Going into his 38th year of coaching, Bears coach John Fox has gone to three Super Bowls, worked with Hall of Fame coaches and players, and overseen team makeovers in Carolina and Denver. In Part 1 of a conversation with CSNChicago.com Bears Insider John “Moon” Mullin, Fox lays out some of his operating principles and philosophies, the one common denominator in success he’s experienced, and how he believes the 2015 Chicago Bears season will unfold.
Q: You said back in training camp that you thought you – the Bears – would be better than people think. Still feel that way?
A: I do. I really do. I’ve seen progress. The world doesn’t stand still. In this league you don’t stand still. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. If you can have the mindset of just getting better every day, and it’s something you sell, almost like vacuum cleaners… .You’re going to get hit in the mouth. You can’t blink, you can’t waver. You’ve just got to keep marching like that.
Events + your response = the result. It’s true in life, it’s true in everyday practice, it’s real. There’s all kinda [stuff] that happens, whether it’s [a player] talking something about… .
And here’s what I say to you about that: If you don’t have something good to say about somebody, don’t say it. I learned a long time ago that it’s OK to point fingers, just as long as you know when and where to point them. If things are bad, point them at yourself. If it’s good, point ‘em out. And don’t worry about what you can’t control. You can’t control what the media says, you can’t control what your teammates says, so [the heck with] it. We’re going to talk about it but like a duck, it’s going to roll off, so don’t worry about the noise, just do your job.
The quarterback and the head coach get way more credit when things go well and way more blame when it’s bad. That’s why we’re compensated better than anybody else. So suck it up.
Q: No one wants to talk win totals or stat specifics, but what’s your sense of how the season plays out?
A: Truth be told, everybody breaks the season down into four quarters. Our first four games, and a little preseason, there’ll be a learning curve. Whenever you have a new staff, it’s just not as well-oiled early. Going back to both places I’ve been [Carolina, Denver], it didn’t start great. By the time you finish that first year, then it consistently gets better because you have some core players that know your system.
It doesn’t happen overnight, even from just the learning curve. Forget about the ability level; it’s knowing and understanding the system.
Q: Publicly and privately, there’s a looseness, an ease with a lot of this team. And watching you around practice, you seem to like these guys.
A: I’ve been with lots harder-to-manage groups before [laughs]. Yeah, yeah, because our guys are not afraid to work. One thing I cannot stand – and I’ve had all kind of different personalities, backgrounds, all that – the thing I cannot tolerate is guys not willing to work. In my mind, you don’t work, you don’t get better.
I use [UCLA coach John] Wooden’s ‘Pyramid of Success.’ The cornerstones are ‘industriousness,’ which is hard work, and then ‘enthusiasm.’ I’m convinced that you don’t work to your maximum unless you’re doing it with enthusiastically. And it’s contagious. Call it fun, call it anything you want. If you can learn that skillset or mindset, there’s more energy and you get better.
Q: This has been, shall we say, an “interesting” early stretch with you and some of the media over different things.
A: I said, ‘I don’t like evaluating players in the media.’ What I really should’ve said was, ‘I don’t like criticizing players in the media.’ And I don’t really like saying in the media what I think of an opponent. I mean, somebody one day asked me what I thought of the receiver, Jordy Nelson, getting hurt [torn ACL] in Green Bay. C’mon, what am I supposed to say, ‘I’m cheering because somebody got hurt?’ Come on.
And every day I’m getting asked when Kevin White’s going to be ready. How am I supposed to know exactly? And if I say something, give a timeline, and then the player isn’t ready by then, then everybody thinks there’s something else wrong, or whatever. That’s why everything is ‘day to day’ with me, because that’s really what it is. I always do what protects players the most.
Q: You’ve drawn a very hard line on not letting out what you consider ‘competitive information.’
A: If you come out and say who’s practicing, who’s out, whatever, any earlier than you have to, you’re helping your opponent. If a guy is ‘out,’ then who you put there for him is another advantage because they can study and break down that guy.
This game’s about matchups. That’s what some of these cats don’t really get. If this was game week and somehow somebody’s out of practice and we move people around, knowing that is a huge advantage for your opponent. It’d be a huge advantage for me if I was the opponent. Putting information out there is not doing us any favors. Maybe people don’t care, but there it is.
I get it. I don’t hate people. I get it. I would appreciate a little more if they did. It is all about competitive advantage.
Q: You’ve spoken of how much Chuck Noll influenced you, his toughness and how he did things. What have been others who are really part of who and where you are in this business?
A: After working with Chuck at Pittsburgh, it was up with the Raiders and Al Davis. People either loved him or hated him, and you didn’t always see eye to eye. But in personnel, I learned how he thought. He was an excellent personnel man. The evaluation of personnel. And that’s all part of being a coach, being a good evaluator, otherwise, if you can’t evaluate players, how are you going to pick a team?
Then I went to the New York Giants – Wellington Mara, Robert Tisch, George Young, Ernie Accorsi. Player-wise, Michael Strahan, Jason Sehorn, Jesse Armstead – Hall of Fame kinds of players – and people – every day.
My very first job, Sid Gillman was the A.D. at a small school called USIU [United States International University]. I got to sit with Sid Gillman every day for six months. He was a ‘system’ guy, whether it was recognition, terminology, he was about “make it make sense.’ That didn’t used to matter in the pros because guys couldn’t go anywhere and you had them a while. But now this is where a little of the college game has crept into the NFL – you have to have a learnable system that makes sense and guys can come in and it’ll make sense.
Q: You’ve won in Denver, Carolina, with the Giants. What’s the common denominator? Obviously talent and players, but a lot of people have talent and players and don’t win. What’s the single biggest common constant in winning?
A: It’s people. It’s people. It’s the front office. It’s ownership. It’s ownership. It’s players. It’s more than talent and a quarterback, even though everybody wants to make it that. Now, to get elite, history would prove, not 100 percent but a large percentage, those do give you a better chance. Obviously.
But I go back to San Diego , the only team in NFL history to start 0-4 and make the playoffs. And not only did we make the playoffs, we won the division. And not only did we win the division, we won 11 of our last 12.
In Denver my first year, we started 1-4, finished 8-8, won six in a row with Tebow our quarterback. Next year, Peyton Manning’s our quarterback; he’s going to be the wonder child, and we start 2-3; wasn’t good. Then we win 11 in a row. It wasn’t easy. We had a drastic change in our system from the year before; completely different offense. And we didn’t start fast.
It’s back to people. I tell guys, ‘I’m not spending eight hours a day with [jerks]. And I don’t expect you to, either.’ When those come up, I’m runnin’ them out. Because it’s people. If you have all oars in the water and don’t have ‘anchors,’ you’ve got a chance – I don’t care what your talent level is.
If you play smart football, don’t turn it over, beat yourself, keep it close, you can win games in the fourth quarter. We did it in ’03 [Carolina, Super Bowl]. Obviously you can’t do it with no players. But if you’ve got success, you’ve got good people.
People ask me about last year. Hell, I don’t know about last year. I say: You’ve got a rearview mirror. You glance at it to see what’s behind you and learn from it. But you spend all your time looking in the rearview mirror and not out the windshield, you’re going to wreck. We need to be looking ahead, not behind, except glancing to learn from it.