CMU in Sports: Dan Shamash’s Journey to the NFL

For most, working in sports is a pipe dream: the dream job every kid writes on their 1st grade “About Me” papers. But for Dan Shamash, LA Chargers Assistant Offensive Coach, he’s living his dream. So how did coaching go from being in his “when I grow up” section in the school yearbook to his reality?

Dan’s love for football started as a player, but he always knew that he wanted to be a coach. Even with the overarching dream of being a coach, Dan’s goals have changed throughout his life. As a student at CMU, Dan wanted to coach high school football because of the profound impact his coaches had on him. To achieve this, he incorporated his passion for football into all subject matters, creating opportunities in his formal education to develop the unique critical thinking and analytical skills necessary for his career. Dan attributes much of his success to his professors who encouraged him to integrate football whenever possible, like Baruch Fischoff who allowed him to write a paper on the effect of weather in the NCAA vs the NFL, and Joel Greenhouse whose own passion for sports inspired his analytical curiosities. Dan’s coursework as well as his own playing career as a member of the CMU varsity football team demonstrates how he utilized all that CMU has to offer to enable the pursuit of his dream. During his senior year, Dan looked to aim even higher upon realizing that he had the passion and work ethic to learn and contribute at the highest level – the NFL.

With this new goal in mind and with none of the connections to the NFL that his competitors had, Dan had to rebrand himself to appeal to this new caliber of teams. He began his coaching career at Columbia University, while also working as an intern for the New York Jets in Events and Game Operations. His job with the Jets allowed him to dip his toes into the world of the NFL, but also meant he had to complete minute tasks not worthy of his undergraduate degree from the Tepper School of Business. However, his passion, enthusiasm and readiness to do whatever was asked of him drove him to build relationships within the NFL and cultivate a reputation as a reliable, capable worker. The next season, at just 22 years of age, Dan found himself with a coaching position for the Cleveland Browns.

Dan’s CMU background and early career built a strong base in an interdisciplinary professional sense, but the learning never stops. Challenges arise every day in his work that require him to combine his innovative thinking with professionalism so that everyone, even old school coaches, can listen.

I asked Dan a few questions about his experience in the sports industry.

Q: What does a typical day in the office look like?

A: “A day at the office in season vs. out of season are two completely different elements. In season we work 18-20 hour days, whereas in the off-season, most teams have more of a normal work schedule. I’ve always compared it to school. As coaches we are teachers — we create a lesson plan, prep materials, and have class. Practice is like recess and we go back to class afterwards. When the players, or students, go home for the day, we prep for the next day — our lesson plans are unique each and every week.  The more understanding a coach has on the game plan we are teaching as a team, the more prepared he will be on Sunday.  It’s hard to teach your students a subject you haven’t mastered yourself.  The ultimate goal is to be the best teacher possible so that your players can perform their job to the best of their abilities.”

Q: What skills are most important for your position?

A:Communication - Most important in coaching or any position I’ve held is communication. And you can’t communicate with somebody if you don’t know who you’re communicating with. So it’s important to learn who’s on your team, how they think, how they can best understand, what is their skill set, how can you help them. 

Trust kind of goes hand in hand here and is essential. You’re working with a big staff and up to 90 players at a time, you aren’t going to have the same personality or qualities as everyone - yet you need to trust them to do their job. 

Shamash in action on the field.

Q: How do you work with the analytics team to make on and off field decisions?

A: “In a majority of my career (I had spent 7 years as a quality control coach) we have been the analytics team. Sometimes for the entire football side of the organization. As a quality control coach, part of your job description is to create data and analysis of your own team and your opponents. If you can be innovative and thorough, you can create an advantage for your team. Analytics can leak into personnel decisions as well, even from the coaching side.

When I worked for the Jacksonville Jaguars, we had an actual analytics department which was headed by one of the team’s owners. They worked hand in hand with our coaching staff as a whole. Personally, I am generally working closely with anyone in the building who has a background in analytics, or any company we outsource with not only because of my background as a quality control coach, but also because one of my personal responsibilities, since 2012 and for 5 different head coaches, has been to assist with game management. Anything from clock management, 2 point and 4th down conversions as well as penalties and other decision making - so as trends in the league start to change, I like to stay on top of win probabilities and how decisions affect outcome. My football and coaching background combined with my analytical background from Carnegie Mellon truly differentiate me from others in the NFL. I have a strong knowledge of situational football and game plan specific preparation that can’t be said about people on the analytic side, and have a better understanding of the available data than a lot of coaches. It goes back to being a teacher of interdisciplinary studies. The more you can understand, and the better communicator you can be, the more you can teach and can enjoy overall team success. I’m fortunate to be working for a head coach who allows me to be myself as a teacher and values my contribution. And to work for coordinators Ken Whisenhunt, Gus Bradley and George Stewart who all appreciate my process and are willing to help me grow.  It’s a great work environment and that is part of the reason we’ve had so much success, especially situationally.”

Q: What advice do you have for students interested in working in sports?

A: “The more specific you are with your goals the easier it will be to accomplish them. If you know what you want to do, start working towards it now. 

Be prepared for your opportunity, it may come in five days and it may come in five years, but when it comes don’t let it slip away because you may only get one.

If you are passionate about it, you will succeed. But it has to be your career - not your job. A job is something you do 9-5 and a career is what comes from the decisions you make and the work you put in outside of those hours. Anytime someone reaches out to me and says they want to be in the NFL, I look to see what they’ve been doing on their own to show they are passionate about it and encourage them to continue, regardless of the immediate result.”

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