When Jim Schwartz (CAS ’88) played football at Georgetown University back in the 1980s, Georgetown’s football program was still Division III. The program’s relatively low profile during this era meant Schwartz played every position on defense at some point during his career, which made him a student of the game and allowed him to understand the ins and outs of the sport. Driven by his passion for football, Schwartz decided to pursue postgraduate opportunities in the football realm, working as graduate assistant coaches for the University of Maryland, the University of Minnesota, North Carolina Central University and Colgate University. A meeting with Bill Belichick landed Schwartz his first NFL opportunity, an unpaid internship with the Cleveland Browns, where Schwartz was able to learn from legendary football coaches like Belichick, Nick Saban and Woody Widenhofer. Schwartz’s early experiences allowed him to become a successful NFL coach who has made two Super Bowl appearances during his career.
Schwartz spent 10 years with the Tennessee Titans, where he worked as linebackers coach and eventually became the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL in 2001. In 2009, he was hired as the head coach of the Detroit Lions, who had gone 0-16 the previous season. Three years later, Schwartz led Detroit to a 10-6 season in which the team made the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons. After being let go following a four-game losing streak at the end of the 2013 season, Schwartz spent one season as defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, who finished fourth in the league defensively that season. In 2016, Schwartz was hired to serve as defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles and helped to lead them to a Super Bowl victory during the 2017 season, also boasting the fourth-ranked defense in the league. The Hoya spoke to Schwartz about his Georgetown football days, motivation to pursue coaching and his NFL career.
Why did you choose to attend Georgetown?
Well, it was recommended to me by one of my teachers at [Mount Saint Joseph High School] in Baltimore. I was the first person from my family to graduate and go to college. … My worldview wasn’t really large. I didn’t really understand the national reputation of schools like Georgetown and things like that. But really, I went to University of Maryland first before I transferred. I’m a little bit like Bradley Cooper. Bradley went to Villanova before he transferred to Georgetown. … I went to the University of Maryland for a year. One of my high school teachers said, “You really should look at Georgetown,” and I had not even considered Georgetown before. I went down and visited, really liked it. They had a football team that I could play for — that was something that was important to me — it wasn’t the most important thing. They had a Division III team, which would fit my talent level. And at the time, I was interested in going to law school. It all sort of came together. I got with the coaches, I applied the next year, was able to get in, so that’s the long way of how I got into Georgetown. Probably not a lot of different than a lot of other people during that era.
Tell me about your experience playing football for the Hoyas.
The team wasn’t very good when I got there, and I was part of a class that was a really strong recruiting class that they were trying to change the direction of the program. The year before I got there, I think they were winless; they did get one win through a forfeit when someone used an ineligible player. But the program was down, and I came in with a class that really formed a strong nucleus for the next four years. I didn’t start my first year, but probably half that class did, and we had a really big turnaround on the football field. We went from being a team that was winless to being respectable, and then my last couple of years we were flirting with the Division III playoffs. We never made it, but we were flirting with being ranked and being in the Division III playoffs. … Georgetown football was a lot different back then. Our coaches weren’t full time. We had one full-time coach on staff, and he was also the head lacrosse coach. … I don’t want to say it was a part-time job for them because it wasn’t, but Division III football looked a lot different. It wasn’t the way it is at Georgetown now. We liked to kid that if your school didn’t have a “Saint” in front of its name or a hyphenated last name, then you couldn’t play us. We played schools like Washington and Lee [University], and Franklin & Marshall [College], St. John’s [University], St. Peter’s [University], [The Catholic University of America] — that was probably our biggest rival, being that they were in the same city. … When I left Georgetown, Georgetown was a much better program.
There’ve been a few Georgetown players in recent years who have signed undrafted free agent contracts with the NFL. What is the model school for sending non-scholarship college players into the NFL?
It’s sporadic. There’s always guys that pop up from smaller schools, so there’s plenty of them. You look around the NFL, there’s a decent number of players from Ivy League schools, the old Patriot League. There were a lot of NFL players who came from Colgate — Mark Van Eeghen, when I was [at Georgetown]. … NFL scouts will find players regardless of where they are and what level they play. There was a player at a Division II school in North Carolina this year that was picked by the New England Patriots early in the second round. There’s been plenty of small-school players drafted from all over the place. Probably the difference in all those schools is it’s rare for someone to decide to go to Georgetown if their main goal is the NFL. … Football is different — whether it’s Georgetown or Johns Hopkins or Columbia — you more go for the school and the education and you play football because you have a passion for it. Maybe a lot of guys have it in the back of their minds that it might be a possibility, but I don’t think it’s as all-consuming as the SEC or a lot of other places. … But the NFL will find good players regardless of where they are.
Were you a Georgetown basketball fan as a student?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and I was a huge University of Maryland basketball fan, and at the time there was a bitter rivalry between Georgetown and Maryland. My work-study job at Georgetown was working in the equipment cage, so I was there. Late at night, I used to rebound for Dikembe Mutombo (SLL ’91) when he would come in and shoot free throws. I can’t tell you how much respect I have for John Thompson Jr. Just watching him every day — I don’t even know if he knew my name — but just watching his presence and the way he coached that team, that had a lot to do with my coaching career, just watching Coach Thompson. In my four years at Georgetown, I never attended one basketball game, and it’s because they were playing out at the [Capital Centre], and I didn’t have a car; you had to get on buses. I went to two Georgetown basketball games in my life, and both times I was a guest of someone who was watching the opponent. I became more of a Georgetown fan after I graduated than when I was there.
Do you think Georgetown would benefit from having its own basketball stadium on campus?
I think it would be fantastic. Georgetown played Missouri at the old McDonough [Gymnasium], which seated probably 6,000 people, and it was all bleachers, and they had some conflict at the Cap Centre. It ignited the Georgetown campus. It was awesome. It was just such a huge rallying point for the school. I think that would be fantastic. It’s tough when you’re at an academic school like Georgetown, you have a heavy course load, you want to be a fan and you want to go to games, it’s going to take a significant portion of your time, a lot of times on weeknights. It’s hard to have that same enthusiasm as you do when you can just walk down the hill and go to the game. I think that would be huge.
Why did you decide to go into coaching?
I wasn’t a great athlete. I was a super hard worker, I was an overachiever but I wasn’t a great athlete. I sort of just willed myself onto the field, and my greatest asset was just understanding the game. I knew it. I didn’t just know my position on the field, I knew all eleven positions and I knew how everything fit together, which is how a coach knows it. It’s not the way a player knows it. When I came to Georgetown, I was a cornerback, and I played two games as a corner my first two games at Georgetown. … I played defensive end, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, safety and corner, so every position other than defensive tackle I had played. … I didn’t know it at the time, but that was checking my box of, in a game at Georgetown over my four years, I played at least one snap at every position on the field.
The other reason I could do that was I just knew the game, and I loved to train. I had a passion for the game. … I sort of thought, “Well, you know what? If I’m going to work 80 hours a week — and for most of my career, 80 hours was a short week — I should try to find something that I really love.” And I love to read, I love to work out and I love football. And I was like, “Alright, let me see if I can make a career of football.”
My original goal in coaching is I wanted to go to grad school and get my doctorate in economics, and I wanted to be a small college football coach at an academic school, and possibly be a member of the faculty. Schools at the time that were like Georgetown, that was my goal. I didn’t aspire to major college football. I didn’t aspire to the NFL. I just loved the college atmosphere. I loved the game, and I just said, “You know what, let’s see if I can turn that into a career.” I started looking around and trying to figure out how you made a career of coaching.
I have a minor in computer science from Georgetown, and at the time, Maryland was making the transition from 16 mm film to video, to a computer-based system, and they thought that I might be able to help facilitate that. Really wasn’t even sure if they were going to put me on the field, they were sort of just hiring me to make sure they had no problems with their computers and the statistics system and stuff like that. … That’s really where my goals sort of changed a little bit because I got to experience major college football. When I was in college at Georgetown, I would keep a notebook when I was watching games on TV. I was such a fan of the game. I would keep stats. I would draw up plays, just write interesting notes from different things. Well, when I got to Maryland, that’s when my competitive juices started going, and I realized that I could compete in that environment as a coach. And I had to take graduate classes, but graduate classes. I was almost like a Division I athlete. I was only taking classes just to stay eligible. … I sort of just lived at the football office. I looked at that — that was sort of my Ph.D. program — was learning football and trying to learn as much as I could. … Getting that grad assistant job was sort of my lucky break to not only start my coaching career but also to sort of switching gears to aspiring for the highest level of football, to just being content with being a small school coach.
How did you make the transition into the NFL?
From Maryland, … I was able to get a graduate assistant job at Minnesota, spent a year there, then I took a graduate secondary job at an HBCU in Durham, N.C., North Carolina Central; it’s a Division II school. I coached there for a year, then I took a job at Colgate for one year. The coach at Colgate got fired and I didn’t have a job, which is not unusual. When the coach gets fired and another one takes the gig, it’s not always smooth.
But I was faced without a job, and one of the guys on the staff there at Colgate — a couple guys had worked at [the United States Naval Academy] — and Bill Belichick’s father, Steve Belichick, is an icon at Navy — he was a longtime coach and then scout there. He’s sort of a pioneer in the scouting world, and Bill Belichick grew up in Annapolis, and his heroes were Navy football players. And then sort of another piece of dumb luck, we were at the college coaching convention that year, [former Navy assistant coach] Jerry Hartman introduced me to Steve Belichick, and Bill Belichick happened to be at the college coaching convention that year. Steve Belichick introduced me to his son Bill, I had a brief conversation, maybe 10 or 15 seconds, with Bill Belichick.
Anyway, in June of that year, I get a call from the Cleveland Browns asking me to come out for an interview for an unpaid internship job; it was as entry-level as entry-level could get. I was filing papers, driving people to the airport, running errands, but I also had a chance there to learn and to be a fly on the wall with some of the best coaches in the history of football. Bill had respect for people that were willing to work hard, not because of the money, to work hard regardless of how much you were being paid because I was being paid zero. And he was also one of those guys that, your reward for doing a good job was he gave you more to do.
So I sort of rose from an intern to a scouting job with Coach Belichick, and then I also started working, doing film breakdowns for Nick Saban on the defense, so I sort of had a foot in both worlds, and then the rug was pulled out from under us. Coach Belichick was fired, and the team moved to Baltimore. … Ozzie Newsome became the [general manager] and Ozzie knew that I wanted to coach, so when we moved to Baltimore, I was able to get to be a quality control coach, which is very similar to being a graduate assistant. I was able to transition there and become a member of the defensive staff with [Marvin] Lewis, so that was sort of my transition: Get into the NFL, work around the clock for very little pay, but learn everything you could, every year get a little bit more responsibility.
How did you end up climbing the ranks of the NFL to become head coach of the Detroit Lions?
We got fired at the Ravens after three years. I was able to look on with at the time the Tennessee Oilers, which was becoming the Tennessee Titans. One of the reasons I got a job is it wasn’t an attractive job at the time because the coaching staff was on thin ice. But not only did we make the playoffs, but we came a yard short of winning the Super Bowl in the ’99 season, and because we almost won the Super Bowl there were coaches on our staff who were in demand. Our defensive coordinator was Gregg Williams, and he became a head coaching candidate. I moved up to linebacker coach my second year, and then after my second year he became the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, and Jeff Fisher made me at the time the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL. We were a good team, we went to the AFC Championship game, went deep in the playoffs the next year, had some ups and downs, but like I said, I was still young.
I’d interviewed for a few head coaching jobs — Washington, San Francisco, Miami, Atlanta — and then after the 2008 season, Detroit had gone 0-16, and they offered me the job. That’s how I took over the first 0-16 team in the history of the NFL. We made the playoffs a couple years later, and then a couple years later got fired, but had five years as the head coach there. Martin Mayhew (LAW ’00) was the GM, we took over with the worst team in the history of the NFL, and a few years later turned them into a playoff team. We went 7-9 in 2013, but we lost our last four games, and in the coaching world, someone has to pay for that, so I ended up losing that job.
I went to Buffalo as defensive coordinator. We had a great year on defense, probably the best year I’ve ever had in my career. The head coach resigned, and then I ended up in Philly as defensive coordinator, won the Super Bowl after the 2017 season, and we’ve been to the playoffs each of the last three years, so it’s been a pretty successful run for us in Philly.
What are the biggest challenges that come with a head coaching job?
Probably like any other CEO or boss, everything is your responsibility, and you are accountable for everything. Even if something isn’t your fault, it’s your responsibility. If you lose the game because of bad calls by an assistant, a player slips and falls on the play and it causes you to lose a game, you’re the one that’s held accountable for that. There’s nobody other than your owner. You’re the one that’s in charge of setting policy. You’re the decision-maker. You have to decide which players are going to start, which schemes you’re going to run, how you’re going to practice. You can take counsel with a lot of people, but when it’s all said and done, it’s your decision.
It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and I talk a lot about working 18-hour day and 80-hour weeks, but when you’re the head coach, you’re literally working 24/7. When you’re a head coach, your phone has to be on all night, because if something happens at two o’clock in the morning, you need to be available.
The role changes a little bit too as you work your way up the ladder. As you become a head coach, you coach the players less. You become more of a mentor to players, whatever you need to do — disciplinarian, encouragement, those kind of things. Motivation becomes a good thing. The people who coach the most are your assistant coaches, because just like you send you orders to your lieutenants, and then you give them the marching orders to execute those orders, you have a little bit of freedom to do it with your own personality. The coach probably coaches less as far as technique and strategy and those kind of things — coaches less than anybody else on staff — but he’s responsible for more.
As a defensive coordinator, the only thing I’m really concerned about my 18 hours a day or 100 hours a week is stopping the offense and figuring out ways to stop whatever opponent you’re playing and stop their offense and handle their really good players; that’s all you spend time on. … But as a head coach, your time is just spread amongst so many different things — player relations, disciplining players, offense, defense, special teams, liaison with the scouting department, doing interviews — all of those things. That’s really the biggest thing: You’re not really able to laser-focus on one thing the way that you can when you’re a position coach or you’re a coordinator.
What did you learn as head coach of Detroit that you’ve taken to Philadelphia?
Anything in life that you do, you get better with more experience. When I was in Detroit — and this happens to a lot of head coaches — I didn’t enjoy the wins. It’s very common. Wins become more of a relief, and losses are devastating. The age-old adage of smelling the roses, that doesn’t fly with the head coaches. I never really took time to enjoy it. I’ve changed that a lot more. Rather than wins being a relief, I’ll celebrate wins a little bit more. It’s extremely hard to win in such a competitive league, and I’m able to see that now and I’m able to enjoy it.
And then probably as a coach you learn so much from experience. I think I’ve been in like 600 games in the NFL and called about 500. You do something that long, you’re going to learn. You’re going to fail a lot, and you’re going to learn from those. You’ll get better the next time that you do it; you have experience to lean back on. I’m enjoying it more. I am more experienced, so I have more perspective, and I think probably I’m a little bit more patient. And also I understand, as important as practice and game plans and schemes like that are to having a winning program, your relationships with your players are as important, if not more important. I keep that in mind a lot more from that experience as a head coach.
What was it like to win a Super Bowl as defensive coordinator for the Eagles in 2018?
It was 25 years for me in the NFL maybe, and I’d been to it once and I hadn’t won. If you think about it, there’s 32 teams in the NFL, so just by sheer odds, you figure if you’re around 32 years, you should win it once. It was a special year, and I’ve had a bunch of them in my career where your team just comes together. We’ve come off of a year where we were 7-9, we weren’t that great, came back the next year, had a tough loss early in the season, experienced some big-time injuries, we lost our starting quarterback, we lost our starting middle linebacker, we lost our starting left tackle, we lost our best running back. There was a lot of adversity. But things just also sort of fit in place.
We got to the Super Bowl, and we won an offensive shootout. Defense didn’t play especially well. We made a big play at the end of the game to seal the win, but the offense carried us to win that game. Those three playoff games really summed our team up. The defense stepped up to seal the win when the offense was struggling one game, the offense stepped up when the defense was struggling, and one game was just hit on all cylinders and played great. In the moment, when I look back on that year, I look back on the playoffs and how each of those playoff games was so different. One was a defensive struggle, one was an offensive shootout and one was just we hit on all cylinders. And I also look back and see the adversity our team went through to win a game with injuries.
The thing that was the most special about it was my family being able to come down to the field. They were obviously up in the stands for the game, but when the game was over, they escorted them down to the field, and it probably took them about five minutes to get down there. Celebrating with my fellow coaches and celebrating with the players, a lot of hugs and some tears and a lot of joy. I’m sort of choking up right now, but when my family walked on the field, that was the time that I’ll remember the most in my NFL career. To celebrate with them, and the sacrifices that I’d made over my career, including not spending as much time with my family as other people. … To be able to celebrate on that field, to be able to walk up to the podium and hold that trophy, the Super Bowl trophy, the game and a lot of those things, those things will blur in my memory over time. But just having that moment with my family, my wife, my daughters and my son, that was more meaningful for me than winning the game, and that’s the thing I’ll remember clearest for the rest of my life.