Fresh out of college, Cory Undlin was set to begin his professional career. With a job lined up as a fourth grade teacher, he embarked on his first year in the classroom.
It’s safe to say things have changed a bit since then.
While no longer instructing young children, the Eagles’ defensive backs coach still heads to work every day prepared to teach. Now, he’s instilling football techniques into the minds of his players as opposed to giving lessons in math, reading, spelling and the other elements of the core curriculum.
“Different subject I guess,” Undlin said.
So, how did he make the jump from elementary school teacher to NFL defensive backs coach? It’s a long story, dating back to 1998, when he made the initial switch to coaching by joining the staff at his alma mater, California Lutheran University.
Football had always been a passion of Undlin’s. He grew up around the game, absorbing tidbits from his father Mal, a high school coach, and putting them to good use as a defensive back in college. Teaching the game was something he enjoyed as well, and it was that realization that prompted the career change.
After four years at California Lutheran though, Undlin wanted to continue learning and be around more football minds. The coach felt it was time to make an even bigger jump.
“I knew that I wanted to start moving up and I didn’t really have a lot of connections in college or in the NFL,” Undlin said. “I had zero besides a couple relationships that I had built with visiting teams. In order for me to make that move, that was the only option.”
Undlin had built a relationship with Randy Stewart, who was the defensive backs coach at Fresno State, and was visiting him when a job came open as the graduate assistant there on defense.
“For the next month, I drove up every week and stuck my face in (head coach Pat Hill’s) office. I lived four hours away,” Undlin recalled. “Finally, after like a month and a half, they were like, ‘Listen, we get it. You want the job.’ So, they had me come up and stay for two weeks working their summer camps. After that, they finally offered it to me.”
The only issue was the graduate assistant position was unpaid. Undlin’s wife, Amy, was pregnant at the time with their first child. Financially, it wasn’t a smart decision, but the couple decided to take a leap of faith. At 30 years old, he accepted the position and got to work.
“She was like, ‘Let’s do it. We’ll find a way to make it work.’ She took a pharmaceutical job and supported us for two years,” Undlin said. “I didn’t make a dime. We kept in mind that this was going to work out. I mean we’ll battle through this and it will all pay off and fortunately it did.”
After his first season at Fresno State, Hill recognized Undlin’s potential and spoke with him about a new goal, breaking into the NFL.
Hill put Undlin in contact with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who he’d previously coached with in Cleveland. It took another year for anything to come of the connection, but eventually Belichick gave Undlin the break he was looking for. He was hired as a defensive assistant for New England in 2004. He hasn’t looked back since.
“They had some changes on their staff and when the (2003) season was over, I had a couple of other opportunities – a job at Montana State and Reno and all that,” Undlin said. “But then I was kind of in the mix, but didn’t know. Then I went through the full interview process. They flew to Fresno to interview me, flew me to the Combine. I interviewed with some coaches, met (then defensive coordinator) Romeo Crennel and then finally met Bill and then they gave me the job at the Combine.”
That first season in the NFL, Undlin and the Patriots won the Super Bowl. It was the perfect beginning to what Undlin hopes is a long, long coaching career.
Now in his 13th NFL season with his fifth team, Undlin sometimes looks back on that initial graduate assistant position.
“I think any time that you have to work for something and not be handed anything and have to start wherever that is and work your way up, there is no question that you have a deeper appreciation for what it takes to get there,” Undlin said.
“I would think that would be in any profession, any facet of life. My wife and I talk about it all the time. We went through some monetarily tough times. Obviously we made it work. It took a while, but we never wavered. I’m very, very appreciative of my opportunity at Cal Lutheran and then from Pat Hill to Bill and Romeo, going to Cleveland and then getting hired by Jack Del Rio and then obviously having the opportunity to come here, it’s been a great ride. I’ve been very fortunate.”