NEW YORK – Robert Saleh has made history that extends far beyond any football field.
The New York Jets' new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the country, celebrating the first known Muslim American to hold that position in the NFL.
“It's something that shows the growing diversity of our nation, the inclusion we're trying to achieve at all levels of our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “And I think it's a very positive sign.”
The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced this week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States per capita.
“I think he's just a trailblazer for a lot of coaches who are Muslim, to let them know that they do have a chance to be a head coach,” said Lions offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, a practicing Muslim who has played in the NFL for eight seasons – including his first two with the Jets.
“He shows them you do have a chance to be a defensive coordinator, you do have a chance to grow up and have a job at the professional level,” Aboushi added. “As long as you're professional and you're passionate about it like he is, I think a lot of people will look to him as a trailblazer, as far as everyone feeling like they could do it themselves and it's an attainable dream.”
After Saleh's college career as a tight end at Northern Michigan ended, he got his start in coaching as an assistant at Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia before being hired as a defensive intern by the Houston Texans in 2005. Then came stints with Seattle and Jacksonville before Saleh became San Francisco's defensive coordinator in 2017, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl last year.
The Jets announced Thursday they'd reached an agreement in principle with Saleh.
“As a pioneer in the sports world, Saleh will serve as an inspiration to many young American Muslims,” Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR's New Jersey chapter, wrote in email. “In addition to the positive impact that he'll have on Muslims, Saleh's presence in the field and on the screen will remind the rest of America that Muslims are a part of the fabric of this nation and proudly contribute to society. It's a step toward tearing down walls and building bridges.”
Saleh is believed to be the third Arab American to become an NFL head coach. He follows Abe Gibron, who led Chicago from 1972-74, and Rich Kotite, who coached the Eagles (1991-94) and Jets (1995-96).
Saleh is the fourth active NFL head coach who is a minority, joining Miami's Brian Flores, Washington's Ron Rivera and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin.