Sean Desai stood at a lectern earlier this month, serving as the commencement speaker for the graduation ceremony at Temple University's college of education and human development.
Sharing lessons he has learned as an educator, football coach and dad, the Seahawks' recently-hired associate head coach-defense asked the graduates a question.
"What's it worth to you?"
"The theme of my talk was centered on a question, a reflection question that I asked myself throughout my career and personally, and was just, 'What's it worth to you?" Desai later said of his message to the students. "That was the message as the graduates enter the next phase of their life. Especially these graduates, they've been through a lot in terms of getting their degree, and obviously that meant a lot to them to get their degree, but that journey wasn't over for them now, because now they've got a whole life ahead of them and what are they going to do with their degree? So, what is it worth to them to have that degree and what are they going to do with it to impact the world?"
That Desai was back at a Temple attending a graduation probably wouldn't have come as much of a surprise to his college-aged self, but what he likely wouldn't have predicted back then was that he would be a commencement speaker who was heading into his 10th season as an NFL coach. Perhaps attending graduation as an esteemed faculty member? Sure, that might have seemed likely for someone who, after graduating from Boston University, earned a master's in higher and postsecondary education from Columbia University before moving onto Temple where he got his doctorate in educational administration. But being there as a commencement speaker who currently holds the title of associate head coach of the Seahawks a year after being the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears? Let's just say that wasn't necessarily the career path Desai always had in mind.
Desai played high school at Shelton High School in Connecticut, and later helped coach the freshman team there while he was a student at Boston College, but seeing as his playing career ended in high school and that he had no real connections to the college or professional coaching world, he figured his passion for football might be a side gig while he pursued other career goals.
"Coaching has always been a passion and I thought it would always be a really cool thing to do, but I never really figured I could make a career out of it," he said. "Especially at the college level and here in the NFL, because I didn't necessarily have the profile or the access points that people who I saw making it in the profession had."
But as Desai pursued his masters at Columbia, he got involved with the football program for a class project, then at Temple, newly hired head coach Al Golden added to his staff Mike Siravo, who had gotten to know Desai while coaching linebackers at Columbia.
"I just emailed (Siravo) and said, 'Can I come volunteer?' Desai said.
Siravo, who is now the linebackers coach for the Carolina Panthers, said yes to Desai's inquiry, with Desai becoming the academic graduate extern, a new position that involved facilitating study halls for players, helping them get classes scheduled, helping them stay on track for graduation and more.
Desai eventually joined the coaching staff at Temple while also serving as an adjunct professor after earning his doctorate, then when Golden became the head coach at Miami, Desai followed him there for a year before reuniting with Siravo at Boston College where he was the running backs coach and special teams coordinator. At the 2013 Senior Bowl, Desai connected with Marc Trestman, who had just become the head coach of the Bears, a meeting that eventually led to a job interview that saw Desai land a job as a defensive quality control coach.
"It was evident when we interviewed how smart he was," Trestman said in a phone interview. "At that point in time, coming into the league and being new, he was quiet, listened, did his work. He came in, did the work, listened and learned. I enjoyed having him on the staff and getting to know him, and I'm really proud of his development over the years. I feel great that he wound up on Pete's staff, I'm excited about that for him."
"Everyone understands the guy is a special coach. Very, very smart."
Trestman's tenure in Chicago lasted two seasons, but Desai was retained by John Fox for three more seasons, then by Matt Nagy for five more, climbing the coaching ladder under Nagy, earning a promotion to safeties coach in 2019 and to defensive coordinator in 2021. More often than not, new head coaches come in and build their own staffs with coaches they know and have worked with or have relationships with, so it's a strong endorsement for Desai's qualities as a coach that two different head coaches after Trestman kept him and eventually promoted him in Chicago.
"There's not many guys who are able to do that," Trestman said. "The ones who do, it's their adaptability, their presence, their intelligence. There's a lot that goes into it. When coaches are interviewing, they're always looking to find people that they know, that they have experience with, so it says a lot about who he is and his ability to adapt and get along and work with others."
Seahawks defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt, who worked with Desai in Chicago before coming to Seattle in 2017, said Desai's ability to survive multiple coaching changes "tells you that everyone understands the guy is a special coach. Very, very smart… He's somebody who's just very dedicated to his craft."
Hurtt worked with Desai for three seasons in Chicago and learned enough about him in that time that he made it a priority to bring Desai to Seattle after he was promoted to defensive coordinator this offseason. After Desai and the rest of Chicago's coaching staff became available following another coaching change there, he quickly became a sought-after commodity, and Hurtt and Pete Carroll worked hard to bring him to Seattle.
"That was huge," Hurtt said. "Obviously you want good people, and you know you're getting a good coach when other people want that coach. That was priority No. 1 to me, and Pete and John (Schneider) knew how important that was. You don't want to hire buddies, so it wasn't about the fact that it was me hiring a friend—I know the guy is a heck of a person and a hell of a football coach, and he's somebody I trust. So he checks all the boxes."
While Desai's football acumen is what ultimately allowed him to go from pursuing his doctorate to becoming one of the NFL's bright young coaching minds, his background in academics and as an educator does show up on the football field.
"Definitely," Hurtt said when asked if Desai's time as an adjunct professor translates to his current job. "How he teaches is definitely clear and concise, which is a very important thing. But also, as a teacher he's always thinking ahead. What is the next issue that's going to come up, how people are going to attack you when you're doing things a certain way. He's very ahead when it comes to that, just thinking what is the next formula to come up with to solve the next problem? It makes him very unique."
Carroll has also noticed the difference that both Desai and new defensive passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach Karl Scott have brought to the coaching staff.
"These guys are doing a marvelous job," Carroll said during rookie minicamp. "I'm really impressed. I will say that forever on these guys. Their command of what we're doing and their attention to the teaching process, is really something. We're teaching differently than we have."
Desai said his educational background is "huge for me" in his current job.
"I've always felt that was a strength of mine," Desai said. "I feel like that's what makes me unique. I didn't play in college. I didn't play in the NFL. So what was going to separate me? I've always felt that my teaching and leadership abilities have separated me. So that has had a huge impact on how I approach guys and how I relay messages and get some points across."
"Access, equity and opportunity for others."
As Desai made his way to the end of his remarks during Temple's graduation ceremony, he pointed out that even when people don't end up following the career path they had planned when the went to college, they can still pursue the same big-picture goals.
"I got my degree wanting to enter the academic ranks and eventually create social change," Desai said. "What I didn't know then is that I'd eventually be doing that on a football field."
Desai thought he'd affect change one student at a time in a classroom, but instead he realizes he now has a much bigger platform to do that as an NFL coach.
"I'm in a better position to fulfill what my education was actually worth to me, to help provide access, equity and opportunity for others," Desai told the Temple students.
As an Indian American and the son of immigrants, Desai recognizes that by becoming the first Indian American coordinator in the NFL, he is in a position to serve as an inspiration to others who come from a similar background. The importance of that type of representation hit home for Desai and his wife, quite literally, when their son, who was 4 at the time, asked them if he could paint his skin white so he could become a professional baseball player, because he had never seen an Indian professional baseball player.
"I hadn't thought about it much in my life growing up, to be honest with you, but I've come to realize through being a dad, and really after being hired as a defensive coordinator and being the first of all these things, how important it is," he said. "Because it's real. I mean, especially in this day and age where everything is so tangible and visual and all the information's right in front of you, people notice. So what representation means to me is that you have the ability to know that you can be in a position that you want to be in because there's people that are similar to you. And it doesn't necessarily mean, in my opinion, looks the same way as you, or has the same color skin as you. It could mean has similar personality traits, identifies a certain way, has similar interests. There could be people that say, 'Man, this guy's got a doctorate.' That's representation also. And so I think it covers such a wide array. And I think it's important for people to know and feel that they can fit in, in whatever environment that they're in."
Another way Desai has tried to accomplish that goal of creating social change is to use his voice in an op-ed piece he penned for The Athletic in 2020 that was a call to action that encouraged people to engage in difficult, uncomfortable conversations with veracious individuals in leadership roles, to reach out to mayors to encourage them to examine their police use of force policies, and to donate time or money to organizations that create access and equity for marginalized groups. The more power Desai gets as a coach—like most up-and-coming young coaches, he aspires to someday be a head coach—the more he also wants to use his platform to promote hiring more diverse coaching candidates.
"When you're in positions with a little bit more power, a little bit more responsibility, I think you've got a duty and a responsibility, in my opinion, to try to pay that forward," he said. "For me, access and creating opportunity and equity are always things that are on my mind of how to do it. If I've got the ability to do it, we're going to try to do it. Last year at the Bears, we tried to do it. We had some opportunities to hire some coaches that we did. And we felt like we had a good diverse staff there and gave guys with different backgrounds different opportunities. And if I ever have that power and that say and that influence, I don't see why you wouldn't do it because I know the way I grew in this profession was obviously through my work ethic, but I've had people advocate for me and stamp me and say, 'Hey, yeah, he is a good worker, in spite of the shortcomings other people might see—he didn't play football, he didn't do this, he's Indian or whatever it might be.' I think the ability to give people opportunities is important.
"What I believe in is openness, honesty, integrity, and if you have an ethical and moral and just process to going about the way you do things and why you do things, that's pretty hard to combat."
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