Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said that the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender. Working tirelessly during his career as an NFL coach, Lombardi won five championships as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. He never settled for less, and even at his deathbed told then-President Richard Nixon that he would never give up in his fight against cancer.
This kind of work ethic will almost always be followed by success, as long as the individual continues to work hard without waving the white flag.
Bengals Assistant Head Coach Paul Alexander possesses this kind of work ethic.
This is his story.
These days, 18-year veteran Bengals coach Paul Alexander studies film during the week in his enormous, classroom-sized office next door to head coach Marvin Lewis at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. On the weekends, he patrols the sidelines during Bengals games. In a way, this was always his plan — but in a way, it wasn’t.
Paul Alexander was only in sixth grade when he knew he wanted to be a football coach. He was a sports fan since day one, idolizing stars such as Pete Rose and OJ Simpson during his childhood. He was a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan, to the point where growing up in Western New York, he said, meant that one’s allegiance to the Bills came before family.
To begin paving the road to his anticipated coaching career, the foundation of Alexander’s success was formed in his college days at Cortland State. His mother was a guidance counselor, and she advised him that Cortland was one of the top schools to attend if he wanted to learn how to coach. He took her advice and went to Cortland, where he majored in Physical Education and played on the offensive line for the football team.
“I learned about sport science and I took coaching classes,” said Alexander. “Also, our football team wasn’t very good, which was a positive in a sense because I was able to learn from reasons why we were not playing well.”
Using his time in college wisely, he did everything he possibly could to educate himself about the game of football. In addition to taking classes on coaching, he would attend Bengals practices a few times a year and study the technique of the players and coaches. At this point in time, he said he saw himself coaching high school football or college football in the future.
By graduation day in spring of 1982, things changed a bit. Alexander decided he wanted to coach Division I college football. He spent spent hours, days, and weeks applying to coaching jobs all over the United States. Things didn’t exactly go his way in the beginning, as he watched almost all of his job applications return with rejections.
“I applied to just about every Division I college in the country,” he said. “I sent over 108 applications and I received over 100 rejections. I had a few follow up letters and then I’d just get another rejection.”
Still, Alexander didn’t slow down. He remained firm in his pursuit of a coaching gig in Division I. In the meantime, he applied and was accepted as a graduate student at Penn State, where he hoped to somehow get his foot in the door of the football program as a graduate assistant despite a job offer that would bring him back to his hometown.
“It was the spring of my first year there and I got a call from my high school principal,” said Alexander. “She wanted me to come back and teach biology.”
Considering the hours of work he put into his goal of becoming a college football coach, Alexander wasn’t about to accept a job to go back to high school. He didn’t seem to care that he was rejected at over a hundred schools – he was going to keep trying.
“Let me give Coach [Joe] Paterno one more call,” he told his high school principal.
With this, Alexander called Paterno’s secretary and identified himself as simply Paul Alexander. To Alexander’s complete surprise, the secretary acted as if Paterno had been expecting him all along. She told Alexander that Paterno was waiting for him to call him at home as soon as possible, so she gave him coach Paterno’s home phone number.
“I called Paterno at home and caught him off guard a bit,” Alexander recalled. “He kind of told me that I wasn’t permitted to call him at home and hung up on me.”
Feeling confused and discouraged, Alexander soon learned that the secretary had confused him with the captain of the football team, Roger Alexander, who Paterno was waiting to hear from. Regardless, the next day Alexander received a phone call from a Penn State coach telling him that they still would consider bringing him in and they asked him to come in for an interview.
“Obviously Paterno felt bad,” said Alexander. “So I went down and they put me in a room with projectors and film, and they instructed me to break down the film.”
This was exactly what Alexander hoped for and this was his moment to shine. He learned how to break down film in his coaching class and through his experience as a player at Cortland. In the end, they were impressed and he was hired.
“I had my own little corner office where I broke film down and helped other coaches,” said Alexander. “I had no life other than that projector.”
The job at Penn State opened more doors for Alexander as he hoped to continue moving up the totem pole. He wanted to remain in Division I football, so he was back to the drawing board. He again turned down a job offer, this time the job was to be a Division II offensive coordinator. He was back to the application process, sending out applications to Michigan, UCLA, and other schools to remain as a graduate assistant as he preferred to stay in Division I. After getting called in for an interview at Michigan, the aspiring young coach immediately got in his car and drove to Michigan.
“It took all of about thirty seconds of meeting coach (Bo) Schembechler to realize that I would be a coach at Michigan,” he said.
Alexander remained at Michigan for two years before making his way to Central Michigan, where he landed his first job as a position coach when he was assigned to coach the offensive line. It was while he was at Central Michigan in 1991 when he received a very unexpected phone call.
“I got a call from Jets head coach Bruce Coslet asking me if I wanted to coach,” said Alexander. “At first I thought this couldn’t be Bruce Coslet. Why would he call me?”
It turned out that the NFL was in the process of updating their technology at the time by phasing in computers, and they were specifically looking for a tight ends coach who had experience using computers. Then-Jets defensive coach Greg Robinson remembered that Alexander had interviewed for the graduate assistant position at UCLA some years before, and informed the Jets that Alexander was familiar with computer technology.
“They interviewed eight other people, and somehow I got the job.” He explained. “They started the interview by asking me about the inside zone, the outside zone and the counter play. After close to two hours, I had covered the inside zone and they told me I didn’t even need to finish covering the rest of them. I was hired.”
Alexander spent two seasons with the Jets before the team fired most of the coaching staff in 1994 — including coach Coslet — after the team watched their playoff hopes evaporate following a late-season collapse.
“After we got fired in New York, Coslet came here to the Bengals as the offensive coordinator,” said Alexander, who was hired along with Coslet and has remained with the organization ever since.
One year after the Bengals hired Alexander as the tight ends coach, veteran offensive line coach Jim McNally left the organization. Alexander then made the switch from tight ends coach to offensive line coach in 1995, and in 2003, was promoted to Assistant Head Coach.
It should be noted that Alexander’s so far 18-year tenure with Cincinnati ranks as the fourth longest tenured coaching career in franchise history. The average tenure for a coach in the NFL is only a couple years, so Alexander has been extremely thankful that he has lasted as long as he has with the organization.
“I have no idea [how I have lasted this long],” he said. “I just work hard and I’ve been unbelievably blessed. My children have been able to live in the same house all along.”
Offensive Line: “The Ultimate Sacrifice in Sports”
Fans love to watch the quarterback make the throw on the run or see the running back dive over a pile of defensive players for a touchdown. Fans love to watch wide receivers make the big catch for a first down. These are the players that are making a difference on fantasy teams week in and week out. What the fans don’t always notice are the offensive linemen making the blocks that allow these plays to happen, and coach Alexander knows from coaching this position for decades that it is one of the most important positions in the game.
“Playing offensive line is the ultimate sacrifice in sports,” he says. “There is no glory, the only glory you get is through other people’s accomplishments.”
He mentioned that the position has changed over the years, particularly with how referees call penalties. He said an offensive lineman used to be able to take a defensive player and put them on their back.
“You can’t do that anymore,” he said. “They will call holding. They call anything that is even close to holding. I think in many ways it has led to more passive line of scrimmage, and I don’t like it to tell you the truth.”
He said he doesn’t even know how to advise his players not to hold anymore because the penalty is such a toss-up. There could be holding on any play, it just matters whether the referee notices it.
As the offensive line coach, Alexander also works with the team on preventing false start penalties. He helps train the quarterback on how to use his voice at the line of scrimmage, teaching him how to speak in short, crisp syllables in tones that carry.
“A number of false starts are just a lack of concentration,” he said. “But a lot of times they happen because you can’t hear. In a loud stadium, a lineman can hear a quarterback’s cadence one moment, and then it gets lost in the crowd the next.”
Two decades coaching in the NFL will take its toll on any coach. In order to keep everything fresh, people need to find balance in their lives and Alexander has found that in the unlikely source of the piano.
A few years ago, his daughter helped him get back into music by playing the piano. He had an interest in it when he was a child and he minored in music when he was at Cortland, but his time in the NFL had sidetracked him. Since he has began playing the piano again, it has become a significant part of his life outside of football.
“To let off steam, he plays the piano for hours,” said his wife, Kathy. “At this point, if he doesn’t play then the kids say they can’t sleep without him playing the piano. It drives me nuts because I like to watch TV,” she joked.
Kathy also said Alexander has a special ability to leave everything at work, regardless of team performance or whether he is sad, happy, or angry after a day of work.
“He doesn’t bring anything home with him,” she said. “He’s not home much, maybe 20 minutes before the kids go to sleep. But when he comes home, he is just dad.”
Alexander has about a 30 minute drive home from work after the game, and Kathy says he is able to use that alone time to listen to the radio, make last minute phone calls, and finish everything up so he doesn’t need to bring it home.
The Bengals are in the playoff race this season and their offense is loaded with young talent. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie wide receiver A.J. Green are having two of the best seasons among rookies in the league this year, and the team looks forward to the development of their young stars in the future.
“This season has been surprising, really,” said Alexander. “They have exceeded expectations unbelievably. It has been a fun year, it really has.”
Coach Alexander signed a three-year deal last year to keep him in the organization for at least a few more years. Two decades with the same NFL team is an impressive feat that wouldn’t have been possible without his dedication to coaching dating back to his younger days. While many coaches play in the NFL and easily find a coaching job after their playing days, Alexander had to climb the ladder the hard way.
“Believe it or not, very few NFL coaches plan to be coaches,” he said.
Alexander didn’t just plan to be a coach. He knew he would be a coach.
That’s the difference.
**As part of a Sport Publications class assignment, I traveled to Cincinnati to complete this story. This story is scheduled to appear on the Ithaca College Sport Management and Media department blog**