The Indianapolis Colts suffered a major loss to their defense when cornerbacks coach Jonathan Gannon was hired away as the Defensive Coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. That void was going to be a massive one to fill as Gannon had a major role in the resurrection of Xavier Rhodes’ career and the development of other defensive backs on the roster. For the Colts, a team with Super Bowl aspirations, the replacement had to be someone who wouldn’t be a step back in any capacity from a coach like Gannon.
Surprisingly, the Colts opted to hire from the college ranks as Appalachian State DB Coach James Rowe was given the role. Rowe is in his 11th year of coaching and is entering his second stint in the NFL, after previously holding an assistant defensive backs role with Washington from 2017-2018.
Now, it would be easy for me to go detail by detail into everything I see on film with Coach Rowe, but that would only be part of the story. The real story of James Rowe has as much to do with players on the field as it does off the field, and it would be a disservice to ignore his entire body of work. So in this article, we are going to look at aspects of just who James Rowe is and why he is the perfect fit for this Colts organization.
Valdosta State and Relationship with Kenny Moore II
The first major stop is often the most important for a young coach. Rowe was just a graduate assistant for the University of Florida when he left to become the Defensive Coordinator at Valdosta State under newly hired head coach Kerwin Bell. While Rowe only served in that role for one season, he became acquainted with one of the best defensive backs at the Division II level in Kenny Moore II, and the two hit it off immediately.
“Coach Rowe had already left Valdosta State by the time I arrived,” said current Valdosta State Head Coach Gary Goff. “But I have heard nothing but great things about him. I have gotten to know Kenny Moore over the past few years and it’s such a great story to have those two reunite.”
The two formed a bond that maintained over the years, despite only working together for that one year at Valdosta State; a bond so strong that Coach Rowe used Moore II as an example for his players at Appalachian State.
“Rowe loves Kenny,” said Appalachian State All-American cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles. “We had a whole conversation one day towards the end of the season about him and he was going on and on about him and how he knew how good he was.”
Moore II would go on to be named a First Team All-American in 2016 and the defense as a whole led all of Division II with 27 interceptions on the season. Kenny Moore II is more than excited to play for his old coach again, which is telling by this quote he gave me for this article:
Excited to play for Coach Rowe again. When I think about our foundation of the organization and how much we emphasize our core values as a team, he’s going to fit right into the system!
Film and Preparation
“I tell people this all the time; Coach Rowe is firsthand the smartest coach I have ever been around.”
I spoke with quite a few Appalachian State football players about Rowe and this sentiment by Jean-Charles was shared among the entire group. Every player I spoke to immediately brought up how smart and nuanced Rowe was in the film room.
“He’s a player’s coach. He is constantly pushing us to study more film and really be students of the game.” said veteran defensive back Kaiden Smith. “He was excellent at recognizing tendencies and putting us in a position to succeed as a team.”
“He taught me a lot of different things that I didn’t know about the game as far as X’s and O’s and as far as scheme.” said another veteran defensive back in Ryan Huff.
That was just the tip of the iceberg of what Rowe brought in terms of film study. Having players know their assignments and be “students of the game” is what any defensive backs coach would strive for.
However, Rowe would take it one step further and really showcase his prowess in the film room with his players.
“He would make these cut-ups of certain formations, and where certain players were for every team we played,” said Huff. “Seeing those plays match up when we got on the field and helping us predict plays before they even happen was just, like, crazy. He was really different.”
“In the beginning of the week, he would have the game-plan down. For the rest of the week though, he would dedicate himself to specific tendencies that would help us create big plays.” Smith explained. “The guys in our secondary were always one step ahead and that is why we were such a good secondary as a whole.”
They ended up being one of the best secondaries in all of college football in 2020 as Appalachian State was the only team in the FBS to allow opponents to complete less than 50 percent of their passes. App State also led the country with passes defended with 74, and All-American Shemar Jean-Charles leading all of college football with 16 himself.
To further emphasize the impact that Rowe had on this secondary, I put the players under pressure and asked them when they truly knew he was a legit secondary coach. The responses were all the same; the week one game against Charlotte.
“One example was our first game of the season against Charlotte. We played Charlotte last year (in 2019) and they put up 40-something points and had nearly 400 yards rushing.” said Jean-Charles. “We just couldn’t stop them for some reason, and they brought back basically their entire team going into this year with the same scheme and same players. When we were watching film, he pointed out different things we didn’t notice last season. For example, they were a big RPO team so when they lined up in certain formations with certain splits, we knew RPO was coming and took that entire play out of their game-plan early in the game. That was all because of him pointing that out to us.”
“He made one of those adjustments in game too! He put in a stunt to change up so the safety didn’t have to fit. That way we were able to take away the slant on the RPO game.” said Huff. “That was a time when it was really, like, man this guy knows the game.”
Appalachian State would go on to hold Charlotte to just 20 points in this game, en route to a 35-20 opening weekend victory. That was the impact that Rowe had on that program on the field. It was immediate and his genius in the film room led to career seasons for that entire secondary.
Respect from his Peers
The players weren’t the only ones who Rowe won over at Appalachian State. The other coaches, especially Defensive Coordinator Dale Jones, were blown away early on by his knowledge of the game:
Once we started interviewing guys, we knew right away that James (Rowe) was our guy. Jones said in a conversation with me. He was just an outstanding person and a great coach.
Coming from a two-year stint with Washington, Rowe had a wealth of knowledge to bring to the Appalachian coaching staff. He was a vocal part of the defense and Coach Jones gave a lot of credit to Rowe for his development of the players.
James (Rowe) did a phenomenal job of teaching them concepts, which is the most important thing you can do. He studied film but he also taught his players how to study it the proper way.
The success that the team had led to a lot of individual success as well. As mentioned before, Jean-Charles had a career season and led all of college football with 16 pass breakups. Cornerback Shaun Jolly was also named a First Team All-Sun Belt player. When talking with Coach Jones, he credited the development of the defensive backfield to the coaching of James Rowe.
When we hired James (Rowe) and he got here, and I knew how talented he was, I knew I wasn’t going to have him very long. He’s a great teacher. It showed up with the kids because they bought into it and that is what really set him apart.
A Players’ Coach
He taught us the things about being a better man at the end of the day.
One thing that stands out about the Colts organization that differs from a lot of teams is the emphasis they put on character. From having a former pastor as a head coach to a former Green Beret as a Director of Player Development, the Colts put a lot into the character of their players and their coaches on the staff.
That culture of being bigger than football and the importance of character isn’t something that is different to Rowe. He has been characterized as a “player’s coach” by many who have played for and worked beside him.
“Everything we have done (at App State) has been about family. Bringing James (Rowe) in, he brought it to a different level.” Coach Jones explained. “The players just loved him.”
Family. Rowe embraces that aspect of being apart of a team. Successful coaching isn’t about coaching just football players, it’s about coaching people. Rowe understands what it takes to gain the trust and respect of his players and the greatest evidence of that is how he would take time out of team meetings to simply talk about life with these young men.
“One thing that people don’t really see too is he is one of those guys who are just bigger than football,” said Jean-Charles. “There was one day he spent almost the entire day teaching us how to manage our money with different accounts we could set up for ourselves, how to get ourselves LLC’s, and different things that they don’t really teach people in school nowadays.”
“Before every meeting, there was always something new,” said Huff. “Just anything you wanted to talk about, you could ask him anything, and he would set a time for that in his meetings to talk about life away from football.”
“In fall camp and in meetings, he would have guys in our group go around and tell a story about themselves,” said Smith. “He would also set aside time for life lessons such as the social justice things that were going on in the country, to even things such as getting ready for a job interview or how to manage credit cards... all kinds of stuff. He wanted to make us more than just athletes, but great men as well.”
Life is bigger than football and Rowe understands that better than most. He wasn’t just molding football players in the film room, he was molding young men to be prepared for the world after football is long gone. That is the overlap with a coach like Rowe. Preparation is everything on and off the field.
Ready for the Next Step
Rowe has had an impact at every one of his stops along his 11-year coaching career. Great talent never stays in one place for too long and for Rowe, the arrow is perpetually pointing upwards. Now he is getting ready for the next big step in his coaching career; the cornerbacks coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
History is often the best predictor of future success and Rowe’s history is as good as it gets. In his first year as a Defensive Coordinator, Valdosta State led all of Division II in interceptions. In his first year in the NFL, Washington was 3rd in the NFL in completion percentage against at 57.6%. At Appalachian State, his secondary was among the best in the nation and had the most pass breakups in college football.
If there is one person who perfectly embodies what the Colts need as their secondary coach right now, it is James Rowe.
“I knew as soon as he was getting NFL interest, he would get another shot again,” Smith said. “I have no doubt that he will be successful at the next level.”
“Just seeing how he prepares, how he breaks down film, and his relationship with players, I think he will be great with the Colts,” said Huff.
“He easily belongs at the highest level of football! I’m so excited to see him with the Colts,” said Jean-Charles.
Rowe left an impact on his players at Appalachian State, both on and off the field. These players didn’t have to talk to me when I reached out, but every player I contacted was more than willing to talk about Coach Rowe.
I have yet to have the pleasure to talk to or meet Coach Rowe— the Colts haven’t made him available for interviews yet— but judging by what the people who have had a relationship with him have said, I think he is the perfect person to lead this Colts’ secondary for the near future.