There was a new head football coach on the sidelines of New Jersey high schools turning some heads.
It was 2010, and Chris Partridge had taken over his alma mater’s struggling football program as Paramus Catholic High School’s new head coach. And instead of being concerned with what everyone else was doing, the now-Michigan linebackers coach was concerned with being himself.
If you were to have caught him on the sidelines during a game, he’d be in a black hooded sweatshirt instead of a typical coach’s polo fit.
“A lot of people weren’t doing that,” Greg Russo, Partridge’s offensive coordinator at the time and now head coach at Paramus Catholic, told The Michigan Daily.
He’d also have his visor on backwards.
“People didn’t like that,” Russo said.
And he’d be listening to Madonna pregame.
“That’s a weird thing,” Russo admitted.
Whatever the outside perception was about Partridge, it didn’t matter to him. He was focused on getting players where they wanted to go, not wearing the latest coaching fashion. He was preoccupied with turning the football program around, not turning his visor the “right” way. And he was all-in on listening to the top players in New Jersey decide to come to Paramus Catholic — he couldn’t care less what people thought of him listening to Madonna.
Because Partridge knew if he was going to build something, he’d need to build it with people. To get the right people, they had to buy into his vision. And no one could buy a vision if they weren’t seeing the real him — all the time.
“Everything with him was always him, like there was no act of any kind,” Russo said. “He was just himself. … Something he said to me was, ‘If you’re not yourself they’re gonna know.’ ”
Always being himself makes it easy to see who Partridge is. A coach who brings the energy on the field, but perhaps more importantly in an era of transfers, talent gaps and — for Michigan — a non-stop recruiting race against programs like archrival Ohio State:
A guy who knows how to sell a vision and get people along for the ride.
Long before Partridge was selling visions, he was a player watching cassette after cassette of film, learning how to see them.
“He was kind of like a coach on the field as both an offensive lineman and a linebacker,” Jim Avitable, Paramus Catholic offensive line coach in the ‘90s, told The Daily. “So it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, looking back, that he would be a coach in college. I know he also wanted that. Now, would I have thought he would be a defensive coordinator at Ole Miss or (coach) at Michigan? I didn’t see that.”
It’s understandable, as making it that far in the coaching world is hard to see early on, but the “coach on the field” was already making headway even before his playing days were over. So when he took what Avitable describes as an underdog mentality to play linebacker at the next level, he took his coaching instincts with him too.
As a linebacker at Lafayette College, Partridge was catching rival Lehigh’s attention for more than just his on-field play. He was leaving an impression by how he carried himself, and that character stuck with Isaac Collins — a Lehigh assistant coach when Partridge played for Lafayette — who was named defensive coordinator at The Citadel in 2006. Collins hired Partridge as his defensive line and special teams coach, accelerating his eventual growth into a program visionary.
“One of the reasons why we hired him was probably what we saw on the other side of the field,” Collins told The Daily. “He was a field general, a guy that was a coach on the field. He was able to get guys where they needed to be. He probably would hate to hear this: He didn’t have the fastest 40, but he made a lot of plays just because he understood the game, processed things and got where he needed to be for sure.”
Forty-yard dash be damned, because Partridge’s playing days were over. But just because he traded the cleats for the clipboard didn’t mean he stopped running. His football mind kept moving at a fast pace, absorbing everything like a sponge and figuring out what makes him special as a coach in the process.
Paramus Catholic was a cellar-dweller in New Jersey when Partridge took the leap back to high school coaching in 2010. Yet by 2012, they won their first of a back-to-back state championships.
How’d that happen so fast — was it the backwards visors and Madonna playlists?
No, but also yes. Because it wasn’t any of those specific quirks that helped bring Paramus Catholic back. It was just Partridge being himself, and building recruiting momentum in doing so.
“And that was really a vision that really only he had,” Russo said. “Everyone thought he was nuts, taking the chance and saying they’d be a national team, and everyone was like, ‘This team is bad, what are you talking about.’ He was able to get the best kids in the state to want to go to Paramus Catholic, and that was not a thing. He really put that vision into practice.”
Partridge was — and still is — a high-energy guy, not a high-pressure sales pitcher. There’s a difference. He didn’t convince people to come by saying, he convinced them to come to Paramus by showing.
He showed recruits what he was about by going after the best of the best, because he knew that even if they didn’t come, they’d see that what he was pitching was real when winning results followed later on. He turned the cliché family-like atmosphere into a tried-and-true practice, and was phenomenal at getting a pulse of the team. It left him knowing where and who to recruit, while having players and coaches alike down to “run through a wall for him.”
The vision was paying off, meaning he could start pitching visions before games, too. Against national powerhouse Don Bosco earlier in his tenure, in a game that no one thought would even be close, Partridge painted a different scene. He told them not to be shocked — like everyone else will be — when they look at the scoreboard and see it’s a close game because it’s going to happen.
“It happened,” Russo said. “… We were in the game and the kids were going nuts. Bosco was national champs and our kids were taunting them at halftime. We didn’t win the game … but he gave them the belief they can win that game before they actually could. … Not just having a vision but selling it to a group of kids, and he believed it. He was able to galvanize a school that didn’t really have any tradition.”
It wasn’t hard for Partridge to put his vision into words, either. As Russo remembered it, former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer asked Partridge on a recruiting trip what his goal was and he put it simply: He wanted the best players in New Jersey to want to come to Paramus Catholic.
Meyer stopped and wrote that down.
Who can blame him? Partridge’s visions are ensured by his own belief, and no matter the level it’s hard not to be captivated by it. Jabrill Peppers certainly was, the now-NFL safety and former Michigan five-star defender was the first of many big-time transfers that Partridge sold on coming to Paramus Catholic and helping them build a national squad.
To confidently believe in what he’s doing — one of his most endearing selling points — Partridge has to confidently believe in himself. His jump in 2015 to the college ranks is a prime example. After interviewing with Rutgers following four stellar years at Paramus Catholic, he then got an interview opportunity with Michigan. The Scarlet Knights told him they’d no longer consider him for the job if he did so much as take the interview.
He took the interview anyway, and it paid off. He didn’t squander his first chance at a Power Five job, instead ending up with a better one — and his biggest chance yet to put his philosophies to use.
“He was a really good recruiter, spent a lot of time on the phone getting to know guys and building relationships,” Brian Smith, Michigan’s defensive backs coach from 2016-17, told The Daily. “… He understood high school players and their mentality. So I think just for me watching him and how he interacted with some of those younger guys, it was really good to see and kind of shape how I recruited a little bit.”
That’s Partridge’s way, and it’s seen every step of the way. He builds those connections authentically, and it’s hard not to follow along. While some naysayers back home said he’d only be able to recruit successfully in New Jersey, people across the country were seeing his vision.
Down in Florida, Josh Metellus — now a safety for the Minnesota Vikings — felt it. Partridge put in the effort to get him to Michigan, where Metellus’ relationship with Partridge only grew. He wouldn’t just recruit you to come, he’d keep recruiting you until the day you left. Recruiting you to buy in and be your best every day, and just like when recruiting players, that trail often happened off the field — even once they joined his program.
One summer, he split Metellus’ safeties room up for competitions all offseason. They competed in softball, an escape room, paintball and even Jeopardy — all of it bringing the group closer together. Everything Partridge does is relationship based and he doesn’t stop chasing those connections every day. That has even rubbed off on his dogs, who get in on the recruiting as well. Well, at least they have the spirit.
“(We were at his house) and he has these two big, ass, dogs,” Metellus told The Daily, stressing each word. “And I’m terrified of dogs. So the dog turns the corner and I just jet, and the dog chases me and I jump over his fence with his wife and kids laughing at me and I’m over here panting. I still keep in touch with his wife and kids, they were always there for me helping me throughout college and being a home away from home.”
That’s the side of his vision people don’t often see. They see the result of it on the field, not the process of it being built. But when he’s competing with schools like Ohio State to load rosters for the game’s biggest rivalry, making memories like that is the difference.
“The victory stuff for the Ohio State game number one, that’s exciting to see,” Partridge said Aug. 30 when asked what changed since he left Michigan for Ole Miss between 2020-22. “… When you walk into this building, when I came back, it is an A-plus culture. … When I was here the first time, it was kind of just still developing.”
Wise words, because if anyone knows what it looks like to see a developing culture bloom into an established one, it’s him.
The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry isn’t a once a year battle, it’s a daily battle on the recruiting trail. That falls not just on the head coach as the program’s figurehead, but also on position coaches who are on the ground, building relationships across the country.
Back when Patridge was a head coach at Paramus Catholic, he’d have to do both — be the figurehead and top recruiter. It meant he was always present, except one point each week. You wouldn’t find him on the field during initial pre-game warmups like most coaches.
“He’d come out later, but everyone would be looking for the head coach and I’d be, ‘Oh he’s in the office, he’s in the office listening to Madonna,’ ” Russo said with a heavy laugh. “I think when you’re the head coach, the week is so stressful and you need a little time to yourself. Everyone’s out on the field and you have a little time to relax.”
Those who didn’t know him may have been looking for him pregame, but those who knew Partridge knew he was already there. The players going through warmups were there because of him, because he believed in a vision and they did too. So it doesn’t matter if Partridge is listening to Madonna at the office or standing at the 50-yard line — he’s there.
He was there at Paramus Catholic, and he’ll be there at The Game — not just on the sidelines but on the field, his vision reflected by players all over the defense.