PHILADELPHIA — Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said no, he did not try to fight a Giants fan on the tennis courts of Haddonfield, New Jersey, this summer, as alleged by a caller to New York’s sports radio station WFAN back in late June.
But Sirianni did give him the business.
“I was just busting the guy’s chops,” Sirianni told ESPN. “The guy made it sound like he was throwing up a serve and I yelled out, ‘Hey, the Giants suck!’ But really the guy was wearing a Giants hat and the Yankees shirt, and I felt like I had to defend our turf.
“And so I just kind of yelled out in the midst of them taking a break in their game and us taking a break in our game, ‘Who let the guy in with the Giants hat?’ … But it was all in good fun.”
The story played well among Philly faithful who loved the idea of their coach giving it to a Giants fan between sets, earning him some “One of us!” cred. Sirianni finds himself in pretty good standing entering his second season thanks to a late surge (6-2 in their last eight games) and surprise playoff appearance in 2021. Expectations for Year 2 have ballooned following a busy offseason that included the acquisitions of receiver A.J. Brown, edge rusher Haason Reddick and cornerback James Bradberry. As optimism grows, so too has faith the team is in capable hands with this coaching staff.
How quickly things turn in a city where the Eagles are king and you are either an ally or anchor in pursuit of the crown, with the designations often changing week to week. Sirianni received the extreme version of that treatment in his first season. He got pummeled by fans and media for the better part of a year, fueled by a rocky introductory news conference, a slow start (3-6 through Week 9) and a roots analogy gone rotten before perceptions started to shift during the playoff push.
“You want to always say to your kids and to anybody that asks for advice, try to get an even keel, try to get everything level, but in the job where he is, that’s not possible,” said Fran Sirianni, Nick’s father, who was also a football coach. “There’s so dramatic of changes in the way in which people respond to victories and losses and other things, that it’s just kind of amazing that he survived the first year.”
Maintaining a level head doesn’t exactly come naturally to Sirianni, anyway. There is a composite picture at his parents’ house in Jamestown, New York, of Fran, Nick and his older brothers, Mike and Jay — all coaches — fuming on different sidelines but most with similar scowls and likely all in the direction of refs, his dad figures. Nick and Mike in particular inherited Fran’s fiery demeanor. It’s something Nick is still trying to properly harness.
Yet fundamentally, there’s a consistency to Sirianni’s makeup and approach, however offbeat, which carried him through a tumultuous first year. That, too, can be linked back to his family, and in particular his father, who imparted some of his biggest life lessons during some of their darkest times.
Trial by fire
MIKE SIRIANNI’S VOICE ratcheted up a couple levels when talking about how he and Nick almost came to blows the last time they were on the beach together.
“He won the bocce ball game, I’ll give him that. But I won the ensuing wrestling match that occurred after I believe that he cheated,” said Mike, Nick’s oldest brother and the head football coach at Washington & Jefferson College. “I know I hip-tossed him on the beach.”
Family dinners can be filled with arguments over which brother had the most catches in their football careers. In a family get-together over the Fourth of July, they got after it in four square and cornhole. “Of course he has to win every single time and throw a fit if he doesn’t,” Mike said of Nick.
Nick’s burn to best his brothers was stoked over time. He is nine years younger than Mike and six years younger than Jay, which could make for some tough sledding in the no-holds-barred world of brotherly competition.
“We would pick on him mercilessly,” Mike said.
“His competitiveness comes from his two older brothers,” his mother Amy said, “because he always wanted to keep up with them. There were times he couldn’t, but he tried.”
The age difference also influenced how each brother experienced Fran’s two bouts with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The first came in 1985 when Nick was 4 years old. It returned six years later when Nick was 10.
“Any disease for any member of the family, it’s not just your disease, it’s a family’s disease because it affects them,” Fran said. “Nick was in elementary school, and we often thought, well, Nick really doesn’t know what’s going on. But I think he really did. And it really affected the older boys. But hopefully, we passed on to them the idea of endurance and patience and tenacity, and most of all, we instilled in them our faith.”
A bout with prostate cancer followed. Then last May, Fran underwent double-bypass surgery.
“That was probably a lot for him to handle at that time,” Mike said of Nick. “I can’t imagine. I mean, my first camp in my level was hectic. I can’t imagine what it’s like for him to do that.”
Nick was already in the throes of a rocky acclimation period. Nerves got the better of him at his introductory news conference in January, leading to a shaky delivery that did nothing to convince the masses Eagles management had done the right thing in replacing Doug Pederson, the only winning Super Bowl head coach in team history. Things went from bad to worse during the Eagles’ slow start and reached a fever pitch when Sirianni, at the team’s low point, likened his team to a flower that was growing roots under the surface. It went over like rocks. One fan may have summed up public sentiment best when he tweeted, “Frickin’ botanist over here.”
Sirianni’s excitability (he’s prone to go off on tangents and smack the lectern a time or two when he finds a subject that moves him, like the wide receiver position, which he played at the University of Mount Union), unorthodox methods like playing rock-paper-scissors to determine the competitiveness of draft prospects and willingness to be open with his thoughts and practices made him an easy target.
But a search for low moments for him amid the stumbles and scrutiny came up empty. Sirianni said the sheer volume of preparation work for a game — upwards of 100-plus hours a week for coaches — doesn’t allow time for self-pity. And the steady-handedness of Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich, whom Sirianni served under while the offensive coordinator in Indy, helped teach him the value of taking the long view during a season. But it was Fran’s demeanor during his health scares that Nick kept pointing back to as a source of strength when he was getting walloped professionally.
“What you see with him is just every single day, he’s grateful to be around, no matter how bad he’s hurting. He’s just tough,” Nick said. “That’s the element of toughness he has, and how he raised me and my two brothers is to be tough and to persevere and to fight through and not ride the roller coaster of life.”
Readying for Round 2
ALL THIS ‘STEADY EDDIE’ talk from a guy who gets into wrestling matches over a game of bocce and talks trash to strangers because they’re wearing Giants gear is a little funny.
Sirianni is prone to pop off in practice at times, and on more than one occasion last season was seen losing his mind at a referee. More self-restraint in-game is a goal heading into Year 2 for Sirianni, who noticed some of his players — he mentioned tight end Dallas Goedert — would follow his lead. He said he learned a valuable lesson while sitting courtside at a Villanova basketball game and watching former coach Jay Wright operate.
“He was visibly upset with the referees. And then you could kind of see that his players were starting to look to him and when he [looked back], he calmed down,” Sirianni said. “I distinctly remember one of his players looking at him, and he was like, ‘Hey,’ [claps hands] and he made his coaching point to his players. And he was still pissed, I could tell. And then the player stopped what he was doing with the ref, and then continued on with the play. And I was like, ‘What a great example for me.’
Sirianni will continue to coach players hard. One of the most memorable moments from last season came in December against the Washington Commanders when cameras caught Sirianni chewing out quarterback Jalen Hurts following his second turnover of the game. Hurts took it in stride, in part because he’s a coach’s son, and, in part, because Sirianni had made the effort to build their relationship and Hurts knows it’s coming from a good place.
“It’s pretty neat that he’s able to do that, but also put his arm around him. To me, that’s a great trait to have,” Mike said. “And I think he learned that being a small college football coach [at Mount Union] first.”
Veteran defensive end Brandon Graham described Sirianni as “more comfortable” as he heads into his second season, noting the media will have less fodder to work with off missteps this time around. It’s true Sirianni is more polished at the mic, but hasn’t pulled back on his anecdote sharing or excitability. On the second night of this past draft, he urged the media to show more juice following the selection of linebacker Nakobe Dean, shouting, “Do you know who we just drafted?” His quirky tactics are alive and well, too: Instead of rock-paper-scissors this year, he brought a miniature basketball hoop with him to the combine to compete with draft prospects.
“We know what we expect from him, he knows what to expect from us, and now it’s all about building that team connection, like we’ve been doing,” Graham said. “And the trust. A lot of the stuff that we were worried about last year, now it’s about detailing it out.”
Philadelphia’s blood pressure is down and optimism is high for its beloved Eagles, who are being mentioned as potential NFC contenders. The former will change soon as the season nears, and whatever goodwill Sirianni has built up will be siphoned if things get wobbly.
But at least he knows what’s coming, and enters with a battle-tested identity that isn’t totally unlike the city he now represents.
“I’m not trying to be anybody but myself,” he said. “I know how tough the city of Philadelphia is — mentally, physically tough. I’ve tried to live that my entire life to be mentally and physically tough. I’ve had good mentors to help me with that.”