Bears coach John Fox has not been especially nice to the branches of his coaching tree, his former apprentices/assistants who’ve gone on to head-coaching jobs in the NFL.
Former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen (2011) went to Oakland, where his Raiders lost by an average of 17 points in their four games against Fox’s Denver Broncos. Allen was fired last year and replaced by Jack Del Rio. Del Rio had succeeded Allen as Fox’s defensive coordinator, but Fox’s first win as Bears head coach this year came at the expense of Del Rio’s Raiders a month ago. Back in 2003, after a year as Fox’s defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, Del Rio’s first game as a head coach, in Jacksonville, was against Fox’s Panthers. Fox beat him, in a year that Fox would take the Panthers to a Super Bowl.
Mike McCoy went from being Fox’s offensive coordinator in Denver to head coach of the San Diego Chargers, who faced Fox’s Broncos five times, losing four, including in the 2013 playoffs.
Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work: The wise, savvy mentor imparts wisdom and ways to younger apprentices, who then go on to heights of their own.
To a point.
In the NFL, where an effective head coach produces other head coaches as his tree, with branches stretching through the league, the reality is that you will inevitably face your former student on an opposite sideline. At that point, “supportive teacher” only goes so far, and something akin to, “I taught him everything he knows, but not everything I know” becomes the rule.
McCoy worked as an assistant coach under Fox in Carolina and Denver. In 2013 McCoy ascended to head coach of the San Diego Chargers, putting him head-to-head with Fox twice a season. The apprentice managed a split of the games against the teacher that first season, winning their second meeting and getting the Chargers into the playoffs.
Not so fast, son.
Fox’s Broncos ended McCoy’s magical first season with a smack-down in the divisional round, going out to a 24-7 lead in the fourth quarter before the Chargers drew to within a touchdown late. Last season, Fox’s Broncos beat McCoy’s Chargers by 14 and 12 points, something Fox would like repeat with the Bears.
Regardless of outcome next Monday in San Diego, “ya know,” McCoy said, “he’s a great person. He’s an even better person than a coach.”
McCoy would know.
When Fox arrived as head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2002, McCoy was a 30-year-old receivers coach. Fox kept him on the Carolina staff, eventually elevating McCoy to passing-game coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
In 2009 McCoy left to become offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach with the Denver Broncos, where he was in charge of Kyle Orton after the quarterback was dealt to Denver as part of the Jay Cutler trade. In 2011, Fox arrived there, and again thought enough of McCoy to keep the latter in place.
“It’s like you hire any staff people,” Fox said. “I think you evaluate what kind of coach they are. I thought he was a bright young coach. It turned out to be true.”
For his part, McCoy learned from his time on two Fox staffs. Fox came to Carolina after time with the New York Giants and McCoy was struck by Fox’s approach that extended into offseasons and the ways personnel were handled.
“I think the big thing [was] that the way we practice and the way we give everybody an opportunity in the offseason program, the way the reps are,” McCoy said. “Some people may say, ‘Why is this college free agent guy getting so many reps?’ But it was always about giving guys an opportunity to prove that they can do it until they couldn’t.”
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McCoy was among the candidates the Bears wanted to interview in 2012 to succeed Lovie Smith. He also was on the lists for the vacancies in Arizona, Buffalo, San Diego and Philadelphia. McCoy and the Chargers reached an agreement, as McCoy succeeded Norv Turner in San Diego (Adam Gase replaced him as Denver offensive coordinator).
“I think like with Mike or any other assistant coach that I’ve had, there’s a lot of qualified coaches out there, assistant coaches,” Fox said. “It’s just a matter of getting an opportunity. I think he had interviewed the year before with the Dolphins and [Miami] ended up going in a different direction. So he was in that conversation and I think he’s done a tremendous job in San Diego.”