ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In honor of Veterans Day, DenverBroncos.com sat down with Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and spent six years flying helicopters as a Naval officer before getting into coaching.
Priefer is in his second year with the Broncos and he has spent eight years coaching special teams in the NFL with the Broncos, the Chiefs, the Giants and the Jaguars. He started as a graduate assistant at Navy and has also coached at Youngstown State, Virginia Military Institute and Northern Illinois University.
What does Veterans Day mean to you?
"I think it's an honor and a tribute to all the veterans that have served in our armed forces. In that respect I think it's a great holiday for people who did serve our country and people who made sacrifices. Ultimately the ones that gave their lives, those are the ones that I really remember on this day."
What spurred your decision to attend the Naval Academy?
"When I was a young teenager in the early years in high school, I was a big civil war buff. I read all the books, Bruce Catton's trilogy on the Army of the Potomac, and about all the romantic ideas of the military. That's what got me hooked. I told my father I was going to join the army right out of high school. He said, 'Well, you've got pretty good grades and you're a good student, why don't you think about attending one of the academies?' I didn't really understand what that meant. He mentioned the Army-Navy football game, and then it clicked. I said 'OK, that's what that is.' I applied to West Point and to Annapolis and got into Annapolis. Quickly after that, the romantic idea left, because a plebe summer changed that for me. But obviously it was something that had been with me since I was younger. I wanted to serve my country, and it was special to me."
Since you're a big civil war buff, is there a particular officer or battle that you like to reference?
"Being from Ohio, Ohio was more on the northern side, but I had so much respect for all the great generals that the South had. I think my favorite general that the North had was Joshua Chamberlain, and I've read a lot of books on him and his past. Of course, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, they were great generals from the South. I think I learned a lot with all the readings that I did. I learned a lot about leadership and a lot about how to deal with certain situations from the learning aspect of it. It was a neat experience for me."
How did your experience serving your country help develop the person you are today?
"Growing up, I was in a strict household. Mom and dad were strict, but they were good. They needed to be strict on me like a lot of young people, so when I went to Annapolis I had a good background in discipline. But that kind of started to change me. Any time you go to one of the academies or any time you go in the military, they take your civilian personality, strip it down and then try to build you back up. In my case, the Navy way. In West Point it's the Army way and in Air Force it's the Air Force way. They build you up that way in terms of being a leader, being disciplined, making the sacrifices that you need to make. I think the leadership courses I took, whether at Annapolis or the Masters program I took at the University of Maryland, they really helped develop me as a young leader and a young coach. I think that's carried on through my career."
What did the Navy teach you about leadership?
"At Annapolis in my plebe year, my freshmen year, we were led by the older midshipmen. You picked out certain aspects of good leaders and certain aspects of bad leaders, things that you wanted to take from the good leaders and things you wanted to avoid from the bad leaders. Then you developed your own style. One of the things I learned early on was that you have to be who you are. You have to be the leader that you were intended to be along with your personality. You can't try to be exactly like this guy or exactly like that guy. I think there's a difference, and I learned a lot my first few years there. Of course as an older midshipmen, a junior and a senior, I had those leadership opportunities that I really grew from. It's really those type of experiences that helped me. I made mistakes like everybody does, but you do some good things and you did some bad things, and try to develop the good things and change the bad things and then become the leader that you want to be in the fleet. Of course I went to flight school, and when I went to my squadron I had an opportunity to be a division officer, which was very rewarding for me, leading and helping train young Naval personnel, 17, 18, 19-year old enlisted guys. I was in charge of 40 or 50 guys at a time, and it was a great experience for me. You make mistakes and you learn, but I was 24 or 25 years old. I was a young guy myself. Every experience, whether it was good or bad, really helped me."
What makes a good officer, and what makes a good coach?
"To make a good officer I think you have to be a good enough leader that you will be followed. I think you have to deserve to be followed. Just because I was an officer doesn't mean I was going to be a good leader. They don't always go hand in hand. I think you have to be aware of the needs of your enlisted personnel, the people that are underneath you, the guys that are working hard for you. You have to be part of their lives. You can't be their friend, you can't be their peer, but you can be someone that can be there for them, someone that's respected and that they can come to with their problems. I think a lot of that carries over to being a football coach. You have to be able to listen. Your way is not always the right way. You have to be able to take advice from other leaders or even the guys that you lead when they say, 'Hey Coach' or 'Hey Lieutenant' or 'Hey Prief, don't you think this would be a better way to do it?' If I can't prove otherwise, then I need to change. I think that's one of the tough things for a lot of people, because coaching professions are so ego-driven, that a lot of people don't want to change. It's my way or the highway. One thing that the Navy taught me is you have to adapt, you have to change, you have to continue to improve. If you stop learning, it's time to get out of coaching. I learn every single day, whether it's from the head coach, from the punter or from one of the linebackers that's playing special teams for me. I have to learn from each one of those guys every day."
Through your collegiate coaching career, you spent time at a couple of military institutes. Did you see a difference between the kids you coached at VMI and the Naval Academy and the kids you coached elsewhere?
"Kids are kids. Young people are young people. Whether they wear a uniform or they wear an earring in their ear, there's really not a lot of difference. I think the guys that go to the Naval Academy compared to the guys that go to Youngstown State, they're the same type of individuals, they have just chosen a different path. That's one thing I learned from Jim Tressel at Youngstown State. I had just left being in the military for eight years, and the last three had been coaching at the Naval Academy. I went to Youngstown State and guys had long hair, guys had earrings. One guy had an earring in his tongue and I had never seen that before. Guys had tattoos all over the place. Coach Tressel helped me realize that they're the same type of people, they're the same type of kid. They still want to be coached, they still want to learn and they still want to get better. He brought me in and said, 'Hey, you seem different around the guys that are clean cut than around the guys that have tattoos and long hair. Well, there's no difference. You need to coach them all the same. Everybody's different, but they're the same type of kid. They're football players, and that's how you have to approach them and teach them.' That was a valuable lesson I learned back in 1997. Without that, I think my development as a coach might have been a little bit slower."
You talked about Coach Tressel, so who are some of your favorite officers or coaches you worked with?
"One of my favorite officers I worked with, he was about six years older than me, was Joe King. He actually passed away in a helicopter crash. He was one of the best leaders because of how he treated his men. It was me looking at him from afar. We were almost the same rank. I was only a few years behind him, but he was smart, he was a great pilot. It was an unfortunate accident that occurred with him in bad weather. The way he treated the enlisted guys, the way he treated other officers, he wasn't above anybody. He never acted like he was better than anybody, and that was one of the things that I took. Just because you're an officer doesn't mean you have the right to act like you own the place, that you're better than everybody else, because that's not true. He was a great officer. Some of the great coaches were Jim Tressel, Tom Coughlin and Herm Edwards. You learn different things from different people. I've learned a lot by being with Josh (McDaniels), even though he's 10 years younger than me. I still learn because of his experiences and what he brings to the table, I can learn from him and what he's accomplished in his past. The good thing I learned about from going to Annapolis and being around great leaders, whether they be in the military or coaching, is that I'm very observant. I'm very aware. I can read people. I look and I watch people, not to judge them, but to learn from them, whether it's good or bad."
"First of all, he was a great kid to coach. Not all academy kids are just like him -- I have to make that clear -- but a lot of them are. He was fun to be around. He was one of the most hard-working young men I've ever been around. I had all the veteran defensive backs begging me to put him on the kickoff team in the preseason -- which I did several times -- because they wanted to see him run down and try to smoke somebody. I think for him, what a great thrill it must have been going to the Air Force Academy and being with the Broncos. It's something I would have loved to do if I were in his shoes several years ago."
How do you stay in touch with your old friends from the Navy?
"My old roommate, Mike Bared, lives north of Denver. He's the godfather for my youngest daughter, Katie, so I stay in touch with him a lot. Other than that, unless I e-mail them or give them a phone call every now and then, it's hard to see a lot of the guys because I'm not around them. My brother-in-law, Steve Grass, is actually in Afghanistan. He's a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps and he married my sister many years ago. He and I e-mail each other and talk to each other every now and then. We were reminiscing today because I e-mailed him to wish him a happy veterans day, and he e-mailed him back with the story where I was on the U.S.S. American. I landed on his ship on my helicopter. He came out and said hello. We hadn't seen each other in two years, but he was over off the coast of Somalia and we were off the coast of Somalia. Those little things keep you going, and every now and then I'll get an e-mail or a phone call from one of my old buddies."
What did you learn about the world from your service overseas?
"I do know this. If you live in the United States, and you complain about living in the United States, then you need to go live somewhere else. We're very fortunate for what we have here, whether it's the resources, the weather, the people and the security that you have living in the United States is so much better than anywhere else in the world. We're very fortunate people to live as Americans. Not that other countries are bad. We were just in London, and what a great country England is. I've been to all the Mediterranean countries like Spain and France. I've been to Ireland. I've been to Israel, which is a great country. We flew into Somalia several times. I volunteered for as many of those flights as I could about six or seven months after the Black Hawk Down incident, that unfortunate incident with the Army Rangers. I've seen a lot of the world. I've had great experiences being in a lot of different countries as a young man. Being in different countries, you really appreciate the United States even more."
Can you put into words the feeling of flying a helicopter?
"Flying in general, being up there in the air, doing your job, having people rely on you and having a multimillion-dollar machine in your command was a great experience. I tell the jet pilots all the time that only real men can hover. They can't fly backwards and they certainly can't pop it into a hover without being in trouble. We used to tell those guys that all the time. Several friends of mine are still jet pilots, and they're great pilots as well, but flying a helicopter was a great experience. One of the great experiences of my life was when we went and did full autorotations in training, we would go to the outlying grass fields and we had skids, we didn't have the wheels on the TH-57, which is a trainer helicopter, and you come down to a full hover, then you would grease it. There's not too many better feelings in the world than greasing a full auto-rotation on a grass field. It's pretty cool."
What's more complex, piloting a helicopter or coordinating a special teams unit?
"I think physically, flying a helicopter, because your feet are involved in the pedals, and you have the cyclic and the collective at both hands. There's always something moving all the time, that's what we would tell the jet guys, that it's harder to fly a helicopter than a jet. People ask all the time about the pressure. Isn't there pressure coaching in the NFL? There is to a certain extent, but pressure is when you're flying at night in a bad sea state with no horizon and trying to land on the back of a destroyer where there's not much room for error. That's pressure. In that respect that could be a little more complicated, but coaching football is what I love to do. Obviously it's in my blood and in my family. I've been very fortunate to do two things that I love to do. Not many people can say that their first career they loved and their second career they love. I've been very blessed with my wife Debbie, who puts up with that. I have kids who support me. My family supports me, and I'm very blessed to do what I do."