UB football running back coach Matt Simon keeps Buffalo’s rich running back tradition


For years now, the running back position has been among the strongest position groups for UB’s football team.

Matt Simon, UB’s (2-7, 1-4 Mid-American Conference) running back coach and one of the only coaches to be retained after the team underwent a massive overhaul two years ago. He has been a prolific part of UB’s football program for the last six years and an inexhaustible part of the sport of football for even longer.

Simon is one of only 10 coaches to win both a National Championship and a Super Bowl. He has tutored elite running backs for years at both the college and professional level. Some of the running backs he’s coached in his career include LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Branden Oliver and many others.

“I’ve been blessed with a lot of extraordinary opportunities,” Simon said. “Sometimes everybody talks about the goal or the accomplishment but it’s really the journey. Through those experiences, I’ve been around some wonderful young men, I had the opportunity to coach some great athletes that are really great people and they’ve been a great part of my life and my family’s lives over the years and that’s been the greatest blessing of all the accomplishments.”

Simon decided to move into coaching following his career as a standout linebacker for Eastern New Mexico University. He got his first taste of coaching at the collegiate level at his alma mater, before eventually finding his way to Washington University as a member of legendary coach Don James’ staff.

“Don James gave me an opportunity to be a running back coach with one of the great football coaches in college football history, so it was a great honor and opportunity,” Simon said.

Simon took advantage of his chance to coach and learned a lot during his time in there. Washington was also where Simon coached his first great running back, former Huskies back Greg Lewis. In 1990, Lewis was the winner of the inaugural Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation’s best running back. The following season, Washington was the co-National Champion in college football.

Simon’s success at Washington provided options for him moving forward. He eventually made his way to Denton, Texas where he became the head coach of the North Texas Mean Green. Although he captured a conference title in his first season there, the two subsequent seasons did not go as planned and he was dismissed by North Texas. Simon was willing to roll with the punches and kept moving forward.

Soon after, he had a chance to move up to the pro level.

“The good Lord kind of opens up doors and keeps kicking you through ‘em sometimes,” Simon said.

Simon began his NFL coaching career with the Denver Broncos, working with the team during the season in which they would ultimately win Super Bowl XXXIIII. The next year, he moved on to Baltimore where he became the Ravens running backs coach. In Baltimore, he coached elite running backs such as Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes.

Lewis joined the Ravens organization just one year after Simon. The Ravens went on to win Super Bowl XXXV with Simon on the staff by defeating the New York Giants. Simon coached Lewis to record breaking feats, like when Lewis ran for 2,066 yards in 2003, the third highest single season total in NFL history.

Simon speaks very fondly of his time in Baltimore and the stable of backs he was able to coach. He speaks equally proudly of the stable of guys he worked with when he moved to the San Diego Chargers.

He speaks, perhaps even more proudly, of the backs he has coached here in Buffalo.

“I had an opportunity to share a wealth of those experiences and I’ve learned a lot from each player that I’ve ever coached,” Simon said. “Including the Bo Oliver’s and Anthone Taylor’s and Jordan Johnson’s. You know it’s a share in the relationship and a share in the process. So I’ve been able to give to them but I’ve just been really appreciative of what they give back.”

Simon appreciates the effort the running backs give him and they appreciate the work he puts in to push them towards success.

“It’s a good feeling, you’ve got one of the best coaches in the business at his respective position as a running back coach,” said senior running back Jordan Johnson. “You know he coached LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis and the list goes on to the backs that he coached at Washington, so being able to learn from him, you want to suck everything in because all it is knowledge.”

That mutual appreciation here in Buffalo has led to a lot of success for the Bulls. Former Bulls running back Branden Oliver was one of the first backs to work with Simon here at UB. Oliver finished his time at UB as the all-time leading rusher in program history before signing with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent.

For Simon, Oliver returning to finish his degree from UB is something he has just as much pride in.

“We’re very proud of [Oliver being in the NFL] and believe it or not,” Simon said. “We’re also very proud that he has his degree from UB. You know, we were there for his graduation as well. So there’s a lot that we’re proud of, of all our guys… but we’re just as proud about their college education and completing the process here too.”

Simon places a lot of value on the process. James and Simon’s time at Washington University had a major influence on the coach’s style – he believes fundamentals are the most important part of the game when teaching his running backs. He places emphasis on things like ball security in helping players get to that next level of running back.

Fundamentals may not seem like the most exciting thing to learn, but his players love to play for him because of the energy he brings.

“He’s like your favorite cartoon character,” said sophomore running back Johnathan Hawkins. “In the running back room it’s all business, in practice it’s all business, but he makes it fun too.”

Simon has an exceptional success rate and is a huge component of recruiting running backs to Buffalo’s program. The top two backs on the current roster, Johnson and Hawkins, both acknowledged that Simon was a large part of their decision to come to Buffalo.

“It was a big factor,” Johnson said. “You know I saw the production that Bo had and I saw the production that he had with every back that he coached. When you see a coach like that with that pedigree it just makes you realize if you go there and try to learn and soak everything in as much as possible, then you can be one of those next backs.”

With three of the top six running backs in UB history coming during his tenure, the current run of great Buffalo backs has a bright future under Simon.

Daniel Petruccelli is a sports staff writer and can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com