EAGAN, Minn. — Mike Pettine knows there's more than one way to becoming an NFL coach.
Particularly when passion pushes an individual toward that goal. That's why he appreciates the opportunity to lead the Vikings Diversity Coaching Summit.
Minnesota's assistant head coach launched the program here in 2022, his first season with the team.
"When I was talking to [Vikings Head Coach] Kevin [O'Connell] about coming here and brought it up, I mean, he just jumped at it," Pettine said. "So it's something that's a passion, and it's just great to see, to be able to provide this opportunity for a group of individuals [and] give them exposure to what we do and kind of give them a goal, and see how things are done."
The Vikings hosted 10 college assistant coaches this week as they opened the first week of Vikings Organized Team Activity practices, offering participants the opportunity to work with coaches and help guide players through on-field drills. Participants were able to glean information through team and position meetings and add to their experiences as they continue their career progressions.
"I just love all things football, but I had a very unique path into the NFL. I worked in a video room, and then I was quality control," Pettine said. "I've always had a soft spot for those entry-level type jobs, which I think are the most important. Those coaches a lot of times are the glue that holds this staff together.
"I know the NFL is attacking this diversity problem from a variety of directions," Pettine said. "I think this is just another way, but it's looking at it more to feed it from the bottom up, and it'll be a slower burn to see benefits from this, it will take some time, but hopefully we'll continue it here and maybe get some other teams involved and keep increasing that candidate pool."
Whether it's from a top-down approach like the NFL Coach Accelerator program that hosted Vikings assistants Matt Daniels and Keenan McCardell this week, or the Diversity Coaching Summit, Pettine is hopeful the efforts lead to results.
"I just think that's the right thing, is we're looking to approach it from a variety of ways," Pettine said. "That's more immediate, you know, the coaches who are on staff and giving them an opportunity to get in front of the folks that are making the hiring decisions, and then you have, kind of in between, the Bill Walsh program, which most teams use to their benefit and provide a lot of opportunities that way. And then hopefully this program will be another spoke in that wheel of, like I said, we're a little further away from seeing results, but I do think it will be beneficial to attack the problem all three ways."
Vikings Entertainment Network interviewed three of the 10 participants this week, including former Vikings safety Robert Blanton, who is now coaching cornerbacks at Miami (Ohio).
Brown quarterbacks coach Heather Marini, the first woman position coach in Division I, and Oregon offensive graduate assistant (receivers) coach Colin Lockett also talked about their experiences.
Robert Blanton, Miami (Ohio), cornerbacks coach
Q: What's it been like to be back with the Vikings?
A: "It's been an awesome experience. Really fun to be back here, the place that really changed my life and gave me the opportunity. To continue to play the game I love and live out that childhood dream has been awesome. It's really fun to watch the young defensive backs go out and compete and kind of live out their dream, too. It's been an awesome experience."
Q: Are there experiences different from what you experienced as a rookie in 2012?
A: "Yes, very different. Brings back a ton of memories. But super excited for those young guys to have the opportunity to compete and live out their dream like I did. It's really fun to watch."
Q: What has the transition to coaching been like?
A: "So the transition has been really fun. It's been good. Very different than playing, but I still love it. You still get that competitive juice, and it's really fun to kind of help the young guys develop – and when you're coaching them and they do something that you're coaching, it really makes the game fun, and you really have that proud dad moment where you're like, 'Yeah, great job. That's what we worked on. That's what we practiced. It worked out great.' So, it's been an awesome experience."
Q: When did you discover your passion for coaching?
A: "I was coaching my son's little league team and fell in love with it, but I was yelling at 6- and 7- and 10-year-olds too much. So I was like, 'Ah, I might be too competitive for this age group.'
So I started stepping it up and coaching high school and then in college now."
Q: What are your takeaways from this week?
A: "It's been an amazing week. Mike Pettine has done an awesome job. I love his vision for this program. It's been really fun to get back here, hear all the stories. We got to hear from our head coach, the GM. Everyone's story is so unique and so different. Everyone's coming from a different background and has a different journey. So it's just been a wonderful experience and a great opportunity to be in a building with all these guys."
Heather Marini, Brown University, quarterbacks coach
Q: What is it like to become the first female position coach in Division I?
A: "It was really just a combination of a lot of hard work and obviously, for me personally, it was a great career accomplishment. But I think, too, I've realized the responsibility that kind of comes with that, that if I do a really great job that, other women will get opportunities. And there are a lot of women looking for opportunities and who are very qualified, and I hope that by being the first, there will be a next, and it's starting to creep into college football and creep into the NFL. And I think, you know, it won't be long before a lot of head coaches and staffs are looking at the other 50 percent of the population to try and find the best people for their program. And I think that's really cool."
Q: Did you have a moment in your life or your coaching career where you were like, 'I can achieve this?'
A: "It's so interesting because for me, it was like a slow, you know, burn into football. I started as an athletic trainer. My now husband introduced me to the sport when he was playing in Australia, and I got the opportunity to be a high school head football coach in Australia and then come over. And I think seeing the NFL Women's Football Forum was probably the turning point. I walked into a room with 220 women from 20 different countries who loved the sport as much as I did. And it was one of those, like, 'Wow, women really do belong in this sport, and football really is for everyone.' I think that was probably the turning point that showed that I had an opportunity in football."
Q: Do you remember when you first became interested in American football?
A: "The first game I ever went to was probably still the longest game I've ever been to, and I thought it was the craziest thing I'd ever seen. It was like 5.5 hours. There was a penalty on like every play, and I had no idea what was going on. So I guess to me, it happened gradually. What I found was football was like the best bits of all the sports that I had grown up with, and how I started to piece things together and have understanding was, you know, looking at the speed and agility of basketball players and comparing that to how running backs make their cuts and great catches from Australian-rules football. We call them 'speckies,' or spectacular catches, and how these wide receivers are toe-tapping the line in the back of the end zone. And to me, it was taking all those pieces and kind of feeding that into my love of football."
Q: How has playing football helped your coaching?
A: "Yeah, so I had such a unique situation where I coached for 10 years before I ever had the opportunity to play football. Something I probably don't recommend because it just took a lot of, you know, the way that you coach in your head and then you have to go out there and do it and things happen a little faster, and the view is a little different when you're taking the ball, taking the snap, compared to when you get to watch it all big-picture on the sideline.
"So to me, I think it was just another tool in my tool belt. I don't think it's necessarily required, but it's a great tool to have to be able to, you know, empathize with the quarterback who just took a sack and had to get up and play the next play or, you know, with the speed of the game and how it all happens and unfolds. It's really just helped me to see the game from a different perspective."
Q: What are your takeaways from this experience?
A: "Yeah, it was such an incredible opportunity and such a privilege. Everyone took great care of us, and we were really open with sharing ideas and getting to see how these players perform at the next level. And as coaches, we got into this to try and get the best out of our players, and we care so much about our players, that this professional development is so important for us so that we can give back to our players. And for me, I'm coaching college guys who have dreams of playing in the NFL, and being able to see Kirk Cousins and those guys perform at such a high level at practice – and some of the skills and drills that they do – is definitely something I'll be able to take back to them."
Colin Lockett, University of Oregon, offensive graduate assistant
Q: Did you previously know Coach O'Connell from your time at San Diego State?
A: "I did. So, Coach O'Connell played at San Diego State about two years prior to me getting there. While I was playing there, he actually did some play-by-play for some of my games. So that was pretty cool that he was able to call some of my games and then, you know, circling back to 2023 now and being able to be in this space with him and given this opportunity."
Q: It's cool that you can lean on that network and get a chance to show yourself.
A: "Yeah, absolutely. I think just, you know, when you get to form relationships and get out and network, I think that any time you can get with somebody that you knew prior to and kind of share the same path or the same journey that you were on, in the same space as I was, with Kevin being at San Diego State and me two years after that, I think it's just amazing. And one of those deals that I'll forever cherish, for sure."
Q: How has it been transitioning to coaching?
A: "It's been good. I think that, when you're playing football for so long at a young age and the NFL is kind of your deal and your dream your entire life, and when that comes to an end, you know, transition is the hardest part. And being able to find passion through coaching, and still love the game as much as I did when I was playing, and being able to pour into young men that are trying to get to the same journey that I got to and was able to succeed a little bit in – I'm just happy to be able to give back to those guys."
Q: Did you know there was a chance to do this before you got into playing?
A: "I think that I've always kind of had a knack for kind of seeing how I can do things better – and not just for myself but for others. So when coaching kind of got brought upon me, it wasn't my first option, to be honest with you. But it was one of those things I just embraced it, you know? At the end of the day, coaching is coaching. And that's one of those things like Keenan told me these past couple of days, he's like, 'You're pouring back into somebody. You know, coaching is coaching, whether it's this level or, or at the high school level.' And that's where I initially started at, at the high school level. And just being able to pour back into people and like I said, I didn't think this was my first, you know, thing that I was gonna do, but it's not my path – it's God's. And I'm just following it, and we're just keeping it rocking, keeping it going."
Q: What are your takeaways from this experience?
A: "Yeah, I think Mike [Pettine] is doing something right now that's gonna embark on something that the league has never seen. Being able to put together such an organized operation with the [OTAs] going on, and other coaches here as well. And just being able to do something different is what I see from my time playing up 'til now. This is something nobody else has really kind of done. …
"I've been a Minnesota Vikings coach for the last couple of days, and being able to just see it live it, smell it, breathe it, [it helped] me just develop myself as a coach and be able to develop other coaches that I know, based off my experience here, and be able to go take some things home with me and implement them at the University of Oregon or wherever I end up going from there. So, I think this experience is top notch, and this organization and what Mike is doing with this coach summit is, hands-down, amazing."