the SEC and you’re thinking you’re going to meet this guy and he’s going to love you and he doesn’t, you try to figure those things out, and Adam was that bridge for me.
“You see the intensity Adam has. It’s slightly scary. Back then, he didn’t have any power. You can’t walk around like that when the dude who runs the show is the most intense person in the world. I do think when you work under somebody like that, I think it’s impossible to not pick up some of those habits.
“Adam was just cool. He was happy as hell. He was close to my age. I enjoyed talking to him. I enjoyed being around him. He was a fun dude.”
After briefly considering a career selling insurance, Gase returned to his home state of Michigan and took an internship in the personnel department with the Lions in 2003. He moved over to the coaching staff as an offensive assistant in 2005 and became quarterbacks coach in 2007. Damien Woody, a guard for the Lions from 2004-07, noticed this young assistant nicknamed “Goose.”
Damien Woody: “He’s a grinder. He was on [offensive coordinator] Mike Martz’s hip. He was like a sponge. He really was. He was super fun to be around, really knowledgeable about the game of football. You could tell he was well schooled being around Nick Saban. He was all about ball. He wasn’t about any of the other stuff. If it wasn’t about football, it wasn’t interesting to him.
“He worked his ass off in a variety of roles that had to be done on offense during the preparation of the week. He was Mike Martz’s understudy. He’ll definitely incorporate some things that he learned under Mike Martz.
“Usually those [young coaches] are in the background, but you could just see: Whatever they asked him do, he was on it. He was smart, sharp. Working under Mike Martz isn’t easy. He was on his game.”
Gase followed Martz to San Francisco and spent a year as an offensive assistant with the 49ers before joining Josh McDaniels’ staff in Denver as the wide receivers coach in 2009. Gase was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2013 and oversaw a record-setting offense led by Peyton Manning. One of his receivers was Eric Decker, who had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2012-13.
Eric Decker: “One of the things about Gase with his passion is I can remember sitting in meeting rooms with Demaryius [Thomas] and counting how many times he said the F-word because when he tries to illustrate something and really emphasize what he’s trying to get across, he’ll drop about 30 F-bombs in a meeting. It becomes somewhat comical, but I think it shows his passion for football and his job.
“Him and Peyton were a perfect match. They had a lot of fun together because they both were jokesters and would give each other a hard time, and yet they were both so passionate about football, about film study, about always being ahead of the opponent or having a second plan.
That’s why we had so much success. They bounced so many great ideas, so many great adjustments off one another. I also think Gase learned a lot about the game being around Peyton, like we all did, because he had so much knowledge.”
The Broncos coaching staff was fired after the 2014 season, and Gase went to the Bears with head coach John Fox to be his offensive coordinator. He only stayed in Chicago for a year before leaving to become the head coach of the Dolphins, where he spent three years in charge. The Executive Vice President of Football Operations was Mike Tannenbaum.
Mike Tannenbaum: “It was August of 2017. We made the playoffs in Year 1. Ryan Tannehill is having a really good training camp. He had a non-contact injury that looked really bad. I immediately start going into the thought process of, ‘OK, if this is the worst-case scenario, what are our options? Who do you sign or trade for?’ I started looking at the list, and I knew I had to talk to [general manager] Chris Grier and talk to Adam. I went to go talk to Adam. He was at the doctor’s office with Ryan and his wife, Lauren, going over the MRI results with the doctor.
“To me, it was a great learning experience for me. We all care about Ryan Tannehill. He was our starting quarterback and is a great guy. We want to make sure he gets the best care in the world. But I always thought, ‘Let the doctors do their thing and I have to worry about the team.’ It really humanized it. Given the options that we had, they were going to be there in an hour anyway, and he wanted to make sure the captain of our ship was in good hands and he’s as good as he can be.
“I had never seen a coach, let alone a head coach who was also the play caller and the offensive coordinator, leave during training camp, especially when it looks like you just lost your starting quarterback for the year to go wait for the MRI, sit and wait for the doctor to read the MRI and make sure they’re alright. It was a great learning experience. It was the right thing to do. I thought it showed good wisdom on his part and good instincts. We’re often worried about how we’re going to solve the next problem, but at the end of the day we’re dealing with people and their dreams and their goals and their vulnerabilities. It was just a great reminder that you should put the person first.”