After 31 seasons of college coaching, John Palermo decided he had had enough in December. He retired after one year at Tennessee Tech with the idea of relaxing with his wife, Donna, in their new home on a 50-acre spread in Tennessee.
Two months later, Palermo’s phone rang, and on the other end was Greg Blache, whose son had worked under Palermo at Notre Dame in the late 1980s. Blache had just been promoted from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins, and he wanted to talk to Palermo about taking his old job.
Days later, Palermo became an NFL rookie at 55, though he since has turned 56.
“We didn’t feel like we could find an ‘A’ coach that was in the league, so we went to the collegiate level and got an ‘A’ coach,” Blache said. “John’s players play with great intensity all the time. You don’t see a John Palermo player walk. You don’t see a John Palermo player not use his hands properly.
“He’s very technique-conscious. It’s very easy as a D-line coach to just have guys rush the passer. That’s where the [fame] comes in. But guys who take great pride in their work, they’ve got crown molding, and all the corners are done properly. That’s John Palermo’s work. It’s never just thrown together. He’s got a certain standard he sets for himself.”
And for his players.
“Coach Palermo will push you,” Redskins defensive end Demetric Evans said. “And he works hard, too. He’s detail-oriented. He has our mistakes ready for us to work on the next morning. After coaching us for four years, Coach Blache knew what we were capable of doing. Coach Palermo is still figuring out what he has. You don’t really get to know strengths and weaknesses until you get hands-on with the guys, and that’s the process he’s in right now.”
Indeed, Palermo is like a conductor with his linemen during individual drills. He’s constantly making suggestions, exhorting his guys to give even more.
Palermo loved college ball, especially his 16 seasons at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez, where he developed nine All-Big 10 players and four first-team All-Americans. But Palermo, who turned down a chance to interview for a job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2006, is relishing his new NFL life.
“Had I known then what I know now, I would’ve tried to do this 20 years ago because it’s football 24-7,” Palermo said. “You don’t have to worry about who didn’t go to class today. At that level, particularly for the guys who only have one parent, you’re a parent, a social worker, an academic receiver, a do-right guy and you’re a football coach.
“Here you’re a football coach, and you’re working with guys who make their living doing this, so it’s important for them 24-7.”
Evans and fellow veteran end Phillip Daniels said they weren’t skeptical about working with a college coach because of Palermo’s track record.
Newly acquired end Erasmus James is thrilled to be reunited with his old Badgers position coach who “pretty much taught me everything I know.”
Palermo also won support from Daniels by regularly congratulating the leader of the line on his powerlifting prowess, which he saw on YouTube.
“When you get to this level, you’re teaching guys that want to be really good,” Palermo said. “It was such a great thing for me to be able to fall into a situation with guys that are true professionals. They just want to get better. Their work habits have just been awesome.