Dean Pees plays the keys just right

It's 11 p.m. when Dean Pees arrives at his Reisterstown home, after 16 hours of hatching game plans as the Ravens' new defensive coordinator.

Tired? You bet. Sleep? Not yet.

Pees, 63, heads for the study, sits at the digital piano, dims the lights and tickles the ivories. The music — mostly self-penned, easy-listening stuff — could calm a manic Ray Lewis.

Not Pees. Each note fires his football imagination.

"Oftentimes, this is when he does his best thinking and scheming of defenses," said Melody Pees, his wife. "Playing the piano really clears Dean's head because he doesn't have to think about the music. It just comes naturally since he plays from his heart."

And football is ensconced in his soul. Forty years of toting clipboards, mulling over game films and scrawling plays, from high school to the pros, haven't lessened his passion for the game. Pees was born to coach, those who know him say.

"His eyes dance when he's explaining techniques to players, or devising personnel charts," said Laing Kennedy, athletic director at Kent State, where Pees coached a decade ago.

"He loves daily practice, he listens to players and he always goes full-throttle."

That's music to the ears of Ravens fans.

Even now, after eight years in the NFL — six seasons with New England where, as an assistant coach, he helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl in 2005, and two years with the Ravens as linebackers coach — Pees maintains an old-fashioned mindset in dealing with his charges.

"I consider myself a schoolteacher first. That's all I wanted to become, a high school teacher and coach," Pees said. "Everyone is motivated differently to learn. Some guys need a foot once in a while, and others don't. My job is to find that out quickly and get it done.

"It doesn't take long to figure people out."

Pees' savvy is unparalleled, Ravens players say.

"I love him," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "We call him 'Coach K' for 'Coach Knowledge.' I'm, just, all ears open. Anytime he speaks, I listen. He's not speaking for no reason."

All-Pro safety Ed Reed said Pees "definitely keeps [football] likable and learnable. He has no problem with stopping you and saying, 'Can I talk to you for a second?' You know, give you some pointers.

"He's a guy that guys want to come work for."

No matter the player's star power.

"Coach Pees is just a great intellectual coach," Lewis, the All-Pro linebacker, said. "He wants you to understand not just what the defense is doing, but actually how you are being attacked, and things like that."

The big picture? Pees sees all, said Bob Davie, former Notre Dame head coach who worked alongside him in South Bend under Lou Holtz in 1994.

"He has a total grasp of the game," said Davie, now head coach at New Mexico. "You always want one guy on the staff whom you can bounce ideas off of, schematically, and Dean is that guy.

"In the coaching fraternity, we all have those whom we really trust, and he's one. Age doesn't matter, or if you played football in college [Pees didn't]. There are no pretenders with resumes like his. You don't bluff your way through coaching for Nick Saban [Alabama], Bill Belichick [New England] or Holtz."

Pees left his mark on Navy, too, serving as secondary coach for the Midshipmen from 1987 through 1989. Even then, "Dean was very deliberate in his preparations and devised plans that were instrumental in our beating Army's wishbone in '89," said Elliot Uzelac, then Navy's head coach.

"I've kept an eye on him since. He understands how to handle different people at different stages in their careers. Great coaches have the flexibility to adapt to both the times and their players. Dean has done that all of his life."

Smooth talker

By all accounts, Pees has always had the knack of making others do his bidding.

"Growing up, he'd offer his younger sisters money to wash his car — and then not pay them," said Lois Pees, 93, his mother.

"He was always asking us to clean his room, or to press his clothes before a date," said Karen Kehler, one of Pees' seven siblings. "Dean would say, 'Wouldn't you like a chocolate malt from the Dairy Queen?'

"You knew he wouldn't pay up, but the way he asked just made you want to do it."

Wendy Morin said her brother owes her "hundreds of thousands of dollars" for having done his chores.

"He'd compliment you, like, 'You're the best person I know at sewing on a button. I'll give you a quarter.' I wouldn't call it schmoozing. He could talk you into stuff, and you'd agree because you wanted to be as likable as Dean was."

Only once, as a kid, did she know Pees to fail, Morin said: He couldn't move a stubborn steer from the barn of the family farm in rural Ohio.

"Not only wouldn't that steer budge, it got its head under Dean and tossed him up," she said. "He hit his head on a beam in the barn and blood went everywhere.

"Not everyone listens to Dean. That steer didn't."

It was there, at the rustic crossroads of Blanchard Station (pop. 20), that Pees forged the will and the work ethic that would take him to the NFL. His family owned and operated a stone quarry that stood beside the farm, and Wayne Pees toiled hard to feed his family of 10.

"My dad was a tough guy, and I admired the sacrifices he made," Pees said. "He taught me how to deal with people. Instead of telling somebody to do something, he'd say, 'If you want to, you can get that conveyor belt going.' It's like he was asking, instead of a direct order."

With a bevy of brothers and sisters, Pees learned, early on, to speak his mind or get lost in the crowd.

"When he was 4 or 5, Dean would come running out of the house when visitors arrived. He'd put his hands on his hips and say, 'Hey, you know what?' — and some story would ensue," said Marilyn Sands, a cousin.

"He's an excellent communicator. He started out as a speech major in college [Bowling Green]. A lot of guys, when you talk to them, just go 'uh-huh.' But Dean actually listens."

Ron Pees recalled a phone conversation he overheard 20 years ago between his brother, then Toledo's defensive coordinator, and a would-be recruit.

"The kid had several Big Ten schools chasing him, but by the time Dean finished [his pitch], I'm thinking, Holy cow, why go anywhere but Toledo?

"It's not that Dean was selling him a load of bull. He was just totally behind what he was doing, and believed in it."

His coaching acumen showed early. The farm was a magnet for Pees' pals; the barnyard, their ball field.

Once, Kehler said, when she and her sister begged to play football with the guys, Pees agreed to put them on his team — on one condition.

"Nobody can touch the girls," he said.


"Dean just gave us the ball and told us to run," Kehler said. The rout was on.

Music and work

No matter the sport, Pees embraced it, whole hog.

"He put a lot of effort into everything," said Steve Wykes, a childhood friend. "In school, he ran the 880 in track, and we knew that when he finished the race, he'd keep running all the way under the bleachers to throw up because he'd given it all he had."

At Hardin Northern High, Pees — all 155 pounds of him — played quarterback, tight end and defensive back for the Polar Bears, who seldom won.

"He thought about every play beforehand," teammate Terry Price said. "Dean wouldn't just line up and block somebody. He knew exactly what he had to do to beat the guy across from him. He wasn't always successful, but he sure increased the odds."

That mindset, handed down from his father, has carried Pees to the top, Price said.

"His philosophy is, if you're going to do something, do it right — don't go into it blindly and think you're going to win."

Sometimes, before the snap, Pees whispered tips to teammates.

"He'd say, 'Do it this way,' and I'd say, 'I'll do it my way,'" said Neil Hipsher, who played beside him. "Then, after I'd messed up, he'd say, 'You shouldn't have done it that way' — but he was very nice about it."

Ask what he learned from high school and Pees will tell you: How not to coach football.

"People ask, 'Who've been the biggest influences on your career?' It's not always a Saban or a Belichick," he said. "I had high school coaches that I didn't want to be like, so I've always done the opposite."

An ankle injury his senior year — a ligament tore away from the bone — crushed his college chances. At Bowling Green, to help pay tuition, he played piano at the local Holiday Inn.

Pees has performed at the weddings of family members, as well as that of New England lineman Logan Mankins. He has performed at charity functions and nursing homes, sometimes delighting audiences by playing the piano upside down, with his hands crossed, a la Jerry Lee Lewis.

He has cut two CDs, for family members, and has written songs for each of his children and grandchildren to celebrate their births.

"Music is cathartic," he said. "It helps in my work. It can be very therapeutic."

But for Pees, music ranks behind football, and football follows family. He might have landed an NFL job sooner, if not for his kids' education.

"At one time, three of them were in college at Kent State, where I was head coach," he said. "The tuition waiver there was a nice perk. Plus, I was happy there."

At Kent, he took a moribund program (13 straight losing seasons) and made it a winner, albeit a 6-5 finish in his fourth year in 2001.

"You'd have thought we'd won the Super Bowl," Pees said. "The town had 'Kent State Football Day' and gave me a plaque, which means an awful lot to me. Yeah, I had my part in winning it all at New England, but I didn't bring that team from nothing to something."

He left Kent with a dismal record (17-51) but with reputation intact.

"I had two choices when I took that job," Pees said. "I could elevate my career by recruiting a bunch of guys who were good football players but not good people, and win a bunch of games and get out of town. Or I could say, 'I'm going to try to do this the right way, which will take a long time.'"

The high road, it was.

"My name is very important to me. I don't ever want to disgrace my father or mother," he said. "I've never stepped on anyone's toes to get ahead. I've just tried to work hard and, hopefully, my resume speaks for itself."

The Ravens agreed, making Pees their fourth defensive coordinator in five years.

"How could they not?" said Dave Magazu, the Denver Broncos' offensive line coach and a longtime friend. "Dean has been around the block; this isn't his first rodeo. With the Ravens, there'll be no shortcuts and everything will be done the right way.

"Football is one thing, but being a good person is more important than being a good coach. Dean just happens to be both."

At night, if she's awake when her husband gets home, Melody Pees will slip downstairs, curl up in a chair and bask in the music. His fingers are flying, and the wheels are turning — refining, perhaps, a scheme to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night.

"How long he plays depends on how inspired he is," she said. "Dean has an amazing database of football knowledge. Now, can he put dishes in the dishwasher? Somehow, he forgets to do that. But, football-wise, he's a genius."


Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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