Football lifer Rich Bisaccia tasked with leading Las Vegas Raiders through choppy waters

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 24, 2021

LAS VEGAS -- The stark darkness gave way to a bright Bronx winter as 9-year-old Rich Bisaccia emerged from the stadium tunnel in search of his seat. In front of him, what he had only seen on TV, or heard about on the radio or through second-hand conversations, that famed Yankee Stadium frieze and surrounding buildings. Below, more than 100 yards of a brownish green expanse lined as a football field.

Bisaccia was attending his first NFL game with his favorite team, the New York Giants, playing host to the St. Louis Cardinals on Dec. 7, 1969, and the future football lifer was excited to get a real-life glimpse of his hero, Giants quarterback Fran Tarkenton.

"I swore I was Fran Tarkenton growing up," Bisaccia said.

Born in nearby Yonkers, New York, Bisaccia had recently moved with his family to New Fairfield, Connecticut, after the passing of a grandmother and family matriarch. But his Giants fandom, passed down by his father, Nick, had only grown.

"My dad was the head football coach of the New York Giants," Bisaccia said at his initial news conference on Oct. 13 as the Las Vegas Raiders' interim coach. "He just never told anybody."

Reporters and fans alike scurried to Google, Wikipedia, anything to confirm Bisaccia's Giants bloodline. It was a joke. Nick was such a fan, the younger Bisaccia said, he thought he knew more than the likes of Allie Sherman, Alex Webster or Bill Arnsparger.

Thing was, upon Bisaccia's elevation with the Raiders in the wake of Jon Gruden's resignation amid his email scandal on Oct. 11, the hunt was also on to find out more about Bisaccia himself.

So, yeah, there was intrigue, especially after the Raiders won a pair of blowout games against the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles in his first two contests running the Raiders to make the team 5-2 going into their bye. Then receiver Henry Ruggs III was involved in a fiery car crash early in the morning on Nov. 3 that killed a woman and her dog and fellow first-rounder Damon Arnette, an oft-injured cornerback, was released Nov. 8 after a video of him brandishing guns and making death threats surfaced online.

Las Vegas has not won a game since and the whispers are now not only about the future of Bisaccia with the Raiders, but also those of general manager Mike Mayock and quarterback Derek Carr.

Three consecutive losses -- to those Giants, Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals to drop Las Vegas' record to 5-5 -- have added difficulty to Bisaccia's task, one that's already unprecedented due to Gruden's abrupt midseason resignation and the releases of Ruggs and Arnette since taking the job. But as the Raiders get set to play at the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS), Bisaccia remains perhaps the organization's most interesting man ... especially since so little is known about him.

"I've got five sisters," he allowed. "I've got four kids. Five grandkids.

"I owe my life to football."

Dedicated to the craft

At 61 years old, Bisaccia is a head coach for the first time at any level in a career that began in 1983.

Not a particularly good student -- by his own admission -- he earned a scholarship to tiny Yankton College (yes, former Raider Lyle Alzado's school) in South Dakota and played well enough for his coach there, Pete Chapman, to earn a tryout with the USFL's Philadelphia Stars as a defensive back. He did not make the team. But Chapman, who was moving from Yankton -- now a minimum-security federal prison -- to Wayne State College in Nebraska, brought Bisaccia with him to join his staff.

And he was off.

Bisaccia finished his Bachelor of Arts degree while coaching for Chapman and at Joe Namath's summer camps and, after four years at Wayne State, a friend he had made coaching at different camps came calling.

Charlie Weis, the former Notre Dame head coach who won a Super Bowl as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, was at South Carolina and in charge of hiring graduate assistants and Bisaccia was at the top of his list in 1988.

"He was newly married, had his first kid but coach [Joe] Morrison didn't want his [graduate assistants] to be married or have kids," Weis said. "He wanted his G.A.s to be grunts. So, as a couple of Northeast kids, we got it done."

Bisaccia had to act like he was separated from his wife, Jeanne, and live in the dorms to get and keep the gig.

"For him to go to that length, that showed his dedication," Weis said.

Eventually, Morrison caught wind of their plan.

"Coach Morrison got a kick out of it," Weis said.

Morrison died of a heart attack on Feb. 5, 1989, and Sparky Woods was hired as Gamecocks coach. Woods retained Bisaccia as a volunteer assistant who coached defensive ends, tight ends, running backs and special teams through 1993.

"A warm personality," Woods, who is now a senior advisor at North Carolina, said of Bisaccia. "It didn't take long to realize he had a passion for the players. Neat family. His wife is awesome. It didn't take long to hire him.

"He was an excellent recruiter. A good listener. No problem being accountable. He never tried to bring attention to himself. He had a family and he needed a job but he never complained. He needed to make a living and I didn't want to lose him."

But he did.

A former fellow staffer at South Carolina, Tommy West, was named the head coach at Clemson in 1994. Guess who was at the top of his list?

"Rich is driven, self-motivated," said West, now the defensive line coach at Middle Tennessee State. "He can go as high as he wants to go. In coach-speak, Rich is brutally honest. He was the guy you were going to run something by. Just don't ask him if you don't want to know."

West recalled running a play by Bisaccia.

"Coach, that's the craziest thing I've ever heard of," Bisaccia told him.

"I didn't think it was that crazy," West replied.

"That's terrible," was Bisaccia's response.

Bisaccia's journey through the Deep South then took him to Ole Miss in 1999, when David Cutcliffe saw what he called a "rare passion for coaching" and developing relationships with players.

"There's no bigger fool in coaching than one who thinks they can fool a player," said Cutcliffe, who is now the coach at Duke. "He's going to light it up every now and then but not without them knowing that he respects them and the work they've put in."

Case in point: It was Ole Miss' homecoming game in 2000 against UNLV, which had forced overtime on the final play of regulation. Running back Deuce McAllister sat out regulation with a left high ankle sprain but when OT began, he told Bisaccia, his position coach as well as special teams coordinator, he would play. Bisaccia recognized the moment and trusted his player.

"I pulled rank," McAllister, now a radio analyst for theSaints, laughed as he recalled converting a pair of third downs in OT before going over the top of the pile for the game-winning 1-yard touchdown.

McAllister said Bisaccia used to leave motivational notes in his locker before games.

"He'd say he couldn't wait to see me play, that everybody in the stadium was there to see me," McAllister said. "Even though everybody is not there to see me play, it made me feel that they were all coming to watch me."

Said Cutcliffe: "That story speaks volumes for who Rich is. It's time to think about players, not plays, and Rich was great for Deuce McAllister. I find myself saying it all the time -- you get on a grease board, or a chalkboard before, and you want to draw up a winner. But you don't just draw up a punt-block scheme; you have to have a punt blocker. You have to find him."

'Is he a great coach? Hell yeah'

With former NFL head coaches on the Raiders staff in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, offensive line coach Tom Cable and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, Bisaccia seemed a quizzical pick to replace Gruden.

Until you looked at the résumé.

Bisaccia, who carried the title of associate head coach and as the special teams coordinator, is well known by players on both sides of the ball.

"The irony is, I've endorsed him for a lot of head coaching jobs over the years, both in college and the NFL, back when I had a different job," Mayock said. "He's got as much respect in the locker room, in our locker room, as any coach I've ever seen in my life and the reason he does -- is he a great coach? Hell yeah. But he's an even better man and what I've always told people when I endorse him is that he's the most natural leader of men that I have ever been around.

"Rich Bisaccia is the best leader I have ever been around. ... I'm going to back this son of a gun unequivocally."

Bradley remains in control of the defense while offensive coordinator Greg Olson took over playcalling duties from Gruden. Bisaccia? He's still running special teams but he also refers to himself as an "in-game manager" inspired by John Robinson, the former Los Angeles Rams, USC and UNLV coach.

"I'm a Raider, too, just like him," Robinson, who was on John Madden's staff in 1975 as an offensive backfield coach, said of Bisaccia.

"As an in-game manager, I did not call plays. I advised and yelled at the coordinators when things didn't go right; I tried to stay involved in the game. So, I was the manager of the game, how many timeouts we had. The playcaller can't do that -- maybe some guys can do everything -- the playcaller has to have somebody else remind them, 'Hey, there's 12 seconds on the clock.' Whatever that process is. I always tried to focus on that and look at our teams in terms of who's tired. The intangibles that go into a game. That's an important part of the game."

Robinson said Bisaccia's history as a special teams coach should help in his current role.

"They are prepared for the total game probably more than any other coach because they see the game more in that regard," said Robinson, now an offensive consultant at LSU. "I've always believed the special teams coach has got a sense of what the total game is."

And during that initial two-game winning streak, it was palpable in the Raiders locker room.

"Oh, yeah, we love him," Carr said. "If you find someone that doesn't like him, they probably didn't do right. They probably didn't work hard. They probably weren't a good teammate, and things like that. If you just do right, you'll love that man. And I think a lot of it has to do with just who he is as a person, how he believes. He's the same every day so you know exactly what you are going to get. As a player that's all you can ask for, especially in this league."

Running back Josh Jacobs laughed when recalling how different things were in Denver with Bisaccia at the helm when compared to Gruden.

"Man, the sideline was just so, it was like, it wasn't no anxiety," Jacobs said. "It was weird. It was like everybody was calm, you didn't have somebody cussing at you, or going crazy at the refs, you know what I'm saying? None of that. It was just like, 'OK, something bad happened?' [Bisaccia] was like, 'OK, I'm not harping on you. All right, next play. Next play.'

"I was like, 'That's the right type of energy we needed.' I love it."

Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue overlapped the pointer and middle fingers on his right hand.

"Me and coach are like this," Ngakoue said. "We have similar views on a lot of things, about how we go about our work. It starts in practice. The way he has practice set up and structured, I just feel like it's super effective in getting guys ready for Sundays.

"Do your job, be on time and you'll be on his good side. I love coach, man."

'He deserves this opportunity'

Bisaccia was beckoned by the NFL in 2002.

Or, more specifically, by Gruden, who had been traded from the Raiders to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and needed a special teams coordinator.

Gruden's first coaching job was as a G.A. at Tennessee in 1986. Cutcliffe coached the Volunteers' tight ends at the time, so Gruden had an in.

"I had to tell [Gruden] the truth," Cutcliffe said. "It was very difficult for me because part of the things people don't understand about the industry is how hard it is to trade even or trade up with coaches. I knew we couldn't trade even with Rich Bisaccia. Our relationship went beyond just the coaching. I was close to his family, the father. There's more to this than X's and O's. Nobody was more aligned with what we were trying to do at Ole Miss than Rich.

"I knew I'd lose him to professional football. He deserves this opportunity. He's ready. And he has been. It's been far too long that he hasn't been given a chance at a Power 5 school or in the National Football League."

Bisaccia was a part of the Buccaneers staff that took apart the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII and Bisaccia takes a special pride in his father being in San Diego that day to "watch his son win a Super Bowl."

He remained in Tampa Bay with Gruden and his successor, Raheem Morris, through 2010. Even as an old friend called.

"When I got the job at Notre Dame [in 2005], I tried to get him to be the associate head coach and special teams," said Weis, now a SiriusXM NFL radio analyst. "I got close, but at the time he was in pretty good shape. And college doesn't pay as well as the NFL."

Bisaccia later joined Norv Turner with the Chargers in 2011 and 2012 and Jason Garrett with the Cowboys from 2013 to 2017 before reuniting with Gruden in 2018, all the while burnishing a reputation as one of the best special teams coaches in the NFL.

'I just think we are all trying to learn'

Both of Bisaccia's parents are gone now, as are the first two coaches for whom he worked in Morrison and Chapman, who died of cancer in 2003.

"I'm 61 years old and so I'd like to think along the lines you gain some wisdom, and you gain some experience," Bisaccia said. "You go through things, whether it's with family that I grew up with or I have my own [family] now, and then being around a lot of players.

"It's a combination of maybe all those things -- age, wisdom and with age comes experience that's both positive and negative and you'd like to think you learn from them. And you'd like to think you can improve and keep moving forward, and I think that's probably the message we try to give our players.

"I try to do it with my own kids. I got a kid that is one of those wildland firefighters and so he goes through a bunch of different experiences than I do and so I learn from him and the things he's had to go through and some of that. So, I just think we are all trying to learn."

Kind of like stepping out of the darkness and into the light like that winter day in the Bronx back in 1969.

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this report.

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