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Jonathan Gannon Opens Door To Head Coaching Career
First-year Cardinals boss brings energy as franchise resets
By Darren Urban Sep 01, 2023

This article was originally posted June 6, 2023

Jonathan Gannon is on the other side of the desk.

Since the Cardinals moved into the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center in 1990, the head coach's office has occupied the southwest corner of the building, and the coach – whether it was Kliff Kingsbury or Steve Wilks or Bruce Arians or Ken Whisenhunt or Dennis Green or Dave McGinnis – sat behind a big desk with his back to the door.

"Didn't make any sense to me," Gannon said.

So the Cardinals' newest head coach flipped it around. Part of it was because of where the TV was mounted, and Gannon wanted to take notes while watching video more easily. But part of it was the ability to see out the door, see who might be out there. He might have something to say.

The big energy Gannon gives off is palpable, whether he is entering a press conference or talking to players or just running into someone in the hall. Often, the person he's talking to won't be the only one to hear it.

"All the time," defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said with a smile, sitting in his office down the hall from Gannon. "Open the door. Give it 20 minutes. Even if he's coming over to talk (expletive) to me."

The Cardinals needed that energy. Coming off a rough 4-13 season and quarterback Kyler Murray shelved indefinitely after a late-season ACL tear, owner Michael Bidwill hit the reset button. The team moved on from Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim. New GM Monti Ossenfort was hired, and he brought Bidwill's attention to Gannon.

At 40, Gannon had not previously been a head coach, and his staff is relatively inexperienced too, especially in the NFL. But the man everyone calls "J.G." has surrounded himself with believers, and he wants nothing to do with low expectations – "I just cringed when you said that word (rebuild). Our sole focus is to win football games," Gannon said in a press conference earlier this offseason.

"I've never seen him low energy," said linebacker Kyzir White, who played for Gannon in Philadelphia last season. "He's going to light up a room, he's going to joke. It's a great environment to be a part of.

"You have to reach his level of positivity and energy, or you are going to be the oddball out of the bunch."

The vibe off the field doesn't necessarily translate to victories on it. Gannon knows there is a lot more that goes into the rehabilitation of an organization. But he does think it helps, and more importantly, it's who he is.

"People don't want to be around Debbie Downers," Gannon said. "If you say you are a team guy, even in a leadership role – and that doesn't mean you can't be a great leader without that energy, that sustained positive enthusiasm. But it's not hard for me. I'm not putting on a front.

"There are some days when I'm (expletive) draggin' ass and pissy. But players smell that out. What's his problem? If you want your team to be up, your players to be like that, your coaches to be like that, if I'm not setting that example, what am I talking about?"

GANNON was only 10 games into his college career, and his surgeon told him his football playing days were over.

The Louisville safety's hip was jacked up badly, but Bo Jackson had come back from a bad hip. Why not him? That belief didn't dissipate – not until much later, not until he sat out a year rehabbing only to figure out in real time at ensuing spring practices he was no longer the athlete he once was.

"No one understood how devastating that was at the time," said Gannon's teammate and fellow Louisville safety Kerry Rhodes, who also played three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. "We were young. We think we can bounce back and play. It took a long time to heal and once he came back, he just wasn't as fluid of an athlete, he didn't have that same burst. He had the wherewithal to realize right away when some people would've continued to play and been average and lived that life. After that, I think he found his calling early."

Gannon said he only mourned the loss of his playing career for about a day. That had always been his style, to make a decision and go.

"I called my Dad, and I was down," Gannon said. "He was like, 'Can you still breathe?' I was like, 'Yeah.' And it came back to, 'OK, figure it out. You've got a different path.'"

Gannon's father told his son, who had been an excellent golfer in high school, to forge a career on the PGA Tour. That, Gannon decided, might take a little more work to reach such a level.

Gannon playing high school basketball for St. Ignatius.
Gannon playing high school basketball for St. Ignatius.

But Gannon had to make tough choices before. At St. Ignatius High School, where Gannon was a star in basketball and football (baseball, perhaps his best sport, was dropped before high school to play AAU hoops), he was going to have a chance to get a full ride scholarship in either sport. His coaches made him understand that the NBA wasn't going to happen, and the NFL could. So Gannon dropped AAU basketball to run track and improve his overall athleticism.

Gannon's plan had been to play in the NFL for 10 years and then go back to coach at St. Ignatius.

"He was way more athletic than you would have thought," said Rhodes, who was a year ahead of Gannon. "A super athlete. All the tools and the intangibles. If he didn't get injured, he would've been a professional."

But Gannon was injured. His playing days over, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino told Gannon he could be a student assistant. If he had some coaching chops, Gannon could get a graduate assistant position on the staff when he got his diploma.

"I loved football," Gannon said. "There is nothing like football. Honestly, the injury was a way for me to find my passion quickly."

JOHN MANCINI was the Rams' director of college scouting when GM Billy Devaney brought in a young scout named Jonathan Gannon.

Gannon had been a coach briefly with the Atlanta Falcons after following Petrino from Louisville. But he was without other league options after a coaching change, and Mancini was tasked to teach Gannon what being an NFL scout was about.

They watched video together. Mancini, the lifetime scout, would be focused on a handful of players – say a couple of defensive linemen, a linebacker, and a cornerback. He was looking for movement skills, competitiveness, what that player might do to help the Rams at that particular position.

That's not how Gannon was seeing it.

"He looks at what the unit is doing," Mancini said. "I'm making notes and he'd say, 'Hey run it back. See, they run that tight-end stunt and now they are in quarters.' Or 'Now they are in Cover 3.'

"Finally, I said to him, 'JG, I don't give an (expletive). He's like, 'Right, right. Because that's not what we are looking for.' He loves the way it all works together. It's hard to break a guy of that."

Scouting was not coaching. But for Gannon, scouting was the only window for him into the NFL. Following Petrino to the Falcons in 2007, a low-level coach so happy to just be in the NFL, it was "the best year of my life" – even though quarterback Michael Vick was jailed for dogfighting, even though the team won just four games, even though Petrino infamously left the team before season's end to return to college coaching.

Jonathan Gannon uses a bullhorn to communicate at an OTA.
Jonathan Gannon uses a bullhorn to communicate at an OTA.

Gannon could've followed Petrino to Arkansas, but he wanted to stay in the pros. His young age and inexperience cost him in his attempts to find a spot on a staff, however, and it took Devaney – who had been Atlanta's assistant GM when Gannon was there – to throw him a life preserver.

Starting on the college side, Gannon eventually ended up on the pro side. Mancini, currently the Cardinals' national scout with whom Gannon is now reunited, understood that Gannon might have been better suited for the pro side with a chance of a semblance of a routine. College scouting, with constant work on the road, is not that.

Yet, even with Gannon's initial reluctance, Mancini said he could see the seeds of a future star personnel man with – at that point – the ex-coach.

"If you can take other aspects of that, the Jekyll and Hyde if you will, and put them together, you got yourself one hell of an evaluator," Mancini said. "I think he definitely would've been able to do that at a high level."

Gannon spent three years in the Rams' front office and was even poised to stay longer when the Devaney regime was fired, Les Snead was brought in, and COO Kevin Demoff wanted Gannon to be the director of pro personnel. He would be on track to be a GM. The pay would be impressive, much better than any coaching job he could get. But Gannon had a chance to be a quality control coach with the Tennessee Titans.

Coaching was always the goal, even when the Rams had asked him to scout in the first place.

"Again, did I want to do that?" Gannon said. "No. But it was 'OK, let me learn this. If I want to coach, I don't know the value but there is probably value in me learning this process and this part of the business.'

"When I got back into coaching, and once I got to be a DB coach and a coordinator, I was like, 'There is the value' and it hit me."

IN 2019, Nick Rallis was at the Scouting combine in Indianapolis, having finished his first season with the Vikings helping defensive backs coach Jeff Howard. Howard took him to a dinner with Brandon Staley – the current Chargers head coach who was then coaching linebackers in Denver – and Gannon, who was the defensive backs coach for the Colts after a previous tenure with the Vikings before Rallis had arrived.

"I didn't know him," Rallis said. "We get there and he's like, 'SO, NICK, tell me how did it go Year One?' and stuff like that. He immediately cracks a joke on himself, 'Well, yeah, you're replacing me, and you're a 10-times better guy.' That's your first interaction with him."

Names are important. If he doesn't know it – and that's not just players and coaches, but the rest of the employees in the building and the media – he works to know it. If he sees you, you will be acknowledged. Often loudly and with a big smile.

"My parents were always: treat people how you want to be treated, have a good attitude, try your best," Gannon said. "We will support anything you want to do, as long as you do those three things. Not to say I was always perfect at those, but I would be checked if I wasn't."

Drew Petzing, Gannon's choice for Cardinals offensive coordinator, first met Gannon when they were both hired as Vikings low-level assistants in 2014. They golfed together. They worked out together too, although Gannon had some guidelines. Petzing didn't like to plan his workouts and Gannon meticulously planned his out a week in advance.

Petzing could join, but Gannon wanted to make sure Petzing made the effort to eat better. Petzing smiled as he recounted that Gannon said he didn't want to waste Petzing's time or his own otherwise.

"He knows how to get everyone charged up but it's never like 'God, not again,'" Rallis said. "It's naturally who he is."

But to really give a sense of who Gannon is, Petzing turns to a pair of anecdotes that have nothing to do with football.

Jonathan Gannon brings the energy every practice.
Jonathan Gannon brings the energy every practice.

Petzing and his future wife were headed to a Twins game one Saturday morning for a matinee. Gannon and his wife weren't going, but they lived near the ballpark and invited Petzing to stop by first. Petzing was expecting a beer and some snack mix as the four chatted on the couch. Instead, a full brunch awaited: different kinds of bacon, French toast, cocktails.

One New Year's Eve, Petzing and his wife were again going out. Again, they were going to stop by the Gannons' place first. A glass of champagne, Petzing figured, only to be proved wrong again. "He literally had a printed menu of drinks we could 'order,'" Petzing said.

"I'm like, 'Dude,'" Petzing said. "But that's just who he is."

Gannon grinned at the memory. He and his wife are foodies, he said. "If you're going to do it, do it," he said.

The compliments come often from Gannon, Rallis said (although he shies away from accepting them, Rallis added.) Rallis' mother-in-law was in town helping with the couple's new baby when Gannon came by. At one point, Gannon turned to her and said, "Hey, appreciate you for helping out."

"He thanked her, and I was like, 'Did you just thank my mother-in-law for being here?'" Rallis said. "That's how he always is."

It's yet another memory that draws a smile from Gannon, who notes, "I know the value of when my mother or mother-in-law come to help with the kids."

"Treat people the right way, try your best and have the right attitude, it'll work out," Gannon added. "If you do those things, you should set yourself up pretty well."

THE EAGLES were 2-5 in 2021 having lost two in a row with the defense struggling. Their first-year defensive coordinator heard the criticism, read it too. Seven games into his Philadelphia tenure, Gannon was already wondering if he might be fired.

He called Staley, by now the Chargers head coach, to tell his friend where his head was at.

"Bro, no," Staley told Gannon, telling him simply he had to block it out.

"Everyone says, 'ignore that, ignore that, ignore that,' but you're human, and you want to hear what it is," Gannon said. "But I've stayed away for the last year-and-a-half. The only times I'd hear about narratives is from the media, 'They are talking about this, they are talking about that.'

"I've talked with the team about self-awareness and consistency and all the reasons why those two things are huge. Maybe some people can read things and not be affected. I wasn't. Self-awareness. It was like, 'We're 2-5, damn, I'm going to get fired.' What are you talking about bro? Get Cover 8 fixed first."

With that as his foundation, Gannon insists the noise that built at the end of his Philadelphia tenure – through a disappointing loss in the Super Bowl and even deep into the offseason, because of the draft-night tampering news – does not bother him. His time with the Eagles was good, and obviously important to make the step to his current job.

"All that stuff, it can consume your thoughts," said Rallis, who witnessed it up close as a fellow Eagles assistant last season. "As a coach, you have to separate yourself while you are coaching. It's usually the people around you that get affected. You have to keep that level head. He handles it well. But it comes with the territory wherever you are."

Gannon, who watched his father make around $40,000 a year painting and wallpapering houses while making sacrifices for his family, is never going to complain.

"I haven't worked a day in my life," Gannon said of his occupation.

Gannon and GM Monti Ossenfort led a contingent to Oklahoma this offseason when quarterback Kyler Murray had a statue unveiling.
Gannon and GM Monti Ossenfort led a contingent to Oklahoma this offseason when quarterback Kyler Murray had a statue unveiling.

Mancini still shakes his head that his one-time underling is now the head coach for the team for whom he scouts. There was natural speculation among them prior to Ossenfort's hire, and then again as the coaching search was going on. Deep into the process, Mancini was texting with a couple of co-workers when one of them typed, "I heard it might be Gannon."

"I froze," Mancini said. "I was like, 'No way.' "

"At the press conference we kept trying not to make eye contact, but we were making eye contact," Mancini said. "I can't believe this has come full circle."

It didn't take long for Mancini to see the Gannon he knows manifest himself into Gannon the head coach. At this year's Scouting combine, during interviews with prospective players, Gannon would sit and observe for a while. Then there would suddenly be an outburst while the group and player would see a play of his on video. "OH, look at this play!" And the player – the whole room – felt it.

So many head coaches reach that level and create a somewhat unapproachable air, even if they hadn't been previous, Mancini said. Gannon comes in, daps you up, asks how you are doing, makes some small talk about a restaurant to visit or place to go. The next time he sees you, he'll bring it up again.

"He remembers all that because he has taken a genuine interest in you," Mancini said.

BOTH Kyzir White and wide receiver Zach Pascal, who also played for the Eagles last season, said their top choice to land if not back with Philadelphia was in Arizona because of Gannon. Pascal's history with Gannon includes time in Indianapolis when both were with the Colts, and the two would good-naturedly exchange trash talk during practice while Gannon was coaching defensive backs.

Gannon is the head coach, though, and that isn't to be forgotten. The first team meeting, linebacker Zaven Collins arrived while finishing up a bowl of eggs like he had done often since coming into the league. The next morning, Collins walked into the room only to see his No. 25 displayed on the screen for the entire room to see. Collins was perplexed.

Then Gannon called Collins out for eating in the previous meeting, noting that all Collins – or anyone else -- has to do is arrive 10 minutes earlier. "We're talking philosophies and you're over there eating," Gannon told the room.

"OK, that makes sense," Collins acknowledged. "That's the new stuff. Trying to break old habits."

Gannon wants to be an energy maker, not an energy taker. The Cardinals want their entire staff to be that way. In their first meeting together, Rallis told his coaches they needed to get seven-to-eight hours of sleep each night and work out at least four days a week.

Gannon hopes to reserve some of his energy for his family, with wife Gina and three kids -- Rocco, Lola and Angelo – all finally moving to the Valley this month.

There is a lot more on Gannon's plate as a head coach, including making decisions that he might need to account for three months from now that, as a coordinator or position coach, he didn't previously have to consider. But his overall goal of making a connection with people has only grown in importance.

By the time Gannon returns from training camp, his office is scheduled to be re-done. Among the changes, the desk itself will be sized down considerably, allowing for a more intimate setting for visitors.

When the door is open, the head coach will be looking out, and might have something to say.

"I knew I had a long way to go but it was always my end goal," Gannon said. "Truthfully, my goal was to be a head coach at 39. I didn't hit it. I felt like I needed 15 years to be ready for this job. And then my path deviated multiple times.

"But that was the end goal. I always wanted to run a team."

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