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Matt Patricia went from centrifuge salesman to Patriots defensive coordinator

And the Patriots’ defensive coordinator will almost certainly be the Lions’ head coach next season.

Divisional Round - Houston Texans v New England Patriots Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The first thing you notice about Matt Patricia is that he looks like he was bred to be a part of Bill Belichick’s coaching tree. A burly former offensive lineman, Patricia cuts an imposing figure on the sideline, often clad in a hooded sweatshirt. A thick beard partially obscures what appears to be a perma-scowl, making him look all the more intimidating.

But the rising star on the Patriots sideline never played a down in the pros. In fact, he wasn’t on the NFL’s radar at all after a four-year college career. And if this whole coaching thing failed to work out, he had one hell of a parachute to slow his fall — an aeronautical engineering degree from one of the nation’s top colleges.

Yep, if he weren’t New England’s defensive coordinator right now, there’s a significant chance Matt Patricia would be an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist.

Patricia took the long road to the NFL, making his mark after earning his stripes at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute (RPI), a school so invested in science its sports teams call themselves the Engineers. The team’s common opponents in any given year include fellow nerd schools MIT, Rochester, and Worcester Polytechnic. It is, suffice to say, a relative dead end for NFL hopefuls, but a tremendous launching pad for electrical engineers.

Patricia bucked that trend. He held down a spot on the team’s offensive line from 1992 to 1995, then spent his first post-graduate year on the sideline as a graduate assistant. That foray into coaching could have been the end of his football career; the low pay commensurate with football’s equivalent of an internship pushed him into the real world. Patricia spent two years of working with Hoffman Air & Filtration, designing, building, and selling centrifuges. By all accounts, he was a successful and diligent worker, but the siren call of Oklahoma drills and defensive audibles lured him back to the sideline.

He spent his evenings and weekends at local Liverpool high school, teaching offensive lineman in his free moments. His work there led to an unpaid position at Syracuse, working as a gofer — picking up players at the airport, running curfew checks — just to build his name at the university. Holding down random tasks on a volunteer basis wasn’t enough to sate his appetite. In 1999, he bet hard on himself.

Patricia left Hoffman for a new Division III opportunity, taking a role as Amherst College’s defensive line coach. He spent three years in the NESCAC, coaching against teams like Tufts, Bowdoin, and Middlebury while earning a reported $8,000 salary. That faith, and the foundation he’d laid in his spare time not engineering, paid off.

The blossoming coach earned a paying job at Syracuse, though only as an offensive graduate assistant. Three more years of grinding led to a much better gig at the only NFL franchise he’s called home. In his two years with Hoffman, coworkers praised Patricia "lived and breathed what he was doing.” That attitude made him a perfect fit for Belichick and the Patriots.

After a grueling interview with Belichick himself, the RPI grad was hired by New England in 2004, kicking off a professional coaching career that, after next Sunday, will have seen five Super Bowls and zero losing seasons. His path to defensive coordinator has been a meandering one; he started at offensive assistant before becoming offensive line coach in 2005. After one season there, he became the franchise’s linebackers coach. Five seasons there, and he became safeties coach, all while calling the team’s defensive plays since 2009.

Patricia’s encyclopedia knowledge of the game made him a favorite with his prickly head coach. Like Belichick, he has experience coaching both sides of the ball, allowing him to add his expertise to most facets of the game. Also like the three-time AP Coach of the Year, he has small school football roots. Belichick played his college ball at Wesleyan, a Division III rival Patricia coached against at Amherst.

But while his dedication and hard work made him a favorite in Massachusetts, his work transforming the Patriot defense in 2016 made him a commodity for the rest of the NFL. New England traded away Pro Bowlers Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins this year, leaving big holes in the team’s defensive front. Patricia adjusted quickly, turning overlooked college prospects like Elandon Roberts and Malcolm Butler and castoffs like Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy into key players on the league’s top unit.

Since Patricia took over play calling duty, the Patriots have ranked lower than 10th in points allowed just once, in 2011. His value has never been clearer than it is now after a dominant 14-2 season.

No team in the NFL allowed fewer points last fall than New England. While they fall to merely a top 10 outfit when it comes to yardage -- and the list of opposing quarterbacks they faced fails to inspire — the team’s high level of play despite a relative dearth of All-Pro talent speaks to the culture and ingenuity Patricia has brought to the franchise. His work in Foxborough even created a new level of fan appreciation at Gillette Stadium.

His 2016 performance finally turned the 42-year-old from a rising young coach into a bonafide head coaching prospect. He was a top candidate for the Jaguars top position before the team made the safe hire and stuck with another Syracuse guy, Doug Marrone. He also interviewed with the Rams and Chargers, though he was passed over for both roles.

But the tides turned in 2017. After Super Bowl LII, the Lions will reportedly hire Patricia to fill the vacancy created by the team’s firing of Jim Caldwell.

That’s one hell of a turnaround for a while who was selling centrifuges to wastewater plants two decades earlier. Matt Patricia’s relentless work ethic and intense intelligence have given him the football life he’d envisioned between aeronautical engineering classes at RPI. It seems like only a matter of time before he puts those skills to work as the head coach of an NFL franchise.

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