The co-pilot of the Bears’ chartered jet braced himself, one hand on the throttle, the other on the ceiling. The Bomb Cyclone — the winter storm that blanketed the Northeast in January — shook the plane with an equivalent force.
“Coming up in scouting, I’ve flown a ton,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “But that was the most turbulent weather I’ve ever been in.”
But Pace had to get to Foxborough, Massachusetts. He prepared a strict schedule for himself, president Ted Phillips and chairman George McCaskey. He had a coach to find.
Landing in Boston or Providence, Rhode Island, wouldn’t work. It was too dangerous. But Hanscom Field, a small airport 33 miles from Gillette Stadium, would work because of its runway configuration.
Phillips, who’s from New Hampshire, recognized Hanscom. His father, Tony, worked in logistics at a nearby Air Force base of the same name.
“I’m like, ‘This is really weird,’ ” Phillips said.
Pace sat nearest the cockpit. McCaskey and Phillips, whose seat faced the rear of the plane, were behind him.
As the eight-seat jet descended, Phillips said it became the most frightening flight of his life. Pace said the plane was “thrashed.”
“At one point, I looked back, and Ted’s glasses flew off his head,” Pace said.
Said McCaskey: “What’s that Audie Murphy movie? ‘To Hell and Back’? ”
It was scary as hell.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘OK, if this thing goes down, it’s probably better that it’s on the descent because there is less fuel,’ ” Pace said.
“Ted was thinking, ‘Well, I can see the tree line, so this might be survivable.’
“George was thinking, ‘Oh, man, I should have laid out the full succession plan before we got on the flight.’ ”
They made it and were soon off to Foxborough, where Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was interviewed past midnight.
“As the plane is coming to a halt, Ted yells at me, ‘Ryan, this better be worth it!’ ” Pace said, laughing. “It was just insane.”
It was a whirlwind time during a whirlwind coaching search. This week, the Bears’ brass touched down in Orlando, Florida, for the NFL’s annual meeting feeling emboldened and confident because of it.
In candid interviews with the Sun-Times, those feelings were apparent. It’s how McCaskey and Phillips feel after experiencing Pace’s coaching search and being present when a connection was made with Matt Nagy.
• • •
From the outset, McCaskey and Phillips knew how much Pace liked Nagy. Pace told them as much, though it would be unfair to describe any candidate as a favorite.
“I was really intrigued by Matt beforehand and liked him a lot,” Pace said. “But I was absolutely committed to the process and being honest about the process.”
McCaskey had one request for Pace: Be prepared. They were willing to wait for their hire, but McCaskey wanted Pace to be ready to begin contract negotiations during an interview if necessary.
“But that’s like telling the Pope to make sure he says his prayers before he goes to bed,” McCaskey said. “[Pace is] the epitome of thoroughness.”
Pace’s plan called for six candidates in five days.
Wednesday: Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in the Wrigley Room at Halas Hall.
Thursday: Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards at the Westin Edina Galleria in Minnesota.
Friday: Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur at the Westin; McDaniels at the Renaissance Patriot Place Hotel in Foxborough.
Saturday: Eagles offensive coordinator John DeFilippo at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. (It included lunch at Geno’s Steaks, where Phillips bought cheesesteaks for the pilots.)
Sunday: Chiefs offensive coordinator Nagy at the Raphael Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Ryan set the whole agenda,” McCaskey said. “He picked the candidates. He picked the order in which we interviewed them. He set the travel itinerary. It was jam-packed. We had some short nights.”
• • •
Throughout the interview process, Phillips kept telling Pace and McCaskey that he wanted to hear one answer.
“God, it’d be nice if when we’re talking to these guys, if one of them or all of them say — and they say it with conviction — I really want to be the coach of the Bears, and here’s why,” Phillips said.
Two candidates did. Nagy said it as his interview drew to a close.
“He said, ‘I really, really want to be the head coach of the Chicago Bears,’ ” McCaskey recalled.
“I won’t tell you who it was,” Phillips said, smiling.
Pace led the interviews, but he asked Phillips and McCaskey to contribute. Their questions gave him time to collect his thoughts. Afterward, Pace asked them to grade each candidate, A through F.
“They gave me the responsibility,” Pace said, “but I like to be able to bounce things off them.”
Nagy impressed immediately. It started with his request to move up the interview, despite Pace’s offer to delay it after the Chiefs’ playoff loss to the Titans a day year earlier. It included Nagy’s willingness to discuss his role in the loss.
“He just always came across as real,” Phillips said.
It also included an explanation of how he would handle players after a loss.
“We’re not going to just say, ‘Hey, you guys, we fought really hard. It was a tough game. We’ll go get them next week,’ ” Phillips recalled Nagy saying. “ ‘We’re going to have a real discussion about what happened.’
“He’s the only guy that did that. It was really refreshing to hear that from a head-coach candidate.”
McCaskey envisioned more.
“I told [Nagy] later — and I didn’t say anything at the time because it was Ryan’s call — but I really, really wanted to say to him I really, really want you to be the head coach of the Chicago Bears,” he said.
• • •
Phillips’ texts to Pace went unanswered. It made him anxious. While McCaskey and Phillips finished their seafood dinner, Pace’s meal with Nagy and their wives continued at Stock Hill steakhouse Kansas City.
“I thought, ‘That’s a long dinner,’ ” Phillips said.
In a spur-of-the-moment move, Pace asked his wife, Stephanie, to fly to Kansas City. Pace and Nagy discussed having dinner earlier, but Pace asked Nagy to connect with him after Nagy interviewed with the Colts.
When Nagy did, Pace invited his wife, Stacey, to dinner. It was the only dinner the Bears shared with a candidate.
“I think [Stephanie] was literally mucking horse stalls at the time,” McCaskey said.
Stephanie, who has competed in dressage since childhood, was tending to her horse, Toto. But she was up for the quick turnaround, including finding a sitter for their daughter, Cardyn.
“I thought it was important,” Pace said.
Phillips and McCaskey did, too. They’ve come to appreciate Pace’s personal touch on things.
But they still waited. Their anxiousness turned into jokes about crashing Pace’s dinner.
“I said, ‘What happens if we go in and Ryan’s sitting in the lobby with just this look on his face — shots of tequila for everyone at the bar then!’ ” Phillips said.
“But it turned out we got back, he got back a little while later, and Ryan came up to my room. It was 10:30 at night.
“He goes, ‘Hey, he’s our guy. There is no doubt.’ ”
• • •
In 1989, Phillips negotiated the rookie contract of defensive end Trace Armstrong, the Bears’ first-round pick from Florida.
Nearly 30 years later, Phillips was on the phone with Armstrong, the powerful coaching agent who represents Nagy.
As Sunday became Monday, Phillips negotiated Nagy’s deal as he and Pace sat in his hotel room. Phillips opened talks by mentioning Armstrong’s rookie deal.
“It really made for a little bit of a looser, just a more relaxed talk about Matt’s contract situation,” Phillips said.
But, as Phillips put it, his “juices were flowing.” The Bears’ long-time negotiator was back at it.
“It was hilarious,” Pace said. “It was cool to see him go back into that mode. I don’t get to see Ted in the light very often. I could tell that he was fired up about it in a good way.”
• • •
McCaskey turned in around midnight. He hadn’t heard from Pace or Phillips. He was anxious but needed his rest.
When he woke up, there was a text waiting from Phillips.
“Monday, Jan. 8, 2:19 a.m.: Just agreed to a five-year deal for Matt Nagy,” said McCaskey, reading the message on his phone. “Getting contract draft to him in [the] morning. Go Bears.”
The jet that the Bears used for their search — the one that withstood the Bomb Cyclone — no longer had room for McCaskey or Phillips.
Nagy took it to Chicago with his family and the Paces. McCaskey, meanwhile, had to buy an extra shirt. He and Phillips stayed one more night in Kansas City.
“Ted and I got bumped to commercial,” McCaskey said.
They didn’t mind at all.
“I was very happy with the result,” McCaskey said. “I was very happy with the process. The thing I was thinking is that Bears fans are going to love this guy.”
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.