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Monday, January 21, 2013
Winning hearts and minds

By Melissa Isaacson

Marc Trestman can ask former boss Vince Tobin all about replacing a beloved coach. He can ask any of the '85 Bears, too, about Tobin taking the place of revered defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan after the Super Bowl season. But Trestman might not like what he hears as he takes over for Lovie Smith.

Lovie Smith
Lovie Smith was popular with his players. So popular, Devin Hester talked about retiring after Smith was fired.

Tobin knows Trestman well from their days together in Arizona, when Tobin was the Cardinals' head coach and Trestman his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 1998 to 2000. And Tobin also knows that it was not as simple as walking into his first Bears meeting in the summer of 1986 and introducing himself after Ryan left to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

"It's how you approach it," Tobin said. "At one of our first meetings, I said, 'Look, I'm not Buddy Ryan and I'm not going to try to be. But I am going to be your defensive coordinator and you're going to do things the way I want you to do it. If you buy in, we'll be successful. If you fight me, we won't be successful.' They bought in and next year, we were statistically better."

It was not exactly that simple, however.

There are differences, of course, between then and now. Ryan was a coordinator, not a head coach. And Ryan was not fired by the Bears like Smith was. But like Smith, almost all of Ryan's players were devoted to him both personally and professionally.

And while players from that '86 team now say they had no problems with Tobin personally, their relationship early on had many growing pains.

Making things especially difficult was the unusual connection Ryan had to the Bears and to George Halas, specifically. In '81, with the Bears' offense struggling under head coach Neill Armstrong, a thorough housecleaning apparently imminent and the defense gaining status as one of the best in the NFL, defensive players Alan Page and Gary Fencik drafted a letter to the Bears owner.

The letter emphasized the loyalty and belief the defense had in Ryan; that beyond the X's and O's, Ryan was their man, and they urged Halas to keep him.

In response, the 86-year-old Bears patriarch made a visit to the practice facility.

"It was awkward when he showed up," Dan Hampton said. "He said he wanted to talk to the defense and didn't want Armstrong or the offensive staff in the room. Maybe that's where the exclusion emotion started germinating [Bears defense vs. offense that lasted for years].

"The old fella got up before the room and with tears in his eyes, said he had never seen or heard of a situation in all of his years in the NFL where so many players were so [devoted] to their coach that they would write a letter pleading for the wisdom that led them and to not disrupt what was happening."

Halas would fire Armstrong, but awarded Ryan and his staff three-year contracts, giving root to the animosity that would fester between Ryan and soon-to-be head coach Mike Ditka, and also making it that much tougher the day Tobin took over.

"When Buddy left, all those emotions were there, all the things we went through," Hampton said. "And now [John] Madden was calling us the greatest defense he had ever seen. Vince Tobin had no chance walking into that room."

Making it more difficult, Tobin said, was what he remembered as immediate resistance from veteran linebacker Otis Wilson.

"I had a confrontation with him early on," Tobin recalled. "Basically he was not giving me the respect I asked for in the first meeting. He was being non-attentive and non-responsive. I addressed it in the meeting and from then on, there weren't any problems. I'll never know what went on behind my back but they were very responsive and really great after that.

"I think once [team captain] Mike Singletary bought in, the others did."

But again, not so quickly.

Tobin recalls that the Bears' defense performed better statistically that '86 season. Bears players, however, said it was more the result of their effort than of the system.

Wilson said while it was "nothing personal against Vince, who's a great guy," his sack total went from 10.5 in '85, an All-Pro season, to eight in '86, to 6.5 the following season.

"Buddy catered to my ability, Vince's system didn't," Wilson said.

And whether Singletary bought in or not, Wilson said, it did not alter his feelings.

"We all respect the coach's position and we respect the team captains," Wilson said, "but I don't think it has any bearing. An athlete is going to think how he's going to think. The bottom line is about winning, and we were an aggressive defense who had pride in our defense and we were not going to let it fail.

"But nobody liked the system. Ask 10 guys and I guarantee they will say the same thing."

Fencik agreed.

"Vince ran essentially the same defense but he wasn't Buddy," he said. "He didn't have the personality Buddy had and he didn't trust his players. The big thing with Buddy is that he trusted us. He gave you enough flexibility to audible … he gave you respect."

Hampton called an informal defensive-players-only meeting in the Platteville cafeteria.

"I said, 'No one hates going into that meeting without Buddy more than me. I love him with all my heart. But if we go out there and flop around, people will say it was all the scheme, that these guys were all garden-variety players and it was all about Buddy,'" Hampton said.

Buddy Ryan
Vince Tobin followed Buddy Ryan, who left the Bears on the shoulders of his Super Bowl winning defenders.

Still, Tobin didn't help himself by lining up the defense in a 3-4 formation early in camp.

"That was a slap in the face," Hampton said. "We're the best 4-3 defense in history, six of the front seven went to Pro Bowls, and now we're lined up in a monkey 3-4 with Fridge lined up at inside linebacker. It pissed us off, it really did."

One thing that did help, Hampton said, was that new defensive line coach John Levra made constructive and helpful suggestions.

"Trestman doesn't need to reinvent the wheel," Hampton said. "He needs to invent an offense that accentuates the positives we have, and the players will fall in behind him."

Even with their experience in losing Ryan, the former Bears were appalled with the early reaction by the present-day Bears to Smith's departure; an indictment, they said, of the loose ship Smith ran over nine seasons.

"I hate to say it," Hampton said, "but with Peanut [Charles Tillman] and [Devin Hester] whining 'I miss Lovie,' if you want to make the playoffs once in six years, go play in Jacksonville. And that's what Trestman needs to say … 'What do you want, a 10-year career with $30 million in the bank?' I'm sure a lot of them do but I don't want rats like that here. Your career is too short, I want to win. If all you're doing is going through the motions and collecting a paycheck because the yoga instructor had to move on, well, we're in the business of winning …"

Fans should be just as dismayed at the unyielding love for Lovie, Fencik said.

"Fans can say, 'I guess you were used to not getting to the Super Bowl. If you guys liked the last nine years [under Lovie], I guess you didn't care about that,'" he said. "'Yeah, we collapsed every second half of the season like a house of cards … Could it possibly be that we weren't coached properly?'"

Even Tobin agrees that Trestman has to be firm.

"Players all want to win," he said. "And what is the best way to win? It's with everybody being on the same page and all pulling in the same direction. That comes from discipline. You can't have some guys working hard and some guys not. Especially in that first year, if you don't [do that], they'll run you right out of town. But Marc has been around long enough and he's strong enough to do it."

And if he needs any help, Hampton can write his speech:

"Trestman won't have a hard time walking in," the Hall of Famer said, "if he says, 'Hey guys, I got it. Lovie was here nine years and he was everybody's buddy and that's great. Well, guess what? He's not here now because you didn't win. And now we're going to put a plan together to find out who wants to win. So sit down, pay attention and here we go.'"