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Hiring coach top priority for Pace

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- New Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace walked out of the room Wednesday after a marathon interview session at Halas Hall, and team chairman George McCaskey took a quick assessment.

"[Consultant] Ernie [Accorsi], [team president] Ted [Phillips] and I looked at each other," McCaskey recalled Friday, "and you could tell by the looks on their faces, he was the guy."

Now, Pace -- the NFL's youngest GM at 37 -- sets upon the task of returning the Bears "to greatness," as McCaskey said, and that all starts with the critical first step of hiring the right head coach.

Pace won the job over what McCaskey called four "very strong" candidates in Tennessee Titans vice president of player personnel Lake Dawson, Houston Texans director of pro personnel Brian Gaine, and local favorite Chris Ballard, who serves as director of player personnel with the Kansas City Chiefs after 12 seasons working in Chicago's personnel department.

"Ryan just stood out," McCaskey said. "The thoroughness of his presentation. ... He's a very charismatic individual himself, and we're looking forward to him, as he says, leading the charge. We had one candidate [Ballard] who had previous experience here and three that didn't. As I said, the fact that somebody was here before wouldn't eliminate them from consideration, and the fact that somebody was here before wouldn't automatically mean they got the job."

Phillips said Pace "blew us away with his intellect, with his forward thinking about always wanting to improve and get better. He never once came across as thinking he had all the answers. He's a guy that's going to solicit input. His personnel staff's going to be important to him. He values them. He's going to value their input. No ego. His overall plan was really impressive from the standpoint of wanting to understand what we have, and when he ends up hiring a head coach, I think the way he articulated it is it's their job as a GM and personnel staff to make sure they clearly articulate to a head coach, 'This is what this player can do,' and the head coach will find a spot for him."

Less than an hour after signing a five-year contract to head up the club's football operations, Pace eschewed celebration to embark on his first order of business: finding the head coach. Pace sat down with Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to interview him for the club's opening at the position.

McCaskey and Phillips will continue to sit in on further interviews along with Accorsi, but Pace is charged with making the final decision on who the organization will hire. Pace will also be in control of the final 53-man roster. The new coach will report to Pace, who in turn reports to Phillips.

"You would think it would be natural for somebody to want to celebrate a little bit after reaching this point in his career," McCaskey said. "Ryan signed his contract, walked down the hallway into the Bronko Nagurski room, and conducted the interview with Todd. He got right down to business. I was very impressed with the way he conducted the interview, the questions he was asking, and the rapport he developed immediately with the candidate."

That doesn't mean a new hire is imminent. Pace acknowledged a sense of urgency regarding the team's search considering the Senior Bowl is quickly approaching along with free agency and the NFL draft. But Pace said there's no hard timeline to conclude the search and divulged he doesn't have a preference in the potential hire's schemes or specialty.

"It doesn't matter if it's an offense or defensive coach, if it's a 3-4 or 4-3 [defensive system]," Pace said. "I'm looking for the head coach that has the traits we're looking for. That's confidence, charisma, discipline, leadership; the best man for the job."

McCaskey, Phillips and Accorsi jumped out ahead of the game in the search by interviewing Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase prior to hiring Pace. McCaskey said the group "compared notes" regarding Quinn and Gase with Pace, who said he has his own "list of coaches that all blend together with Ted, George and Ernie."

Since taking the job as GM, Pace said he's already scheduled more interviews with potential head coaches, but he declined to delve into specifics.

Hiring a coach is priority No. 1 for Pace. Afterward, he plans to evaluate the roster and the staff before making decisions in those areas. Finally, he'll put together Chicago's offseason plan, which could include moving quarterback Jay Cutler.

Pace plans to meet with the quarterback soon but said he's "really narrowed in on this head coaching search right now." Pace said he wants to get to know Cutler better before making any decisions.

Pace inherits a 5-11 team with several holes in the roster, and the Bears haven't advanced to the postseason since the 2010 season. Still, the new GM doesn't view 2015 as a rebuilding project, as the plan is to revamp in key areas while still fielding a competitive team.

In looking at Chicago's current situation, Pace discussed what the New Orleans Saints experienced in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"In 2005, we came into that season when Sean [Payton] got there in '06 and everyone thought, 'This is a massive rebuild. This team has been decimated.' And we quickly put together a team to go the NFC championship that very next year," he said. "But then if you think about the next two years, we were continuing to build, continuing to progress. So 2007, [we were] progressing, 2008 progressing, 2009 we won a Super Bowl. The most important thing is we have an aggressive plan and we're improving, [we] developed an organizational philosophy right then and there on the players that we wanted to acquire, and the whole building was on the same page. Everything was focused on winning games, everyone dropped their egos, and the rest is history."