CHAMPAIGN — Over a period of nearly 40 years, I’ve written plenty of things that have missed the mark.
How about the Utah Jazz in 6 over the Chicago Bulls in an NBA Final? I learned the hard way that picking against Michael Jordan is dumb, dumb, dumb.
The Chicago Bears over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI? Taking Rex Grossman over Peyton Manning was even dumber.
And then there’s this one that was wrong, but was not hastily thought out:
Shortly after he was hired as the University of Illinois’ head football coach, I said that Lou Tepper, while an unorthodox choice, had a chance to succeed by parlaying his bookish, bespectacled persona into a kind of poor man’s Joe Paterno, a man whose sincerity and believability could win for him on the recruiting trail.
Tepper had been an excellent defensive coordinator, at Colorado, then at Illinois for John Mackovic.
Mackovic was at Illinois for four seasons and he left as one of the most successful coaches of all time — four winning teams, four bowl trips.
While at Illinois, Mackovic took on the dual role of head football coach and athletics director and he got caught up in the Deon Thomas-NCAA investigation, which presented a full-time challenge of its own. When Texas called looking for a football coach, Mackovic bolted and Tepper took over in time to coach Illinois to a 6-3 loss to UCLA in the John Hancock Bowl.
Tepper proved to be a more successful defensive coordinator than a head coach, although I still wonder how it might have turned out had circumstances been different with offensive coordinator Greg Landry.
Landry had the Illini offense pointed in the right direction. Illinois was second in the Big Ten in passing in 1994 and it was Landry’s offense that beat East Carolina 30-0 in the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve of that year.
But when Landry was thought to be working out his own head coaching chance, and believed to be encouraging Illini quarterback recruit Chris Redman to join him, it was a breach of trust that Tepper would not tolerate.
Landry was soon gone and, looking to replace him with someone he knew he could trust, Tepper hired his old friend, former University of Michigan offensive line coach Paul Schudel.
That was a disastrous hire that sealed Tepper’s fate. The Illini offense nose-dived into the dark ages and by the end of a 2-9 season in 1996, both men were gone.
It was a sad conclusion, because lost in the losing was the fact that Lou Tepper was one of the nicest, most thoughtful people you could ever want to know. And he was a very good defensive football coach.
I started thinking more about him recently when I discovered another bespectacled coach who, like Tepper, did not look nor talk like a football coach.
That coach is Marc Trestman, the unorthodox head coach of the Chicago Bears.
A recent story about Trestman that appeared on Yahoo! Sports told of Trestman’s long quest to be recognized as a worthy head coach in the National Football League. As Bear fans know, he was hired after a successful run as head coach of the Montreal Allouettes of the Canadian Football League, but the hiring came about only after Bears’ GM Phil Emery took the time to get to know this intelligent, thoughtful, well-respected coach whose reputation was hurt because he was simply too different than most football coaches.
Trestman and his new Bears are 2-0 and it’s too early to guess what success he might have long-range. But I already like that he’s different than most football coaches. I sense the players are responding to his different ways, too.
My thinking about football has changed over the years. I used to be a mostly meathead guy who praised the rah-rah, chest-thumping, helmet-smashing macho stuff that I’d been fed as a kid. I grew up on coaches who cussed, threw tantrums and often relied on intimidation. I would have rolled my eyes at coaches who sounded like a professor and who looked like a male librarian.
I’ve subsequently learned there can be other ways. So now I prefer a coach who takes the time to calmly explain, who coaches with affirmation rather than intimidation, who dares to challenge the coaching status-quo and understands that players will respond to encouragement as well as threats or fear.
When he was at Illinois, I rooted for Lou Tepper because I wanted a decent man like that to succeed.
It’s why I’m now rooting for Marc Trestman.