CHARLOTTE - If Phil Snow hadn't listened to Dick Jauron in 2005, he wouldn't have beaten a man half his age in a push-up contest this summer.
Then again, if Phil Snow hadn't listened to every football coach and player he's ever encountered from the high school level to the NFL, he wouldn't have the kind of encyclopedic knowledge of the game that the Panthers are leaning on right now.
The 65-year-old defensive coordinator is at the top of his game at the moment, pushing the buttons for the league's top-ranked defense - which is not the same as one he's content with. And as he leads the Panthers in his own style, he's building a following that expands as they realize how smart, how direct - and how strong - he actually is.
Even if trivialities like birthdays or the internet slip his mind completely.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule coached with Snow one year as a graduate assistant in 2001 at UCLA. And after a year of fetching coffee for the veteran defensive coach, Rhule decided if he ever got a head coaching job, Snow was coming along. So Snow has followed, from Temple to Baylor to Carolina, helping Rhule turn teams around with defenses that improve quickly.
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"Phil's the best football coach I've ever been around," Rhule said. "I said that way back at UCLA in 2001, I said it last year and I say it now."
When he was asked about that endorsement, Snow kind of aw-shucksed it, with a touch of a drawl that allows him to fit in in the South, despite being born and living most of his life on the West Coast.
"Well, I got Matt when he was a younger coach, and we worked together at UCLA, and we had a special defense that year. He worked one year with me there," Snow began. "At some point, something left an impression on him. I mean, when somebody says that, that's gratifying. One of the younger guys you've worked with, to see how far he's come, to hear him talk about you that way, that's kind of special.
"We've had a good eight years working together. It's been fun."
Never mind the fact that if you count this year, it's nine. And if you count the UCLA year, it's 10. But such details aren't important, not during football season. Not to Snow, who buries himself in his work.
"I can't confirm or deny that he hasn't forgotten his wife's birthday. Or his own birthday," Panthers linebackers coach Mike Siravo said. "There are different levels of distractions in life. He's not going to be distracted when it's time to work.
"He doesn't have hobbies. He doesn't have internet access. He doesn't watch the news. The level of time he puts in and the commitment is amazing."
Or as cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper said: "Man, coach Snow doesn't watch TV, he doesn't watch movies, he doesn't sing songs. He's just football."
Rhule mentioned that last week, noting that immediately after the win over the Saints, Snow quickly cleaned up and grabbed a sandwich, and headed back upstairs to his office to prepare for the short-week game against the Texans. When Rhule came in early Monday morning to continue those preparations, he had to remind Snow to go back downstairs to take his COVID-19 test, because it was obvious he hadn't left his office all night.
That's not necessarily a surprise.
Siravo said when they were at Temple, Snow was famous for grabbing a couple of couch cushions from the lobby - he didn't have a whole couch in his office - and finding a spot for a few Zs when the situation called for extra work.
"It never really mattered where I sleep," Snow said with a laugh. "After the Saints game, I showered and went up and started working on Houston. In a short week, you have to do that. Maybe I'm not smart enough. I need that time, to spend that time."
Confirming Siravo's story about the appropriated furniture, Snow said he was never picky.
"Just the regular couches that were in the building, I'd go steal the cushions and sleep on them, whatever's available," he said. "Here's the deal though, I'd get up earlier than everyone else, so the cushions were put away by the time they got to work. They didn't know that."
There are layers to that story, beyond the cliched old football coach who sleeps in the office trope. First, Snow doesn't do it every night; that's a special occasion thing. Next was his humble interjection of, "Maybe I'm not smart enough" (he absolutely is), followed quickly by the wry little laugh that accompanies returning the cushions before anyone caught him pilfering the furniture. But that also comes with the reality that he starts early too, though his routine is different than it used to be.
Football exists in a culture of work. This staff also skews young, but even the youngest ones can't beat Snow to the punch.
"He works his butt off. Hard workers get respect around a football team, regardless of age," the 34-year-old Cooper said. "He's in there at 5 a.m. every day. If I walk in at 5:15 or 5:30 and try to start, he's halfway through his workout."
About that workout. Again, Snow's 65, which makes a daily exercise routine a bit unusual. And his is picking up intensity, and it's not a slow walk on a treadmill, or a casual 30 minutes on an elliptical machine.
He admits that he wasn't a big in-season workout guy until he was around 50. Maybe squeeze one in during a Friday or Saturday, after the game-planning was done. That changed when he worked for the Detroit Lions, and then-defensive coordinator Dick Jauron tried to drag him to the weight room.
"I was in there working, and he said come on, coach, let's work out, and I said I didn't have time," Snow said. "He said listen, if you don't have an hour a day, you're not doing it right. So since that time, I was about 50 at the time, I've done that.
"I feel so much better during the days now. I wish I had done that my whole career, which I did not do. Oh yeah, I wake up, I'm in there between 5 and 5:30, work out for an hour, then I'm ready to get the day started. I think it really helps me, so that's what I do.
"All the experts say once you get over 50, you start to lose muscle and bone density, so what you really should do is lift weights. So that's what I do. Now, I'm not lifting a lot of heavy weights, but what I do is work out with weights, do pull-ups, and I feel a lot better."
That paid off this summer, when Rhule was trying to lighten things up during the practices between training camp and the regular season. He'd match up coaches for sprints, and then paired Snow and 32-year-old Joe Brady in a push-up contest.
Guess who won? (There might be some debate about this, as Brady contends he did more. It's possible that since Snow simply kept going without pause, he might have been declared the winner for continuity).
"Phil's strong," Brady acknowledged. "He's not just old-man strong."
"Whatever," Snow said with a laugh. "All I did was the push-ups, I don't know who won."
That humility is also part of the reason Snow is so beloved among his staff.
It's an odd collection of the very young, and guys who have been together since Temple. Secondary coach Jason Simmons played for Snow at Arizona State before his NFL career, and they've mixed and matched parts around him. None have his kind of experience. But when they walk into the room, that doesn't matter.
"I mean they fight in there," Rhule said of Snow's defensive meetings. "They sit in the same room, Jason who played for him, and Siravo who's been with him forever. They argue over things, but at the end of the day, they have one vision, and they came up with it together. That's a pretty good thing."
As one of the junior members of the group, Cooper said the lesson is clear.
"With coach Snow, you know immediately he's one of those guys," he said. "He's forgotten more about football than most people have ever known. He's literally taught me everything I know about the game. You immediately gravitate to him, because he knows so much football. He's a likable guy, but you learn something from him every time you talk about the game. When coach Rhule gushes about him, it's not because he likes him, it's because he knows so much.
"When people reach a certain level of success, they only want to do things a certain way, the way they know. With him, he's seen so much, he's willing to listen if someone has a better idea. He's not afraid for you to challenge him, but if you do, you better bring it. You have to know what you're talking about. I mean, we're all different individuals, but he's the elder. He knows how to facilitate good conversation to get the best results."
Siravo said he'd notice the way Snow built his incredible base of information on an everyday basis, at football clinics or on recruiting trips, anywhere there was a chance to talk ball.
"The great thing about him is his humility," Siravo said. "He will talk to a high school coach or a D-3 coach the same way he talks to an NFL coach. Whoever wants to learn and study football can teach him something. He's always in search of more information. His research is so thorough, and he watches the game differently. He sees the whole game.
"He just has an incredible knowledge. In 2013 (at Temple), he's teaching three new coaches a defense they've never run. His patience and his knowledge are amazing. He's like a teacher and a researcher. If he sees someone run a play, he understands each block, every nuance. He came up as a back-end coach, but he could coach linebackers or the line easily. He's detailed, but it's the depth of detail that sets him apart."
Snow chuckles a little when such things are mentioned. He laughs easily and gently, giving him a grandfatherly vibe around this staff. And whether it's the youngest coaching assistants on staff, or the players who are almost all in their 20s, there's a universal respect for his work. Creating that, Snow said, is a matter of listening as much as talking.
"I think what's really important, and Matt's this way too, but everybody's opinion matters to us," Snow said. "I'll ask the youngest coach in the room what they think. We involve everyone in the room. And when you do that, people think what they do matters. And they'll work hard for you. We have a really good close relationship, a really good staff.
"Here's what I've found over the years, no matter what level of football. Knowledge is power. If they think you can help them become better, then no matter how old they are, they will listen to you. Listen, a 14-year-old kid knows if you're not telling him the truth or you're playing games with them. So we're real direct with the players, real honest with them. They can speak their minds to us, and we can tell them straight-up what we think. And if they think you can make them better, they listen. So that's how we've gone about our business. we spend time with them, so they know we care about them, and it works out fine."
Even though it comes from a 65-year old man, that directness can be sharp. You don't mess with Yoda, just because he's short and wrinkled.
"You think he's old? Coach Snow's a young guy," cornerback Donte Jackson said. "He fits right in with this group. A lot of personality. You don't want to get him mad, you want to make sure you do your job. You don't want to see the bad side of Snow.
"You don't want to be on coach Snow's film not running to the ball or not being physical."
"Man, Snow is straightforward. Very straightforward," defensive tackle Derrick Brown added. "You've got to love that about him. If you mess up, he's coming straight to you. But he holds you accountable. I think if you want to build a great defense, the coaches have to be held accountable and have to hold the players accountable just the same."
That's another way of describing trust.
Snow invests his in coaches and players, so he expects it back from them. It's that simple, and anything short of the standard is not good enough.
"Truth bridges all gaps," Siravo replied when asked how he communicates through a generation gap. "A player might be taken aback by how direct he can be sometimes. He's not going to sugarcoat anything for anybody."
Cooper, who credits his football education to the man, knows that builds a loyalty that goes both ways.
"He's the kind of guy you want to go to bat for," Cooper said. "Because he will for you."
Building that level of confidence from above and below takes time.
During the offseason, Rhule mentioned that Snow was probably among the best golfers on the coaching staff. And while a few of them snuck in a round this past long weekend after the Thursday win against Houston, Snow wasn't among them. His clubs only come out of the garage in the offseason.
"Yeah, I put 'em away," he said during a break Sunday. "I could have played the last three days, but I just have no interest. My mind is completely not on golf."
That leaves all the room in his head for football.
When Rhule was praising Snow last week, he talked about how adaptive he is. They've played different defenses at different stops along the way, always changing based on the personnel they had, or the challenges posed by particular opponents. It's like listing a table of contents of a coaching manual when Rhule talks about all the different schemes they've run.
But the thing that sets Snow apart - and the reason Rhule's dragged him from Philadelphia to Waco to Charlotte - is simple.
"Phil's a worker," Rhule said. "I was his graduate assistant, he used to yell for me, 'Is that coffee pot broken?' and I had to go check and make sure he had a cup of coffee. He is a special, special man. A great coach. . . . I think Phil does an amazing job of taking stock of what he has personnel-wise and what they do well, and he's going to relentlessly work. He doesn't get too high, doesn't get too low. If we have success, it doesn't matter to him.
"He's an example to all of us young coaches, and I'm not a young coach anymore, but of how to work and do it the right way."
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