Football Feature Friday: Toughness Key for Coach Sweeney
By Bob Weiner for UAlbany Athletics
ALBANY, N.Y. – It’s all about attitude for the “Purple Family.” And it starts with the coaching staff.
Talent and skill are extremely important, but for longtime friends Jim Sweeney and Greg Gattuso, the key ingredient for any prospective University at Albany football player is the way they think and execute. Great Danes must be tough and physical.
Sweeney, a former NFL star center and guard, now in his fourth season as the UAlbany offensive line coach, and head coach Greg Gattuso, have known each other for more than 50 years. They have similar tastes and expectations when it comes to their players.
“The No. 1 attribute I look for in my players is that they must be physical,” Sweeney said. “I can teach them technique and work with their footwork. They either have it, or they don’t. You can tell if an individual is physical with the way they play. They are either a tentative, finesse-type blocker, or a physical kid who can take their opponent to the ground. I don’t look for necessarily the biggest or the fastest kid, but I want my players to be very physical.”
How physical? Let’s just say Sweeney was one of the toughest guys around during a 16-year playing career in the NFL, where he competed for 11 seasons with the New York Jets, one with the Seattle Seahawks and four more with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a second-round draft pick for the Jets after a stellar collegiate career at Pittsburgh. With the Jets, he was named to the All-NFL Rookie Team. After 158 consecutive starts in New York, he was named to the All-Time Four Decades Team.
Sweeney, who later was a member of Gattuso’s staff at Duquesne from 2000 to 2002, prefers no to choose his toughest opponent to play against in the NFL, but he did compete against many of the best pass-rushers in the game. “If you name one, you do the rest an injustice,” he said. “I played against some Hall of Fame guys. To tell you the truth, the toughest guy I ever faced was my Dad after a game. That’s the type of individual my father was. I’m happy the way he raised me. I never wanted to embarrass him. I played against the (Lawrence) Taylors, and the Reggie Whites, and they were all great. The guys I really wanted to play against were Jack Lambert and Joe Greene, because I was from Pittsburgh, but I never got the chance.”
Sweeney noted that he was fortunate to play at a major college program that prepared him for a long pro career. “Playing at Pitt was great for me, because it was a big-time program. Every guy I played with went to an NFL camp,” he said. “I expected it. I had a coach named Joe Moore who was really special. We were a national contender every year, and I just thought it was that way for everyone.
“When I got to the Jets, it was another learning process for me. There were so many great players and only a few spots available. You had to perform, and there was a lot of pressure. But I had Jim Ringo as my first professional coach. It was competitive, but we treated rookies like teammates. Remember, the greater the salary the greater the pressure on you. They replace you quicker.”
When Sweeney was in the NFL, he was listed as 6-foot-4 and 297 pounds. Now, many of the men in the trenches at both Division I programs and the pros are much bigger. “You don’t need to be 300 pounds to play this game,” Sweeney said. “I like athletic-type guys. Every coach does. When you are recruiting, you are talking about 17-year-old kids who have their maturing years coming up. I was only 210 to 215 pounds when I played high school ball. It’s important to let nature dictate the size of your body. I look for guys who can put good weight and muscle on. I don’t want a finished product. I want a guy who will grow. It’s very rare when a freshman will play for me on the line. It takes a few years to learn how to play at this level.”
When it comes to technique, there are few better than Sweeney, who has mentored several top Colonial Athletic Association star lineman for the Great Danes. “You can teach the technique, but you don’t want kids you can’t fix,” Sweeney explained. “I don’t like guys who bend at the waist when they block. When that happens, their knees straighten up, and they can’t move. You can’t hit what you can’t see. I’m an old-school guy who believes you must keep your face up and your eyes open.”
Sweeney and Gattuso go way back in their friendship. “He’s the best and is a very close friend,” Gattuso said. “We were rivals in kindergarten. From first grade to 12th grade, we were together. Then, he went to Pitt and I was at Penn State. We played head-to-head against each other in college. He probably says he got the better of me, but we’ve been friends forever. He’s an incredible person. He’s able to each the kids on a level other line coaches can’t because of his experience level,” Gattuso said. “Our kids love it.”
“All I can say is that we have known each other forever,” Sweeney said. “I remember that when we played against each other, my team was only 0-1-1, so I’d say he got the best of me.”
Successful coaches have a different take on big games, and Sweeney had his view about last week’s Super Bowl, won with a huge comeback by the New England Patriots. “I thought it was a great game,” he said. “I’m an old AFC guy, so I’m glad the Patriots won. There were a couple of coaches in the game that I know from way back so I watched how their guys played and then were are always some players that I have some connection with, like Dion Lewis. I always like to watch any kind of roster guy from Pitt,” Sweeney said.
“I like the way Belichick does it, and I love his interviews,” Sweeney added. “You can’t get to him. He keeps things in perspective. He does it his way. He keeps it plain and simple. Of course, it helps to have a great quarterback like Tom Brady, but the Patriots do it with players other teams discard. They play together as a team. Football is 100 percent a team sport, and that’s the way the Patriots play. That’s the way we like to play here at UAlbany.”
MEET RYAN SOLT - 2017 UAlbany NLI Signee
Solt, like Sweeney, has NFL connections. His father, Ron, played guard for the Indianapolis Colts for six years and for the Philadelphia Eagles for four more years. Solt started 113 of 116 games and played in the 1987 Pro Bowl.
Ryan Solt, an offensive lineman from Hardin, Pa., is 6-2 ½ and 284 pounds. He was the top offensive lineman and senior captain for the JamesM. Coughlin High School Crusaders and was named a two-time All-State, All-District and Wyoming Valley Conference all-star selection. He also wrestles.
“His father, Ron, and I played in a couple of all-star games together,” noted Sweeney. “I’ve known Ron for 36 years, and we went to football camp together. His son is a lot like Ron was."
Sweeney likes Solt’s intelligence and knowledge of the game. “He’s a kid who slipped through the cracks. He had some DI offers, and he’s an all-star player who is a tough, physical kid,” Sweeney said. “I think I can make a player out of him. He has a lot of good football genetics in his body. If he is anything like his dad, he will be a pretty good player.”
Sweeney sees Solt as a versatile lineman. “He’s a guard or a center,” Sweeney said. “He has football savvy. He understands football and is a good student. He’s the type of player we like to bring in. His dad having great football lineage is also good, but there is no way a son should be judged like his father. It’s not fair. It does help that he has a good understanding of football, though, and that he has football DNA. I’m looking forward to getting him in here.”
UAlbany football season tickets are now on sale for the 2017 season. Prices start as low as $75. For more information visit ualbanysports.com/tickets or call the UAlbany ticket office directly at 518-442-DANE.