New Hampshire Football Report

Lyons calls it a career

DURHAM – Casey DeAndrade was “Spicoli,” the young, go-his-own-way man, played by Sean Penn in the popular 1982 movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Defensive back Steven Thames was “Stevie Wonder.”

Offensive lineman Mickey DiLima was, “Cut me, Mick” from the Rocky movies.

And Mike Murphy, UNH’s associate athletic director for marketing and communications, has long been labeled “Murph the Surf.”

John Lyons tagged a large number of the players – and other team personnel – whom he came in contact with over his nearly half a century of coaching football with assorted nicknames through the years.

When Lyons retired last week after running the University of New Hampshire defense as defensive coordinator for head coach Sean McDonnell for the last decade, he left with his own colorful nickname.  He was “Blue” to a decade’s worth of Wildcat football players: “Blue” – the fun-loving, much-older gentleman who meets his untimely demise in “Old School,” the Will Ferrell movie.

“I’d argue some people didn’t even know Coach Lyons’ real name,” said DeAndrade, an All American cornerback for the Wildcats who now is an assistant football coach at Holy Cross. “He was always ‘Blue.’”

As the head coach at Dartmouth for a dozen years (where he led the Big Green to an undefeated season in 1996) and at other stops before UNH, Lyons always enjoyed the name game.

“I’m not sure where the nicknames came from sometimes,” Lyons said with a laugh. “They just seemed to appear. It was something to have fun with.”

It also helped in building relationships with his players.

DeAndrade loved that he had the benefit of Lyons as his position coach for five years: Before that Lyons recruited him and afterwards DeAndrade got to work with him in his first foray into coaching directly after graduation.

“Coach Lyons and Coach Mac had a big influence on me getting into the field of coaching, seeing how much of an impact you could have on young people,” DeAndrade said. “Coach Lyons had a relationship with everyone on the team and that’s not easy. He treated everyone the same way, whether you were a starter or not. He made everyone feel welcome. He’s a helluva coach, but in my opinion he’s a better person. He’s one of the better people I’ve been around and I owe a lot of what I do and my coaching philosophy to him and Coach Mac as well.”

An Ivy League Guy 

Lyons was a football standout at the University of Pennsylvania before graduating in 1974 and went straight into coaching at his alma mater.

He worked his way up to defensive coordinator there, helped the team win an Ivy title with an undefeated season in 1984 and moved on to be defensive coordinator at Boston University.

That’s where he first hooked up with McDonnell, who was an assistant coach in charge of the wide receivers.

“From the get-go you saw not only what a really good coach he was and his skills as a coach, but the way he got along with people and the way the kids played for him,” McDonnell said. “It was his personality and the kind of guy he was. He’s as good a guy in this profession as you’re going to run into.”

After coaching together at BU, McDonnell at UNH and Lyons at Dartmouth coached against each other and always kept in touch.

When McDonnell was in need of a defensive coordinator in 2011, he met with Lyons at the Common Man restaurant in Concord.

The choice was a no brainer for McDonnell. Lyons was the football coach and athletic director at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden at the time and relished the idea of coaching in college again, especially with the opportunity to go to the playoffs.

Known at the time for its wide-open and explosive offensive, UNH football began to be known at least as much for its stingy and aggressive defense.

“We got better,” McDonnell said. “One, John’s really smart. Two, he’s interested in learning and not just the X’s and O’s. He devoured books and watched tape and would go places to learn. He did a good job scheming things up and we did a good job recruiting kids on the defensive side of the ball. Besides being a good coach, he has a great eye for talent and we got a lot of good kids. And the kids played hard for him.”

The scheming, the working with the kids and his coaching colleagues are among the things Lyons know he’s going to miss.

“It’s going to be different after all these years, not being part of a team,” he said. “There was the daily interaction whether it was in the office with the other coaches or on the field with the players. It’s that stuff that I was really lucky to be able to do for so long. Being around young people is a good thing. It keeps you young. I learned a lot from different guys over the years and I’m going to miss that.”

There’s the challenge as well.

“That’s another part I enjoyed, the X’s and O’s strategy part,” Lyons said. “Trying to figure out how to slow people down. Working with a group of guys to come to a consensus. I think it’s interacting with people and being part of a team and working closely figuring out how to play good defense.”

The highlights at UNH have included the chance to play FBS teams each year – “except Pittsburgh this year” – and a run of making the FCS playoffs.

“We had some real good wins along the way,” Lyons said. “Going out and beating Southeastern Louisiana and Central Arkansas and some of those people and playing North Dakota State in the Fargo Dome. Those were great experiences: and all the different players. Getting to travel and beat teams like Georgia Southern was so much fun.”

The Southeastern Louisiana win came in 2013 in the quarterfinals of the FCS tournament. The Wildcats won a second-round game at No. 10 Maine to earn a shot at No. 7 Southeast Louisiana.

“We knew we had to play our butts off to beat those guys,” Lyons said. “They went through us on the first drive and I said, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if we can slow these guys down.’ We managed to figure it out. It was real cool going into some of those places we were not favored and they didn’t think we were any good and we beat them.”

That triumph at Southeastern Louisiana earned the Wildcats their first of two straight FCS semifinal appearances.

Those games will always bring back fond memories.

Lyons and his wife, Nancy, will look to make some others now.

They’ll get around and see more of their nine grandkids from their four daughters and watch some of those nine compete at various levels in sports: Granddaughter Ellie Reed just finished her freshman field hockey season at the University of Vermont and her younger brother, Joe, is a football player at Essex Junction High School in Vermont.

He’ll and check in on his daughter Kyle’s games, too. She coaches field hockey at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass.

He likes getting out to live music with his kids and already has at least penciled in upcoming shows by the Avett Brothers, the Tedeschi Trucks Band and the Marcus King Band.

The Name Game 

Kyle Lyons beat her dad to UNH.

She came to the school as a walk-on out of White River Junction, Vt. and was finishing up an All- American field hockey career in her final season under coach Robin Balducci as John arrived to coach football.

Their busy schedules and fall seasons conflicted, but they made sure to connect whenever they could.

The athletics communications department did an Inside Wildcat Country story on the Father/Daughter team, playing up the fact that both helped their teams earn national Top 10 rankings that 2011 season.

“It was just so nice to have him on the same campus,” Kyle said.

Her father, after all, had a major influence on her becoming a Division 1 athlete and then a college coach.

“All of it,” Kyle said. “He had a role in all of it. Watching him from such a young age, my entire life, all my sisters, too. We remember him as the head coach at Dartmouth and his other jobs and his relationships with his players and his staff. We all grew up playing sports. I got real serious about it and was super competitive and I always knew I was going to stay in athletics in some capacity. I think it all had a lot to do with my Dad. He grounded me so much and told me I had to keep working and can only control myself. He really helped me grow.”

She admires those relationships her father has always had with his players.

“I don’t think he has a phony bone in his body,” Kyle said. “Obviously I have a bit of a bias: He’s like my favorite person on earth. It’s been so fun growing up and watching him, especially later in his career. He has such a nice bond with his players. I think he gets through to them on their level.”

He quotes movies. Talks music. Gets to know them.

“He’s relatable and funny and he’s able to and find a way to connect with them,” Kyle said. “He’s certainly entertaining. He’s pretty cute with the grandkids. He makes us all laugh.”

When it came to nicknames, Lyons was regularly the instigator, and never considered himself immune to the process.

“They weren’t always flattering,” he said with a laugh. “If I was giving them out, I’ve got to be able to take it.”

He came by “Blue” quickly and quite honestly. He’s pretty sure Terrence Klein, another former Wildcat defensive back who moved into coaching and was working for him but is now out of the business, gave him the label.

“It didn’t take long for me to pick that one up,” Lyons said. “I was clearly much older than all the other guys. And it stuck.”

The kicker is one of McDonnell’s traditions was to have newcomers – first-year coaches as well as players – sing in the dining hall early in their initial training camp with the team.

Having gained his name during the spring, Lyons was ready to go come August. He delivered “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, a song Ferrell sang at Blue’s funeral in the movie.

Several UNH teams were in the dining hall in their preseason camps at the time and Kyle was one of the lucky ones who got to see the performance with her teammates.

“The whole cafeteria got involved,” she said. “It was so silly. A lot of people step up and are nervous. He knew exactly what he was going to do. All the football boys were singing along and trying to harmonize. It was awesome.”

Her Dad thought it went quite well.

“I killed it by the way,” he recalled proudly. “It was pretty big.”

McDonnell had to agree.

“At first, some might think Blue as a nickname might seem a little embarrassing,” McDonnell said. “But he embraced it. It was pretty cool. It shows what kind of person he is. At the time, he’s a 60-year-old coach or whatever. No matter who you are, you want to relate to the kids. He gets up there and sings and the kids go crazy. Yeah, he killed it.

“He’s one of those guys where you mention his name and a smile comes to people’s faces,” McDonnell said.

Yeah, John Lyons killed it in his “Dust in the Wind” performance.

Killed it as a football coach and all-around good guy, too.


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