When the Bears announced the hiring of their new head coach with an email sent at 4:07 a.m. local time, Marc Trestman had a chance to be the story of the day in the NFL.
By 4:07 p.m., it was blown out of the water, trumped by the sexier and stranger Chip Kelly and Manti Te’o stories.
Trestman getting passed over? Now that’s old news.
The erudite, kind of nerdy-looking coach who spent the past five years coaching les Alouettes de Montreal is now in, arguably, the football-coaching epicenter of the universe. Halas. Ditka. Soldier Field. Da Bears. It’s a religion here, a sickness. It’s both. It’s year-round. It’s on flags and tattoos and dog collars and placemats: Bear Down is a way of life as much as it is a slogan.
‘‘Our goal going in will be to stand on a podium and hold up a trophy, right?’’ Trestman asked rhetorically.
And yet just because you’re here and you speak of lofty goals doesn’t mean you’re promoted instantly to local royalty. This city has had a nice run of continuity since Mike Ditka was canned after the 1992 season. Three coaches — Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron and Lovie Smith — in the past 20 years is not bad. The Raiders have had 10 head coaches in that time.
But Smith also was pushed out after his nine seasons with a winning percentage of .563, two appearances in the NFC championship game, one Super Bowl and no worse than a 7-9 mark following his first season. Better Bear Down quickly, Mr. Trestman.
The Bears introduced their new coach with quite an appetizer: a 20-minute soliloquy during which GM Phil Emery painstakingly broke down the process of landing Trestman. Emery was transparent about arriving at his unusual destination to a new head coach, the first time he ever had spearheaded such a search. Emery turned over just about every rock along the way, interviewing between “eight and 20” candidates according to his count, although sources indicate it was far closer to 20.
No matter. In the end, it was Trestman, once considered in the NFL to be a premier quarterback savant before his journey to the CFL put him slightly out of the minds of many folks in the States. Back in the late 1990s through the early part of last decade, perhaps spiking following his work with 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon, Trestman’s name was a hot one in the head-coaching discussion. But it never happened, and like so many hot candidates, he cooled and eventually was viewed as just another smart, hard-working coach. No more, no less.
That, as much as Trestman’s venture from Canada, is perhaps as fascinating as anything about this hire. The fact that he’s a first-time NFL head coach at 57, having last coached in the league in 2004, made him a wholly unexpected surprise before the process even begun.
But can he take the Bears where Smith could not?
One of the things that struck Emery was a 13-month calendar (Canadian math?) in which Trestman had outlined every hour of every day, from Day One of the offseason through Super Bowl parade logistics. It was all there: All the years of planning from his time as a graduate assistant under Jimmy Johnson, through his years as a traveling QB coach and offensive coordinator in the NFL, through college and Canada, all in one calendar. Trestman brings it, metaphorically anyway, everywhere he goes.
That might have been the part that sealed it for him in Emery’s eyes. As a former scout, and a grunt one at that, Emery has scoured the football earth looking for talent. He has worn through several dozen pair of shoes. He has accrued more air miles than some pilots. He has been on the road and seen almost everything there is to see in this game. There’s something about Trestman’s itinerant history that appeals to Emery.
“He’s taken a wide road, range, or (ridden) a big map to come to where he’s at today,” Emery said. “I feel a kinship in that I once took a 42-hour bus ride to go on a job interview that paid $6,000, and (I) got the job and was glad to have it. As our GM Rich McKay used to tell me with the Falcons, ‘You’ve been to every dirt hole there is.’ We’ve had similar journeys.”
But there was more to it than stories from the road. Emery knows the Bears are at a flashpoint. It’s precisely at this divide that the team’s identity is changing. Gone is Smith and a defensive backbone. The Bears might be a fine defensive club next season, but there’s no question that 2013 will be about finding out one thing: If Jay Cutler is ready to become the heartbeat of this franchise.
In many ways Cutler already is, warts and all. He slowly has emerged from his dark shell and has begun to allow a crack or two of sunshine, perish the thought, to lighten his image somewhat. But there’s also the quarterbacking portion of the program. To date, Cutler has been good in Chicago, prone to awful spells and yet capable of brilliant stretches. It’s Trestman’s job to smooth that path out, and if that means sacrificing the higher highs in order to eliminate the lower lows, then so be it.
Trestman’s most telling non-statement from his introductory press conference was not proclaiming Cutler a franchise quarterback. They first met 10 years ago, when Cutler asked Trestman for help doing some drills, and Trestman already has seen the massive growth since then. But based on Trestman’s comments, there appears to be plenty more to go in his eyes.
“Jay Cutler is a guy who loves football. Jay Cutler is a guy who’s willing to learn. Jay Cutler, to me in my very short time with him wants to do everything he can to help his franchise and please our amazing fans,” Trestman said. “That’s where we’re going to start, and we’re going to work one day at a time in a proactive way with a sense of urgency to get him to be the guy that he wants to be and we want him to be.”
Cutler for his part called landing Trestman a “great hire” on the team’s website. He already has done his homework on his new coach, calling people who have worked with him and looking into his background. If he needs further convincing before they start working together, Gannon and Steve Young, two of Trestman’s most ardent supporters, have sung his praises loudly in recent days.
“He understands quarterbacks,” Cutler told the team’s website. “He understands their thought process and the minds of quarterbacks and what we have to go through. It’s going to be a quarterback-friendly system and I can’t wait to get started with him.”
Trestman will be the voice in Cutler’s ear. He will call offensive plays and will design his system to the team’s strengths.
“Over the five years that I was on the staff in Canada I worked this way, I’ve experienced this. I don’t see any difference in the process,” Trestman said. “The fact of the matter is I love calling plays. I love ball, and I want to be hands-on coaching football.”
Trestman also knows this is his one shot: Make it big here and they’ll make statues of him. But it’s not easy. On Smith’s first local radio appearance after being hired, the first caller into the program asked whether the coach had sought an audience with Ditka, the don-like ex-coach who remains a giant in the area.
In fact, most fans want Ditka Jr., personality-wise. Trestman, like Smith, is not that. He’s a former practicing lawyer. He measures his words carefully, rarely stepping out of place in his more than 40 minutes in front of the media. Trestman said all the right things but did so in a very diplomatic way. As windy as this city might be, Bears fans also like their meat and potatoes here. It’s an interesting personality mix to say the least with the new coach.
But he believes in himself. He has won two Grey Cups in Canada, where he was regarded as the Bill Belichick of the CFL. Trestman always was one step ahead of the curve up there offensively, and who is to say that the CFL might not be just as innovative as the college game has been, influence-wise, on the pros?
Three or four times Thursday, Trestman spoke of the “science of football” and appeared confident that his approach will work. He’s not bringing an offense or a playbook to Chicago. He’s bringing a belief.
Trestman also knows the turf. He watched Halas’ Bears in 1966 and faced the beloved ’85 squad when he coached with Bud Grant’s Vikings. He knows that the job is, as Emery said it was: “a gem … a prize.” Trestman’s challenge will be to honor the past while bridging the path to the future, which likely will represent a sea change offensively.
“Our overall philosophy will be very simple,’’ he said. ‘‘We want to create a locker room based on a humble, hardworking, disciplined environment. An even-keeled yet passionate, common sense, no-nonsense approach to our business.’’
Team chairman George McCaskey admitted he thought it might take fans a little while to warm to Trestman. But lest anyone think that Trestman is a mere football nerd without the proper levity to balance things, he offered this olive branch: ‘‘We’re going to have fun,” he said. “But we are going to have a sense of urgency on a daily basis that when we play on Sunday will give us the edge we need.’’
Fun, urgency, balance. These are terms that are new and a bit taboo in Chicago. But maybe this is the start of something great, and Emery for one believes Trestman is the man to take the Bears down a different road. The only road they care about is the one that parade goes down.