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Jets hire Robert Saleh, an Arab-American who last led 49ers’ vaunted defense

Robert Saleh moves from the 49ers to the Jets and becomes the NFL's fourth minority head coach. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)
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Robert Saleh is getting his chance to be an NFL head coach, even if it is perhaps belated.

The New York Jets announced Thursday night they had reached an agreement in principle with Saleh, the widely respected defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers.

The Jets became the second of the seven NFL teams that had head coaching vacancies to make a hire. Earlier Thursday the Jacksonville Jaguars announced the hiring of Urban Meyer, who won collegiate national championships at Florida and Ohio State.

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Saleh had a second interview with the Jets late Tuesday and Wednesday. He left without a deal, reportedly headed to Florida for an interview with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Jets also completed a second interview Thursday with Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith but then chose Saleh to replace Adam Gase, who was fired after a 2-14 season.

“The [Jets] got a great one!” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman wrote on Twitter. “Congrats to them!”

Saleh, who will turn 42 this month, becomes the NFL’s fourth minority head coach. He joins Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Miami’s Brian Flores and Washington’s Ron Rivera. Saleh was born in Dearborn, Mich., to Lebanese parents and was reported to have been the first Arab American coordinator in NFL history.

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The 49ers will receive two third-round draft picks (in the compensatory stage at the end of the round) under the NFL’s newly implemented plan to reward a team that develops a minority candidate hired elsewhere as a head coach or a general manager. Saleh spent four seasons as the defensive coordinator of the 49ers, satisfying the new measure’s requirement that the minority candidate must have been with his team for at least two years with no break in employment.

Some observers believed head coaching opportunities were overdue for Saleh and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who faced each other in last season’s Super Bowl. The wait is over for Saleh, while Bieniemy continues to go through the interviewing process and coaches with the Chiefs in this year’s playoffs.

“I think the people who have kind of built this league have built this league on an open mind,” Saleh said during Super Bowl week last year. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that they go into it with an open mind. It still comes down to being the best person for the job. … I do have faith in the process. And I do believe that this league is great for a reason. And so I don’t have any issue with the way anything is going.”

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Saleh was reported last year to have been a finalist for the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching job that went to Kevin Stefanski.

“It was a learning experience for me,” Saleh said last year at the Super Bowl. “Yeah, you always go in and think you might do something different. But to be honest with you, I think the way Cleveland went about their hiring process, they did such a good job of being thorough and making sure they crossed all their T’s, dotted all their I’s. There’s no doubt in my opinion that they’re going to be headed in the right direction, and I’m excited for them.”

Saleh was right, with the Browns set to play at Kansas City this weekend in the second round of the AFC playoffs. In New York, Saleh inherits a Jets team that has the No. 2 overall selection in the draft and faces a major decision about whether to keep Sam Darnold as the starting quarterback.

Jets players seemed pleased with the choice of Saleh, if the social-media reaction of defensive end Quinnen Williams was any indication.

“YESSS SIRRRRRRRRRR,” Williams wrote on Twitter.

Saleh played Division II football in college at Northern Michigan as a tight end. He left a banking job in Detroit as a credit analyst to pursue coaching. He was inspired to chase his dreams of a career in football in part by the escape of his brother David from a financial-adviser training session in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Lions make Rams executive Brad Holmes the NFL’s third minority GM

His hiring by the Jets comes with the NFL under intense scrutiny for its minority hiring practices. Rivera was the only minority candidate hired last offseason as a head coach. The NFL enacted a series of measures this offseason to bolster its diversity hiring practices. That included the approval by franchise owners of the proposal to award the third-round draft choices.

Earlier Thursday, the Detroit Lions hired Los Angeles Rams executive Brad Holmes as their general manager. Holmes, most recently the Rams’ director of college scouting, became the NFL’s third minority general manager, with Miami’s Chris Grier and Cleveland’s Andrew Berry. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, the diversity group that works with the NFL on its minority hiring practices, praised the Lions’ selection.

“It’s a confirmation of the exceptional talent that exists in men and women of color in this league,” Rod Graves, the group’s executive director, said Thursday of the Lions’ choice of Holmes as GM. “When teams engage in a diligent and exhaustive process, we certainly feel like it increases our chances.”