The making of Matt LaFleur: A perfect pedigree for Packers
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – When Denny LaFleur got the phone call that changed his family’s life, he was in the basement of his green, split-level house with red shutters, the home where he and his wife raised their two sons.
On the phone, his oldest told him to go find Mom. They’d both want to hear what he had to say. So Denny rushed upstairs to their kitchen.
“Are you sitting down?” Matt LaFleur asked.
They’d been sitting on the edge of their seats for almost 24 hours. One day before, their Matty interviewed for the Green Bay Packers head-coaching job in Nashville, Tennessee, where he’d just finished his first season as a play-calling offensive coordinator. It was his only interview for a gig he wouldn’t dare dream of 15 years earlier, and perhaps nobody envisioned him landing so young.
Just 39 years old, Matt LaFleur was among 10 candidates interviewing with the Packers. His odds were impossible to predict, even for his parents.
That Sunday night, before they fell asleep, Denny and Kristi LaFleur agreed it was important for Matty to just get a second interview. If the Packers spent more time with their son, if they really got to know him, they were convinced, the team would love him. It was Monday afternoon now, around 3 o’clock local time, and Denny could tell by his son’s insistence to “go find Mom” that there was good news.
“I got it,” Matt LaFleur told his parents.
At the kitchen table, relief mixed with butterflies. Denny started considering what a second interview meant, asking if the Packers would fly Matt into Green Bay.
“No,” Matt LaFleur said. “I got the job.”
Across the country, Mike LaFleur was at a Verizon store in San Jose, California. He was taking his wife, Lauren, on a trip to Hawaii the next day. She needed a new phone. As Mike transferred contacts, his brother called. “I pushed ignore,” Mike said. Matt texted back one word: “Urgent.”
Mike was a bit perturbed when his brother immediately FaceTimed. Until Matt told him he got it.
Mike gave his brother an incredulous look.
“Shut the (expletive) up!” he shouted.
The Verizon employee stared at Mike, who excused himself out of the store. When he returned, the employee asked if someone he knew got a promotion.
“Yeah,” Mike said, trying to be discreet. “Something like that.”
Moments earlier, BreAnne LaFleur was driving to pick up their children from school. With Matt riding shotgun, his cell phone flashed a 920 area code. They locked eyes, then Matt took Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy’s call.
BreAnne said her husband’s face briefly went white. Then, silence.
“I’m like, ‘You need to answer him!’” Bre remembered.
He couldn’t. Matt LaFleur was speechless.
Good thing he was also sitting down.
Two weeks later, Denny and Kristi LaFleur are again gathered around their kitchen table. There’s a ham-and-egg quiche Denny won’t touch, no matter how much Kristi prods him. “Maybe,” he says, “if it wasn’t called a quiche.” He reaches for a fresh cinnamon roll instead.
The parents of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur are still glowing as they speak with a reporter about what life has been like since taking that phone call. Their joy is almost euphoric, an elation you’d expect from someone who just won the lottery. In a way, they have. Watching a son go from undersized high school quarterback, to walk-on transfer at Division II Saginaw Valley State, to graduate assistant at their hometown Central Michigan, to the Green Bay Packers head coach before age 40 is a lot for any parent to process.
Denny and Kristi wear brand-new Packers T-shirts. Later, Denny will walk around snowy, 20-degree Mount Pleasant wearing his light Packers jacket, attire better suited for spring. Yes, he admits, it is cold. He isn’t about to switch out his jacket for a coat.
They bought their new wardrobe – with their own money – rummaging through the team’s pro shop at Lambeau Field before Matt was introduced to fans by Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst. Denny brags he capitalized on his 30-percent discount.
“I wasn’t leaving there,” he says, “without getting some Packers stuff.”
The Packers hired Matt LaFleur for many reasons. Foremost, they believe he’s the perfect person to fix their slumping offense. Among the phone calls Aaron Rodgers received endorsing his new head coach, Kristi says, one came from Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. LaFleur coached Ryan two years in Atlanta, including Ryan’s MVP season of 2016.
Down the list, the Packers liked LaFleur’s pedigree. He’s a son of the Midwest, growing up across Lake Michigan. He played college football and started his coaching career within driving distance from Green Bay.
“You want to make sure they’re a great fit,” Murphy says. “We felt very, very comfortable with that. He’s from Michigan, very similar to Green Bay. He’s a humble person. I think he’s going to really fit in well with the community.”
Life has been a “whirlwind” since the LaFleurs took Murphy’s call. Just 24 hours later, a private jet arrived in Nashville to whisk away Matt and BreAnne, along with their boys Ty, 7, and Luke, 5. On the same evening, Denny and Kristi boarded a flight in Grand Rapids, flying commercially through Detroit to meet their son in Green Bay.
Matt LaFleur held 10 coaching jobs in the past 15 years, almost never staying in the same place more than two seasons. To truly know what the Packers are getting, it’s important to understand where he started. Mount Pleasant, a college town with students accounting for half its 60,000 residents, was his launch pad. The connection between LaFleur’s personal home and his new, professional one is lost on nobody.
Any head-coaching job would have been a dream — there are only 32, just eight available in this year’s cycle — but LaFleur’s journey returning so close to his roots is especially sweet.
“Mount Pleasant,” Denny says, “is a three-by-three-mile Green Bay. Really, I looked at this when we went up to Green Bay, I said, ‘This is just a bigger version of Mount Pleasant.’ Or I can turn it around. We’re just a little Green Bay in Michigan.”
Breakfast finished, Denny motions to the door. It’s time to see the town that made the Packers' new head coach.
Denny backs out of his garage, driving his black Ford Explorer that once belonged to Matt. There’s already a Packers bracket around the back license plate. The front plate reads “NFL.”
He turns right, heading toward the high school. It’s just two miles from their home, bike-riding distance like everything else in town. First, Denny takes a detour.
There’s something he wants to show, an illustration of what his son continues to mean in this community.
Inside the parking lot of a closed Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, across an alley from the police station, there’s an electronic billboard that reads: “Cardinal, Titan and Packer – but always an Oiler. Congrats Matt!”
The town has been buzzing since news broke that one of their own got one of sport’s glamour jobs. Nobody expects the excitement to diminish anytime soon. “I don’t know if Matt realizes,” Kristi says, “he’s really a hometown hero. He just isn’t wired that way.”
At the school, OILERS is written in yellow across blue, retracted bleachers. The mascot is a nod to the oil boom that hit Mount Pleasant in the late 1920s. Snow covers the field at Community Memorial Stadium, fittingly named considering how the town gathers on Friday nights in the fall. This is where Matty’s love for football, especially the quarterback position, blossomed.
“We didn’t know anything different,” Mike LaFleur says, “except Mount Pleasant High School, Central Michigan University. We didn’t even watch the Detroit Lions very often growing up, just because we thought Central was the greatest team ever. And whatever Matt was doing, for me that was the greatest team ever.”
Mount Pleasant has its success stories. Thirteen years before Matt LaFleur came through this school, so did former Marquette coach Tom Crean. Ted McIntrye coached Crean and LaFleur on the junior-varsity team. He says they were wired similarly, with one exception. “Matt,” McIntyre says, “was by far a better basketball player than Tom.” Still, for a town that’s seen its children move on to bigger things, there’s a detectable awe when discussing this latest accomplishment.
Jason MacClean, who took a math class with LaFleur, says these past few weeks have given him goosebumps.
“It’s nice to know,” MacClean says, “that things do happen if you come from this town. We’ve had a lot of success stories from this town in terms of athletics, but if you want to pinpoint one thing now that’s really put us on the map, it’s this.
“You see the accomplishments that he’s had, and it involves risks and all that. I think some of us are kicking ourselves for not taking those risks when we were younger.”
Since grade school, Matt LaFleur has been an old soul. Luke Epple taught him in eighth-grade science and coached him on the junior high basketball team. He remembers Matty as a conscientious student, constantly asking questions. “He always wanted to learn,” Epple says.
Once, Epple remembers, Matty missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer, his shot rattling in and then out. In the locker room, he approached his coach. Matty wasn’t pouting or even angry, but genuinely confused.
“He said, ‘Coach, why didn’t that go in?’” Epple recalls. “I said, ‘Well, you know what the shooting percentage of an eighth-grader behind the arc is? It’s not very high.’ But he wanted to know that. He says, ‘Why didn’t it?’ He didn’t say, ‘I don’t like this game, or I stink.’ He said, ‘Why didn’t that go in?’ Because he was going to make it the next time.”
An “extremely average” 400-meter runner, as his brother puts it, Matty would follow the same eating regimen every meet. Both boys hated track, Mike says now, but they ran to stay in shape for football. On the bus to and from games, Matty always sat in the second row — directly behind his coach — instead of goofing off in the back.
He expected peers to have the same dedication. No middle-schooler took losses as hard. Matty didn’t understand what Epple knew, that eighth-grade boys will be eighth-grade boys, lacking a do-or-die intensity. Epple remembers LaFleur requesting team meetings, just so he could convey the need to hate losing.
“There were times,” Epple says, “where he’d ask, ‘How do I get these guys to care?’ And, ‘How do we get these guys to make adjustments?’ He was thinking that like a coach would. And, of course, I’d been at it for a little while, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to remember they’re eighth-graders.’ He was an eighth-grader, but I could tell him that because he was beyond that as far as how he thought and approached the game.
“He had a rough time handling that, ‘Why aren’t they upset?’”
Back then, Mount Pleasant wasn’t expected to compete with the state’s powers from Lansing, Detroit and Flint. Matt, remembered as a quiet but fierce competitor, was among a group of kids who began to change that perception, lifting expectations.
One of his most memorable high school football performances came in a game the Oilers lost. Down at J.W. Sexton High in Lansing, where an automotive factory served as backdrop to the football stadium, LaFleur nearly led Mount Pleasant to an upset win against a team that featured future Michigan State tailback Shawn Foster.
Mike LaFleur, a fourth-grade ball boy for the team, remembers plant workers stepping out on the balcony to watch as the two teams traded touchdowns. “Literally, it was just back and forth the whole game,” says current Mount Pleasant head coach Jason McIntrye, who graduated three years before Matt.
Mount Pleasant eventually fell one touchdown short, but that game is remembered more than 20 years later for the message it sent the community, that it would take a backseat to nobody.
“Are you my sub today?”
This was Denny LaFleur’s greeting when he walked into the main office at Mount Pleasant Middle School. He’s met by a woman with white hair and a big personality named Yvonne. She’s more train conductor than secretary, ensuring everything within these halls runs on time. And she already knows the answer to her own question.
No, Denny isn’t substitute teaching this afternoon. It isn’t Mr. LaFleur’s day.
The LaFleurs have given their lives to this community, especially its schools. They continue to fill in as substitute teachers a couple times each week, and there are no plans to stop.
Mount Pleasant is a snow-globe town split down the middle by Business Highway 127. To the east lies the high school. Kristi was a physical education and health teacher for 40 years before retiring with her husband in 2015. Denny not-so-jokingly calls her the family’s best coach, and Kristi has the state’s 2010 competitive cheerleading coach of the year plaque hanging on her basement wall to prove it.
West of the highway is Central Michigan University, which brought the LaFleurs to Mount Pleasant as students in 1970. Denny was a linebacker for the Chippewas, part of their 1974 Division II national championship team, and once held the program’s career tackles record with 324. After his playing days, Denny was a defensive assistant coach at Central Michigan for 21 years.
His oldest son was planning to walk on, but the program went through a change and fired Denny in 1997. Matt took his father’s dismissal especially hard.
“He tore all the Central Michigan stuff down,” Denny says.
Denny wasn’t uprooting his family. After Matt left for college, he took the head-coaching job at the high school, and taught physical education at the middle school. Denny coached Mike, who like his brother played quarterback and is now the San Francisco 49ers receivers coach. Both boys wore No. 1. Their high school uniforms hang in a glass enclosure on their parents’ basement wall.
As small-town educators, it’s rare the LaFleurs go anywhere without being recognized. They’re practically human billboards now, wearing their new Packers gear in a sea of Detroit Lions fans. “You’re going to see a lot of Packers fans pop up,” Denny says. At Mountain Town Station Restaurant, the waiter congratulates Denny before he can even sit down. On a recent Tuesday, Kristi went out to run two errands. She didn’t return for hours.
“We went to Meijer a couple days ago,” Denny says, “and we couldn’t leave.”
Eventually, their son’s path took him outside Mount Pleasant. Matty walked on at Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, where Kristi’s parents lived. After two years, the Broncos asked him to switch to receiver. Tim Lester, currently Western Michigan’s head coach, was entrenched as the starter. “It was devastating to him,” Denny says.
Around the same time, Randy Awrey was in the early phase of building his program at Saginaw Valley State. The Cardinals were Division II, just like Central Michigan during Denny’s career, and only an hour from Mount Pleasant.
Awrey went to high school and was later college roommates with Steve Mariucci, the Packers' quarterbacks coach from 1992-95 and later head coach of the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers. They shared the same backfield, with Mariucci the quarterback and Awrey the running back. From then on, Awrey says, Mariucci was the standard for which he judged every leader in football.
He was always left disappointed. Nobody ever measured up to his childhood friend. Until, Awrey says, he met Matt LaFleur.
In Saginaw, the football program learned to do without. There were no blue-chip recruits. No pristine facilities. Not even an indoor practice complex.
In the wind, in the cold, in the snow, coaches and players prepared for their next game. “I remember one practice,” Glenn Martinez says, “I couldn’t see five feet in front of me. I’m like, ‘Man, this is crazy.’” Martinez was a wide receiver from Florida. He might have worn sleeves to stay warm, but there was one problem.
His quarterback refused.
Sure, Matt LaFleur had an advantage weathering the cold, having grown up in it. He was still the quarterback. If LaFleur wasn’t taking the easy way out, if he rejected the opportunity to be soft, his teammates followed.
“He was a tough guy,” Martinez says. “Sometimes, you get divas. He wasn’t one of those guys. He was one of those, he’ll show you his toughness and his grit.”
Toughness and grit were the main ingredients for Saginaw Valley State University football. They were a talented team full of castoffs. And they were led by the plucky quarterback who, if only a bit bigger, Awrey believes, would have played at a higher level. “He didn’t have the size to play in the NFL,” Awrey says, “but Matt had the ability.”
Matt LaFleur certainly had the legs, if not the rocket arm. He was a small-college Doug Flutie, running around the field making plays, wearing out defenses. The Cardinals would roll him out of the pocket on bootlegs, getting him into open space.
He was surrounded by a surprising amount of talent for the Division II level. Martinez, two years younger, would go on to play for four NFL teams. Fellow receiver Ruvell Martin would play for five NFL teams, including three seasons with the Packers. Offensive lineman Todd Herremans played 11 seasons, 10 as a starter with the Philadelphia Eagles.
LaFleur didn’t have their athletic potential, but you’d never know. He was the leader. He set the tone.
Once, Martinez remembers, the Cardinals were playing against an All-American linebacker. On a bootleg, Martinez flattened the linebacker with a blindside, crack-back block, springing his quarterback for a 10-yard run. LaFleur didn’t get the first down, but that almost seemed secondary to everyone else. This was the “jacked-up” era, when big hits were a thing to be celebrated. Besides, the Cardinals were winning. Martinez’ block ignited the crowd. “You would’ve thought we’d won the Super Bowl,” Martinez says. He turned to celebrate with his quarterback, but LaFleur was having none of it.
“Matt’s pissed,” Martinez says, “because we didn’t get the first down. That’s just Matt, competitive. And I’m like, ‘Shoot, I just knocked this dude out.’ And Matt was like, ‘No, we didn’t get the first down. Get on the bench.’ Matt was that type of leader.”
LaFleur dabbled with playing football after Saginaw Valley State. He played briefly for the Omaha Beef and Billings Outlaws of the National Indoor Football League. He also got his teaching degree, specializing in math as a student teacher in the Saginaw district, but coaching was his future.
He joined Awrey’s staff as a graduate assistant for one season. LaFleur worked with quarterbacks, receivers, anything offensive coordinator Jim Kiernan needed. “I had no problem trusting Matt,” Kiernan says. “Even at that early stage.” Then LaFleur’s path took him back home to Mount Pleasant, where he joined now-Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s staff at Central Michigan.
It’s a good thing, too. Those two years working for the Chippewas, just like his father before him, didn’t just start his coaching career. Something much more important happened.
Matt LaFleur met his wife.
BreAnne LaFleur remembers the first thing her husband ever told her, specifically the way he said it, because she can’t forget her initial impression: “There’s no way I’m working with this guy again.”
She was a student trainer. Matt, the brazen football coach. Bre was in the way of a drill. Matt wanted her to move.
He was not in the mood to ask nicely.
“She said I yelled at her the first time I talked to her,” Matt says, “because she was in the way of a drill, but I don’t think that ever happened.”
Says Bre all these years later: “I’m still firm that, yes, he did. He yelled for me to get out of the way. There probably was more vulgar language that I remember, he doesn’t.”
Nope, Bre was never working with that guy again. Then she crossed paths with him off the field. Bre worked at a tanning salon in Mount Pleasant, a place named Sunsations. Matt was a customer. After a few sessions, he asked Bre out to a bar.
It was their last first date ever.
Bre fell in love with her husband because of the way he treats people. At least, she adds, when he’s not screaming at them on the football field. She’d watch him transform the moment he stepped away from those white lines.
“It’s amazing,” she says, “to see him go from this passionate football coach and coming home and doing nothing but wrestling with my kids, and having a great time. Always a smile on his face. He’s just an absolute people person, and that’s what I love most about him.”
It’s been a wild ride since those days at Central Michigan. Their path has gone from Marquette, Mich., to Ashland, Ohio, to Houston, to Washington, D.C., to South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta, to Los Angeles, to Nashville, and now Green Bay. A couple years ago, Bre gifted her husband a sign that reads: “Home is where football takes us.” They’re about to have their 11th house in 12 years.
“Hopefully,” she says, “this is where that sign stops.”
Bre quickly says the destination was worth it. She, more than anyone, saw how hard her husband worked. Matt tried to prepare her for the life ahead before they got married. There are two kinds of wives, he’d joke. Coaches wives and ex-wives. “Thank God,” Matt says, “I’ve got a coach’s wife.”
In time, Bre learned to admire that passion her husband shows on the field. She has become the family’s rock, pausing her medical career to raise their kids. As Matt hires his coaching staff in Green Bay, living in Lodge Kohler hotel across Lambeau Field, Bre and the boys remain in Nashville. She volunteers at their sons’ school.
Eventually, Bre will rejoin her husband in Green Bay. So, too, might Matt’s little brother.
The 49ers blocked a request to interview Mike for the open offensive coordinator job, but a future reunion can’t be ruled out. The brothers coached on the same staff for two years in Atlanta, where they beat the Packers in the NFC championship game. Two weeks later, they fell on the wrong side of the New England Patriots’ 28-3 comeback in the Super Bowl. “There’s a memory I’ll never forget with my brother,” Mike says, perhaps wishing he could. It isn’t easy, brothers working together in a competitive field, but Mike says they learned a lot in those two years.
“Whether we coach (together) again or not in this league,” he says, “who knows. I feel like we FaceTime so much, I’m with him all the time. For me, I just want him to have success.”
Denny and Kristi have no plans to move away from Mount Pleasant. They’ve made too many memories. As he drives his Ford Explorer down a side street, Denny points to the retirement home where he and Kristi might one day live. Then he starts talking about how the greatest blessing, even beyond his son’s new job, is having his grandkids so close to home.
Inside Hunter’s Ale House, where college students gather Tuesday nights for trivia, Denny finally meets a stranger. It’s clear the waiter who just delivered three, thin-crust pizzas does not know who he’s serving.
So Denny has a little fun.
He learns the waiter is a college senior studying sports management. His goal? Work one day inside the front office for a professional sports franchise. How fitting.
Denny points out the sports writer at the table, saving the bigger hook. A few moments later, he lets the waiter in on his secret.
“My son,” he says, beaming, “just got the head job in Green Bay. He’s the Packers’ head coach.”
Those words won’t soon get old. Neither will the reaction they elicit. Eyes wide, the waiter fumbles over his response, sheepish and astonished.
As dinner winds down, Denny hands him the signed check.
“What I want to tell you,” he says, leaning in, one hand on the waiter’s shoulder, “is this: If there’s something you want to do, follow it. Just do it. You never know.”