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New Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano didn’t realize how much he would miss coaching until he didn’t do it last year — sitting out for the first time in 33 years, when he was a grad assistant at USC.
“It stinks not being on a team,” Pagano said last week when he was introduced to the Chicago media. “You go 33 years of being on a team and showing up to a facility and being in a locker room and being around coaches, being around the players, the grind, the preparation, everything that goes into preparing for those three hours and five minutes on a Sunday or a Monday night, a Thursday night, whatever it is, I mean that's what you miss.
Pagano didn’t go completely cold turkey from football last year, the one after he was fired as the Colts’ head coach following a 4-12 season, his third straight non-playoff campaign. He was an NFL consultant, working with the league’s officials.
“That was my football fix,” he said. “I had an opportunity a couple days per week to spend in New York at 345 Park Ave. and just sit, listen and learn. I was kind of a sounding board, so when they had questions about penalties and fouls and whatever it was, I would just give them the coaches’ perspective on things.”
It was enough of a distraction to keep Pagano partially occupied, and it got him out of the house often enough so his wife, Tina, didn’t strangle him -- by his account.
“First month and a half was pretty dicey for my wife and myself,” Pagano says with a chuckle. “It reminded me of the first month that we were married. I lost full control after two weeks of my marriage. She had her hands around my throat. I didn't get it. I get it now. I always say, ‘I'm not the man I that I want to be, but I'm sure glad I'm not the man that I used to be.’ So it was a little bit dicey.”
During his sabbatical, Pagano found time to cross a couple items off his bucket list, like attending the Masters and traveling. He was able to spend more time with his three daughters and three granddaughters.
“They all have black belts in shopping; that’s a problem,” Pagano joked. “I got to do a bunch of, I called it the 3 R’s. It gave me time to reset, recharge and reflect and to do all the family stuff I never got a chance to do.”
He also had a chance to watch his two nephews who play college football, one at Boise State and one at Michigan. And he had the luxury of watching as a fan, tailgating like a regular guy. He worked out until he couldn’t work out anymore. Ultimately, though, Pagano ran out of meaningful ways to spend his down time. He became a repeat customer at the local dry cleaners.
“I was taking in clean shirts to find something to do,” he said. “They still had the tag on them, (but) I’d take them back. They’d say ‘Coach, these are already clean,’ I’d say, ‘Clean them again; I need something to do.’ And then … it’s only noon, and you try and figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of the day.”
Now he knows. He’s back in the game, and thrilled to have the opportunity to work with what is arguably the top defense in the NFL. Although the 58-year-old Pagano doesn’t sound like he’s looking to work his way back toward a head-coaching job.
But the question is still inevitable: Does he want to be a head coach again? He says he’s not even thinking about it.
“I’ve done it,” Pagano said. “I’m motivated to just help Coach (Matt) Nagy be successful (and) help this organization be successful. Help these kids grow and develop. That’s my motivation is to be the best I can be for this organization, for the McCaskey family, for Coach Nagy and for these players and for these coaches and help develop these guys. That’s the only thing I want to do.”
And, as Pagano well knows, there are certain disadvantages that come with being the head man. There are issues and headaches that assistant coaches, even coordinators, don’t have to deal with.
“There’s a lot of things that coach Nagy would tell you, after sitting in that chair now for a year, and I sat in it for six years,” Pagano said. “There were many times when I was sitting in that chair, and I said, ‘Boy, I wish I was a defensive coordinator again; man do I wish I was a secondary coach.’
“It wasn’t anything to do with coaching; it wasn’t anything to do with the football part of it. It was just some of the other stuff that comes with it. It’s being around the people (that I missed). I’m a coach at heart, just like coach Nagy is, and I love to coach football, and it wouldn’t have mattered what the role is. I’m very, very fortunate to have this opportunity and to get this job.”
For the most part, the offensive-oriented Nagy left everything on the other side to previous defensive boss Vic Fangio, something any coordinator would appreciate. But Pagano says he didn’t consider that because he felt there were so many other benefits to working with Nagy.
“Coach (Nagy) is all about people,” Pagano said. “And he’s all about relationships. And he’s just a football coach. And he’s just a normal guy. It’s everything that I ever wanted, ever imagined, and more. Him and (G.M.) Ryan (Pace) both, those were the two guys that I spent the most time with obviously (during the interview process). I feel like the luckiest man in the world right now.”
Pagano’s last year in Indianapolis was his only non-winning season there. His Colts teams went 11-5 and made the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. But a pair of 8-8, non-playoff seasons followed by the 4-12 bottoming out hastened his departure. Although his tenure in Indianapolis didn’t end well, Pagano doesn’t regret the experience.
“You look back on the six years that I had in Indy, and I’m grateful for those,” Pagano said. “I always say, ‘I’m better, not bitter,’ about that experience. I reflect on all the good things we did, and some of the things you would do differently as you move forward.”
Now Pagano has the opportunity to do so with the Bears.