There are no normal routes to becoming an NFL coach, but Sean Desai's path is especially rare. The 31-year old, who is the Bears' defensive quality control coach, never played collegiate or professional football. Instead, he earned a doctorate in educational administration, with an emphasis in higher education, at Temple University. While he was at the school, he worked as a graduate assistant for the Owls' football team. That eventually earned him jobs on the staffs at larger schools such as Miami and Boston College.
Now in Chicago, Desai runs the scout team defense during practices and also works with the team's kickoff and punt returners. He sat down with ChicagoBears.com recently to discuss his multiple roles as a coach and how his educational background helps him in his current position.
Starting with your role on defense, you spend a lot of time coaching the linebackers. How has it been working alongside linebackers coach Reggie Herring?
It's great, (Reggie) has a lot of energy and a tremendous amount of knowledge. So it's privilege to be able to learn from him, see how he interacts with the players, see how he runs his meetings. As a young coach, it's a real privilege to be able to learn that.
You talked about the learning experience, where have you gained knowledge from the others on this staff?
I think the place I've probably gained the most knowledge from the whole staff – especially Reggie and Mel (Tucker) – are the relationships you have to develop with the players. Without those relationships, you really can't execute anything you want to do in terms of a teaching standpoint.
You also work with the special teams, so how do you balance those two jobs?
I'm used to it, everywhere I've been I was a special teams coordinator and a position coach. So I'm used juggling to balancing both of those. I love coaching specials teams. Coach Joe D. (special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis) and (assistant special teams coach Dwayne) Stukes do a great job in terms of organizing it, so it really makes my job easy. I get on the field, they give me what I need to know. I've watched the tape beforehand in coaches meetings so I'm prepared, and then I go out and do what I've been doing.
Much of your focus on special teams is working with returners. Chris Williams had a touchdown in Week 10, but there have also been struggles from the unit? Why hasn't there been more consistency from the return game?
I think we are getting better each week. It's not just the returner, or it's not just the one guy on the front line making a block. It's a full scheme and it's harder in my opinion, in coaching special teams in college and coaching here, it's harder to mask one mistake on special teams. Sometimes on offense and defense, a guy can end up making a great play - there's a pass rush and the defensive back ends up making a great play, but there's also a blown coverage somewhere on the backside, which is masked. On special teams its harder to do that because all 11 guys need to be in-sync and close to perfect in order for that play to work. On Chris's play, a lot of guys did their job and he was able to do his job.
There's been a lot of roster turnover, and one area that's impacted is the special teams. What do you do as a coach to make sure players are up to speed quickly with what they need to do?
That's always a challenge, but that's part of the profession, especially in the NFL. The roster changes every day, and that's part of the ability as a coach to become a great teacher. You have to be able to teach and impact these individuals daily, and you don't know who that might be. You might not have a prior relationship with that person, but your job is still to be able to teach and to reach out to these individuals and make sure they can execute the plan.
You have a doctorate in educational administration. How has that helped you as a football coach? Well, we talk a lot about teaching and learning and that's a huge drive for me. And I think that coaching is really ultimate teaching profession. So everything I've learned in my academic background – the research, the papers, all that stuff – I always hoped that it would add value to my career and I think it is.
When you were in school, did you think football coaching was going to be your career path?
Well that's a good question. When I was at Temple, where I became a graduate assistant coach – that's where I was getting my doctorate – (coaching football) has always been a passion of mine. And I'm really privileged to be able to peruse my passion, not a lot of people are able to do that, especially in this day and age with the economy. So I was able to pursue my passion and I'm going to ride this wave as long as I can. You know, I can always go and be a professor afterwards at some point, but this is what I want to do and I'm lucky to be able to do it.
Was that a lot for you to balance, from studying for classes to also learning about the game?
You just have to work. You just have to work hard. And that's something my parents and people I grew up with always instilled in me. You can do it; there's enough hours in the day. And sometimes you may feel there's not enough hours, but at the end of the day you still have to get the work done. So you keep doing it and doing it and you grind through it. When I was getting my doctorate, I'd get to the football facility around 4 a.m. and wouldn't leave until about midnight or so. And it's about organizing my time. From 4 to 7 a.m. I'd work on my school work. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., I'd work with the football team. And then in the evening I'd work more on my school work and then go back and do it again.