Bruin, Tar Heel and coach
Western Branch High School alumnus Donald André “Dré” Bly has an illustrious football resume.
As a football player for the WBHS Bruins, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels and four different NFL teams, Dré Bly has amassed All-American honors, a place in the College Football Hall of Fame, Pro Bowl selections and a Super Bowl ring.
Bly, 42, will write another chapter of his football life as the cornerbacks coach for the UNC football team. He was brought back to Chapel Hill, N.C., by Head Coach Mack Brown, who was hired to replace former head coach Larry Fedora last fall.
This will be the second stint with the UNC football program for both men. Brown coached the Tar Heels from 1988 to 1997, with Bly on the roster from 1996 to 1998.
Bly will help raise the bar for the team’s cornerbacks, re-energize that “Rude Boy” mentality in his players and take UNC football back to when it had one of the toughest defenses in the country — all under Brown’s leadership once again.
“To be back here (at UNC) and to be back here with the man who helped me experience that, it’s an amazing feeling,” Bly said in a phone interview.
Bly’s football vocation began at WBHS, where he was an All-State player. He also showed talent as a baseball player while at Western Branch but ultimately committed to football.
He said WBHS cultivated a slew of excellent players during his high school years, and he credited that to the excellent support system provided by its coaches and teachers.
“It was the support system that we had at Western Branch. We had great teachers and people who really cared about us academically. I think that’s why we were able to go off to go to school,” he said.
Bly hit the ground running when he first came to UNC. In his redshirt freshman year in 1996, he had 11 interceptions and became the first freshman in ACC history to earn consensus first-team All-American honors, according to goheels.com.
Furthermore, Bly became the fifth freshman in NCAA history to be named to the Associated Press All-America first team.
“I had a great redshirt freshman year, (and) I realized that football was going to be my ticket,” Bly said.
He earned back-to-back first team All-American status in 1997, and by the end of his collegiate career he had 20 total interceptions. In 2014, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Coach Brown is confident about what made Bly such an exceptional athlete in college.
“First off, Dré could really run,” Brown wrote in an email. “He was one of those guys that was just naturally fast, which allowed him to be aggressive and make so many plays. He also had tremendous instincts, could break on the ball really well, and had some of the best hands I’ve ever seen.”
Bly brought those talents to the NFL when the then-St. Louis Rams drafted him in the second round of the 1999 NFL draft. He played four seasons with the Rams, and it was in just his first season with the team that they became champions.
In Super Bowl XXXIV, held in Atlanta, Ga., in January 2000, the Rams beat the Tennessee Titans 23-16 to become the NFL champion of the 1999 season. It was the second Super Bowl appearance in the team’s history and its first Super Bowl victory. They headed into this game with a 13-3 regular season record.
Bly won his Super Bowl ring in the culmination of his rookie year with the Rams. He returned to that stage when the Rams lost to the New England Patriots 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI — his second Super Bowl appearance in his first three years as an NFL cornerback.
He said nothing can replace what he experienced in Atlanta in his first year with the Rams and in his first Super Bowl as part of a brotherhood of outstanding players.
“That’s why we prepare every day,” he said. “That’s why we put in those long hours with our brothers — to ultimately be crowned champion at the end of the day. The brotherhood and friendship and bond that I shared with those guys will forever be special with me. Those times in St. Louis were the best times of my life.”
Bly spent four seasons with the Rams from 1999 to 2002, then played for the Detroit Lions from 2003 to 2006. He would go on to play for the Denver Broncos in 2007 and 2008 and the San Francisco 49ers in 2009. He rejoined the Lions in 2010 but was released later that year.
Bly was selected for two Pro Bowls during his four-year tenure with the Lions. He finished his 11-year NFL career with 43 interceptions, 420 tackles and seven defensive touchdowns, according to pro-football-reference.com.
He’s now using that skillset to hone the young cornerbacks at UNC, a role that he said suits him well.
“You (just) have to have the personality for it, and I think my personality suits this profession,” he said. “You have to be very social, you have to be positive, you have to be confident — and that’s me.”
Brown described Bly as “a passionate young man who loves to compete,” and he thinks those skills and his approach will help Bly succeed in his coaching position.
“He brings so much energy every day, and he loves this place. That really shows in the way he recruits,” Brown wrote. “He’s able to tell his story to the young men and is a living example of what North Carolina can do to help them achieve their goals both in football and in life.”
Part of that recruitment philosophy is bringing players from Hampton Roads and other parts of Virginia, like how Bly came to Chapel Hill in the first place. “We’ve got to go back to Virginia and treat that like (it’s) in-state,” Bly said.
“Going to college shouldn’t be a four-year decision, it should be a 40-year decision,” he said. “Going to the University of North Carolina can benefit you for the next 40 years. I’m a living witness of that.”
When Bly and his fellow Tar Heel-blue cornerbacks played together in his collegiate years, each of them played with the same “rude boy” mentality. It’s a name that started long before Bly’s days on the team, he said.
It’s a tradition in which every position on the team had a name that they stood by — a brotherhood that carried them game to game, play-by-play.
“It’s a certain standard that we play with, and that’s something I emphasize every day and will continue to emphasize every day. How we live and how we conduct our business every day, (both) on and off the field,” he said.
There’s a standard of excellence in both life and football that he holds his players to every single day.
“For your group to go out there and be successful, there has to be a brotherhood and camaraderie, and I think if each group has a value that they stand for, it leads to team success,” he said.
The Tar Heels football program has struggled in recent years. The team finished the 2017 season with a 3-9 record and posted a 2-9 record in 2018 under Fedora, who was fired after seven seasons with the team.
The team’s mindset going into the 2019 season this fall is about living up to the standards that they need to turn things around.
“One thing Brown really emphasizes is doing the right thing, being where you’re supposed to be and doing what you’re supposed to do,” Bly said. “You don’t have to be the most talented team to win games, just the most disciplined. I’ve seen him do it here.
“He’s had some talented players, (and) if you can have a disciplined team plus talented players, that equals out to being special. That’s what we’re trying to be, because we’ve got some talented guys, and that’s the plan for us to be special.”
Brown was “pleasantly surprised” with the talent on this roster when he came back to Chapel Hill, he wrote, and they’re building trust among everyone. Brown wants to rebuild the players’ confidence, and that starts with building trust.
“We’ve worked really hard as a staff to gain the trust of our current players, and we think we’re doing that,” he wrote. “Once you do that, then you have a common purpose, and our common purpose is to win all the games with good kids who graduate and go on to be successful husbands, fathers and citizens. If we can build that mindset, gain confidence and make sure we’re doing all the little things, we’ll have a good chance to be successful this season.”
Bly’s talent for recruitment and his ability to connect with current players will help the Tar Heels succeed this college football season.
“He takes great pride in the defensive back lineage here at Carolina, and he’s bringing that passion to his room,” he wrote. “I think our players are really going to benefit from his expertise and approach.
“At the end of the day, who wouldn’t want to be coached by a Hall of Fame cornerback?”