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Commit Yourself

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How Dave Fipp became the best special teams coach in the NFL.

Arizona V Oregon

IN THE FALL of 1991, Dave Fipp wanted to quit football.

“I was horrible,” he says. “I was the other team’s MVP.”

A scrawny junior on La Jolla High School’s football team, Fipp felt lost. He played safety and cornerback, but felt he couldn’t do anything right on the field. And he hated school. He thought about forgoing college altogether and becoming a river rafting guide. Maybe a hunting and fishing instructor. He loved to fish.

After his junior season, Fipp wanted to focus full-time on pole vaulting. He held the school record, 15 feet, 5 inches, and was ranked in the state of California. He just couldn’t see himself playing the game anymore.

But his football coach, the legendary Rey Hernandez, saw something else: a small but determined kid who had potential.

“[Hernandez] came up to me and said, ‘You could be a really good player if you want to be,’” Fipp recalls 25 years later. “And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘You’ve just got to commit yourself to it.’ Working out, doing all the little things right.”

It’s obvious advice to Fipp now, but to a 17-year-old mired in a rut, it was eye-opening. Fipp re-dedicated himself to football, attacking it with the kind of vigor people who know him speak about in reverent tones. In the past two and a half decades, he’s never looked back.

“My senior year, the first game, I fell in love with it,” Fipp says. “And it was over. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”

To know Dave Fipp is to know a man who commits himself to whatever lies ahead, and to whatever sparks his insatiable interest. Football sparked his determination as a teenager, and he turned it into his life’s work.

“My dad always told me, when I was a kid, just find something to do that you love,” Fipp says. “When I went to the University of Arizona, I ran on the field the very first time, and I’ll never forget it. It was the first game, I ran out there, and I was like, ‘Dude, I love this game. And I want it to be a part of my life forever.’”

Rodney Sermons USC

***

THAT FIRST GAME of Fipp’s college career might not have happened without a pair of five-pound weights in an Arizona gym.

Fipp arrived at Arizona still scrawny. His roommate, Joe Salave’a, a defensive end on the team, was very much the opposite.

During his eight seasons in the NFL, Salave’a stood 6-3 and weighed 337 pounds at defensive tackle. He was a little smaller at Arizona, but he still towered over Fipp.

“He’s truly, truly tiny, man,” Salave’a says, laughing, thinking back to his formative years with Fipp, who was Salave’a’s roommate.

Fipp didn’t arrive at Arizona on scholarship; instead he walked on, recommended to Arizona head coach Dick Tomey by Hernandez because of the way he dedicated himself during that senior year at La Jolla. Still, nothing was guaranteed once he reached Tucson. He wasn’t even guaranteed a tryout.

“My biggest fear was that I wasn’t going to get a chance,” Fipp says. “If I showed up there and was too light, they’d just run me out of the door before I could get in.”

To get past Tomey’s wary eye, Fipp snuck two five-pound weights into his pockets during his initial weigh-in. He was heavy enough, but only barely.

The actual numbers of Fipp’s freshman-year weight fluctuate. Greg Hansen, a writer for the Arizona Daily Star who has covered the Wildcats for decades, remembers Fipp’s weight near 145. Salave’a remembers it close to 140. Tomey himself remembers the weight at 150. Fipp, still living with those weights in his pockets, recalls weighing 160 pounds his freshman year.

Whatever the exact numerals were, they didn’t matter to Fipp, nor to Tomey.

Fipp just wanted to play football.

“If I was going to get cut, it was going to be because I wasn’t a good enough player,” he says, “not because I didn’t weigh enough.”

Tomey knew early on that he wouldn’t be cutting this kid.

“He was so small, and he looked so young,” Tomey says. “You would’ve mistaken him for a junior or sophomore in high school because he just looked young, like he does now. But he was not taking anything for granted. He was there to try and work, and make a place for himself. It was clear from the beginning, if he could get big enough and strong enough, that he could play, because he was going to be dedicated enough.”

Salave’a, now the defensive line coach at Washington State, describes Fipp the same way.

“For his body of work, with the tenacity and the will to compete, he was really bigger than his size,” Salave’a said. “That’s David Fipp.”

***

FIPP STARTED JOKING about being a football coach as a high school senior, when he was still playing for Hernandez. By the time he was a freshman in college, he wasn’t joking any longer. He knew that would be his path.

Tomey did, too.

“He was just like a sponge,” Tomey says of Fipp’s approach to learning the game.

Instead of taking the traditional route right out of college, Fipp decided to try something different.

“The first thing he did was something that was unique, because he went to Holy Cross as a coach, and he got a chance to have the responsibility of a full-time coach,” Tomey says.

Fipp took a shot at the Holy Cross position because of the experience it would afford him. As a graduate assistant at a big program, he would have been stuck at the bottom of the totem pole. At Holy Cross, he had the normal responsibilities of a graduate assistant, but he was also the coach of the team’s secondary, served as the assistant special teams coach, and took part in the recruiting process.

All for a paltry $5,000 a year. But to Fipp, it made perfect sense.

“For me, I knew that to be a college football coach, you had to recruit,” he says. “As a graduate assistant at a big program, you don’t get to do that. And so I decided, ‘Heck, I’ll do that, no problem.’”

It was a unique path, but it showed what Fipp is about: finding as many opportunities to learn as he can.

“I just think most guys, when they graduate from college, they’re looking to stay there, and David wasn’t,” Tomey says. “He felt if he got the chance to really be an on-the-field coach, and not just a graduate assistant, that would benefit him, and he did that.”

Fipp eventually moved on to Cal-Poly, then to University of Nevada. When Tomey became the new head coach at San Jose State in 2005, his first phone call was to Fipp.

Tomey wanted Fipp to be a part of his team. But he knew he wouldn’t have him for long.

“His coaching career was off and running at the time, and clearly he had a passion about it,” Tomey said. “He attacked it just like he attacked the playing aspect of it, and he just had an insatiable desire to learn.”

***

IF YOU HEAR loud music blaring from the far reaches of the NovaCare Complex in the afternoon, chances are good it’s coming from the Eagles’ special teams meeting.

“[Fipp’s] meetings are great,” Donnie Jones says. “I enjoy sitting in his meetings. It’s up-tempo, full of energy.”

Chris Maragos was in the first NFL meetings Fipp ever ran, when Fipp was the assistant special teams coach with the San Francisco 49ers. Assistant coaches don’t get many chances to address the team in meetings, but when Fipp had his shots, Maragos says, he nailed them.

“When he got his opportunities, I remember being like, ‘Wow.’ He had everything mapped out, knew what he wanted to say,” Maragos recalls. “Everything was so organized. You could tell he put a lot of time into it.”

These days, Fipp starts his meetings every day with a few songs, often chosen by the players, to get the room amped up for his instruction. He’s an avid country music fan, but according to Trey Burton, the music selections vary.

At the beginning of each week, Fipp takes time in the meeting to remind the special teams unit where they stand in relation to the season-long goals he’s laid out for them. He has goals for each facet of special teams; for instance, he sets a target for yards per kickoff return. Right now, the team is ahead of the season goal.

Doug Pederson’s never set foot in the meetings himself, but sometimes he just stands outside and listens to the music, and to Fipp’s methodical, rapid-fire coaching.

“It sounds like a club,” Burton says. “He brings the energy that way, and he’s also very, ‘Bang, bang,’ going through the meeting fast. Hitting on the things we need to know about. He doesn’t really keep us in there for anything extra. If he has 30 minutes, he’s not going to use the whole 30 minutes. If we’re done, we’re out. He’s very efficient.”

Fipp’s players like to say he uses those meetings — and, of course, practices — to put them in the right positions to make plays.

“He does a good job of putting guys in positions based on their skill sets,” Maragos says. “He understands players’ strengths, and he highlights those well. He builds his schemes off of that.”

What does it mean to put guys in good positions?

“He’s a great teacher,” Jones says. “He spends a lot of time breaking down tape. He watches the other team’s tendencies, their schemes, and is able to teach what we’re doing here, and teach it in a great way.”

Fipp isn’t so sure about that.

“Good players end up in good positions,” Fipp says. “We spend a lot of time on fundamental techniques, and they really embrace it. We try to teach a lot of stuff. I don’t know if we do a good job of it.”

Donnie Jones won’t let Fipp get away with downplaying his role. The veteran punter has been in the NFL for 13 years, and has experienced a whole fleet of special teams coaches.

“He’s by far the best,” Jones says.

NFL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

***

DAVE FIPP HAS a lot of bees.

“Yeah, I have bees,” he says, chuckling outside the NovaCare Complex on a blustery November afternoon.

That’s right. The hyper-focused mastermind behind the NFL’s best special teams unit for the past three years, the man who would probably eat football leather if he could, spends his down time at his home in Haddonfield as a bee keeper.

His interest was piqued when, as a child, his family took long drives across the country. He would stare out the back window of the car and gawk at honey bee boxes on the sides of the roads. He was always curious about how they worked.

When he met his wife, Jenny, he got a closer look. She grew up on an almond farm in California. Bees pollenate almonds. After spending time on her farm, his interest in bees grew stronger still.

And then — well, here’s the whole truth of how he got his own bees, Fipp says: he started brewing his own beer. He read up on it, brewed his own stuff, and then read some more.

“I got intrigued with mead,” he says, almost sheepishly, because of course the man who dives head-long into everything he does would wind up wanting to create what is essentially the original beer.

To make mead, you see, you need a lot of honey. Fipp started visiting a local apiary and buying honey in bulk for his brews. But then it dawned on him that he could blend his interest in home brewing with his love for bees and their boxes.

“One day,” he says, “I just thought, ‘Hey, I should make my own honey.”. So he did.

These days, he keeps three bee boxes in his side yard in New Jersey.

With thousands of bees.

To make honey for the mead he brews himself.

Remember what everyone says about him being committed?

***

THE PATH FROM special teams coach to head coach is not often traveled in the NFL. The only one that comes immediately to mind is John Harbaugh, and even he didn’t make the immediate leap from special teams to head coach; he took a side step as the Eagles’ defensive backs coach for a year before the Ravens hired him.

Fipp is the league’s best special teams coach, hands down, no exceptions. He could be a special teams lifer in the NFL. The rest of his career. It would probably go swimmingly.

Maragos, for one, thinks teams need to think bigger when it comes to Fipp.

“I really think he should be up for a head coaching job,” Maragos says, unprompted. “He touches every player on the roster. The way he commands the team, the way he connects with guys, how detailed he is. His passion, his enthusiasm, his energy. The guy’s just got so much to him. I think it would be a mistake for teams not to look at him [as a head coach.]”

Whether he’s the Eagles’ special teams coach for the next decade, or he leaves to become something bigger somewhere better, Fipp will likely be equally adored by whomever he meets next.

The way people who know him speak about Dave Fipp is the way people speak when they are truly inspired by someone.

“I would talk to anybody about David Fipp,” Tomey says. “He’s one of my favorite all-time people, and I’m just really proud of the job he’s doing. He’s just such a genuine person.”

Trey Burton’s favorite part of playing for Fipp is the kickoff.

“It’s cool because when we’re on the kickoff, he’ll be right next to the kicker,” Burton says. “When the kicker kicks it, he’s sprinting down the field with us. He wants to be in there, he wants to see what we see. He’s sprinting down, and we’re all kind of racing him to get down the field.”

He’d probably race them on the field himself, if the rules allowed it.