When he was 24, Brian McDermott set his sights on becoming a professional rugby player. He tried out with Bradford Northern (who later became the Bradford Bulls), but there was no money in the budget to sign him to a full-time contract, so McDermott took the coach’s offer, sticking around and continuing his training.
One day at the gym, while he was hitting his punching bag, McDermott received an offer to participate in a professional boxing match. The stipulations were simple. He would have three weeks to prepare for the fight. He wouldn’t know who his opponent was in advance. And most important, he was going to be paid 600 quid for it.
“And that’s what I did to pay the bills,” McDermott says. A professional boxing career might have been in his future, but maybe it was never meant to be. McDermott knocked out his opponent, but broke his hand in the process, halting any momentum for another fight. So, he returned to training for Bradford where he was eventually offered a contract.
Twenty five years later, McDermott is the head coach of the Toronto Wolfpack, and he’s no longer looking for a job just to pay the bills. Between 2011 and 2018, McDermott led Leeds Rhinos, a Super League giant, to eight trophies, including four Super League titles. Last season McDermott was let go in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, putting an end to one of the most successful coach-franchise partnerships in the sport.
The firing was disappointing, but McDermott also wasn’t rushing to the phone to field every single offer. “I wasn’t sure what my next move would be,” McDermott says. “I just knew it couldn’t be a usual job. I couldn’t turn around and go coaching somewhere for the sake of coaching.”
He needed a challenge, and perhaps no one understood what would be the best career move for McDermott more than his close friend Brian Noble, a former teammate and coach and the director of rugby for the Wolfpack. When Noble made his pitch, McDermott was intrigued, but still needed some questions answered.
The Wolfpack are based in Canada but compete in a European rugby league, making them the first transatlantic team in sports. They are also only in their third year of existence. “It’s a new concept,” Noble says. “And nobody truly knows what it’s like on this side of the pond until they come.” Trusting his friendship with Noble and after a reassuring meeting with team owner David Argyle, McDermott was sold on the vision.
The undefeated boxer turned world-class head coach was headed to Toronto to take over the most fascinating experiment in rugby.
The youngest of 10 kids, McDermott grew up in Wakefield, England. At age 15, McDermott drew his own path and joined the Royal Marines. He was situated in Northern Ireland and later fought in Iraq during the first Gulf War. After five years, McDermott left and decided to pursue a career as a professional rugby player. He spent the majority of his career at Bradford, before retiring at the age of 32 and transitioning to coaching. One of his earliest jobs was as an assistant coach to Tony Smith at Leeds.
“I was too narrow-minded,” McDermott says. “I was too short-sighted. You talk to any bloke that leaves the military, we have a particular view of life and of the world. Had I gone into a usual job where I worked with other members of society, I probably would have turned myself around quicker. I didn’t. I went straight from the military to being a sportsman. By the time I retired (from rugby) at the age of 32, I was probably still at the same intellectual level I was when I was 18.”
There were things he resisted, like when the entire coaching staff decided to get cell phones, McDermott refused. If Smith wanted to touch base with his assistant coach, he would have to dial his landline in the nighttime. “Whenever there’s a new fad,” McDermott says. “I fall on the skeptical side.”
That was just one example of his stubbornness. McDermott had ideas for how players could improve and tactical strategies for the team, and they were in retrospect the right ones, but they weren’t delivered in a way that made the team buy in. Smith kept telling McDermott he needed to change and adapt, until it finally hit him one day on the drive home from training.
“It probably took me too long,” McDermott says, although he doesn’t necessarily think the qualities that made him a work in progress was a bad thing, even today. “Some of that forthright, opinionated fucker that I am also makes me a good coach as well. It makes me a coach with conviction.”
McDermott didn’t come to Toronto for a multi-year rebuilding project. The Wolfpack were already a good team. Last season, the squad finished 27-6-1, but lost their Super League promotion game 4-2 against the London Broncos. Noble saw a team that needed a head coach who would nudge them across the finish line. “When the pressure is on and the Bunsen burners are all over the place,” Noble says. “You need people who have been there before.”
With a 27-1 record and having advanced to the Grand Final on Oct. 5 where a victory would mean a promotion to the Super League, McDermott appears to have been the perfect choice. Age, experience and success has not mellowed McDermott’s hard-nosed approach to coaching his players.
Anthony Mullally is a member of the Wolfpack and previously played for McDermott at Leeds. McDermott’s psychological approach didn’t make Mullally a fan in the beginning. “He breaks you down and builds you back up,” Mullally says. “It’s hard at first, but you realize that everything he does is for the team. It’s never personal.”
Mullally has relayed this message to teammates on several occasions throughout this season. “It’s not personal,” Mullally says. “It’s for their benefit.” Over time, players have understood McDermott’s approach.
Darcy Lussick is in his first season under McDermott. “The biggest thing is that the players warm to him, they want to play for him,” Lussick says. “We’ve bought into what he’s brought here from day one. No one has complained about anything because we believe in it.”
McDermott’s coaching approach isn’t all about testing the psyche of his players. He also values getting to know every player on the team as individuals. There’s a strategy behind this, too. McDermott knows if he is going to ask an entire group of men to sacrifice their bodies for him, there has to be a personal connection.
“You’re asking them to stop a 150-kilo bloke or to make a play and get jammed in the ribs,” McDermott says. “Most blokes don’t want to do that. My task is to get them to do that and push beyond the point where everything biologically is telling them to slow down and stop. I can’t really do that until I get to know who they are.”
Through this process, McDermott has molded a Wolfpack team that is mentally tough and doesn’t stray from their game plan. “Going out there and taking people’s heads off doesn’t mean you’re tough,” Mullally says. “[Brian] likes to say being tough is to withstand that and not veer off from your path. To stay disciplined and stick to our strategy. That’s real toughness.”
McDermott is focused on helping the Wolfpack advance to the Super League in their third season, but he also has a personal goal. “I want to be known as the best coach that’s ever coached the game,” McDermott says. “I’m not that right now, but I want to be known as that.”
While he’s vocal about this, McDermott stops short of wanting to create storylines that would make him the centre of attention. Asked to name several players he’s coached over the years who he has helped transform as rugby players, McDermott declines to get into specifics, noting only that he does notice the things these players still do that comes specifically from his coaching.
“That’s not what coaching is about,” McDermott says. “That’s what life skills coaches do, or those religious people on TV that say give me your money. I want to be the person that’s affected you.”
The dance with humility is no surprise to Noble. “We do the job because we want to challenge ourselves at the highest level and we’ve done that,” Noble says. “The north of England can be very demeaning to your character. They don’t like people bragging about what they’ve done and what they haven’t done. Deep down we’re pretty good at what we do but we’re the last people that will tell you how good we are.”
At his last job appraisal at Leeds, a chief executive of the team told McDermott he should smile more.
“I’m not grumpy,” McDermott says. “I’m actually quite an optimistic guy. I would try to smile more, but it would be like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator when he’s told to look more natural and he puts on this false smile. That’s what I imagine I look like every time I smile.”
For McDermott, the real joys of coaching is a private experience, even if others can misinterpret his intentions by his expressions. If the Wolfpack do get their Super League promotion, might we see a more jovial McDermott moving forward?
“I don’t smile easily,” McDermott says. “But that’s not to say I’m not smiling inside.”
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