Dean Pees remembers sitting in the audience at Ohio State's annual coaching clinic when he was a fresh-faced high school coach. Pees was the varsity coach at Elmwood High School in Bloomdale, Ohio, and each year he would bring his staff to Columbus to hear from the legendary Woody Hayes.
"It was almost like a holiday," Pees said. "If you were a high school coach, you took your staff to the Ohio State clinic. You just did."
Pees is returning to Ohio State's coaching clinic this weekend.
But this time, he'll be the one on stage.
Baltimore's defensive coordinator is being honored by Ohio State as the NFL recipient for its "Tribute to Ohio's Finest" award. Last year, Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown was the first honoree of the award, which is given to a high school, college and NFL coach each year.
"I've been blessed with some other awards in my life, but when Ohio State called, it really kind of overwhelmed me," Pees said. "It's just kind of surreal. The whole thing is surreal. I've been getting calls from family and friends who I played with in high school. It's almost like it isn't really happening."
The honor carries a special significance to Pees, who grew up in Ohio and has spent the bulk of his professional career in the state. He has coached in Ohio for 26 of his 43 seasons in the profession.
The Dola, Ohio native grew up wanting to be a high school coach. He went to Bowling Green University and majored in education as an avenue to coaching. He took a teaching and assistant coaching job at Elmwood High School after college, and two years later he had his dream job as a head varsity football coach.
"That's all I ever wanted to be, was a high school coach," Pees said. "It's just that sometimes life takes you in a different direction."
After six years at Elmwood, Pees moved to the college ranks where he coached at the University of Finlay, Miami (OH), Navy, Toledo, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Kent State. He then made the jump to the NFL where he won Super Bowls as the defensive coordinator for the Ravens and the Patriots.
"You get so wrapped up in the job that you kind of forget what it was like looking at this job when I was a high school coach," Pees said. "If I would have ever looked and said, 'Some day you're going to be the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens.' I would have said, 'Yeah, right.' It just kind of happens. My whole career has just kind of been that way."
The weekend trip will be a homecoming visit for Pees. Much of his family still lives in the area – he has three siblings who graduated from Ohio State and his six children all went to college in the state – and now he has a chance to enjoy his return to the place where it all started for him.
"Where I grew up, Ohio State was everything. Ohio football was everything," Pees said. "For this award to come from them, and for it to be Ohio, it just means so much."