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‘He’s a trip’: Inside look at why Bears have special coach in Vic Fangio

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. (AP)

When the Phillies were in town last month, Cubs manager Joe Maddon wasn’t surprised when texts from Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio filled his phone. Fangio loves the Phillies.

‘‘I hardly ever go to sleep without knowing if they won or lost,’’ Fangio said.

It has been that way since his childhood.

‘‘I can remember listening, hiding my transistor radio in the bed, if they were playing on the West Coast,’’ Fangio said.

Fangio and Maddon have become friends through baseball, football and their northeastern Pennsylvania roots. Fangio texts Maddon his baseball scouting reports.

‘‘He can’t help it,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘He’s breaking down the opposition, which is what he does all the time.’’

As Maddon has learned, there is more to Fangio than his straight-shooting demeanor and proven NFL track record.

‘‘He’s a trip,’’ Maddon said.

Fangio’s dry sense of humor and wit are mere glimpses into his personality. That was clear during an interview with the Sun-Times and after conversations with the two men he considers his most important influences.

• • •

‘‘I always knew I wanted to do something in sports. I was just infatuated with it 24/7 when I was growing up. It didn’t take me long to realize that it wouldn’t be as a player. I had a head football coach who was a very good coach. And I caught his fever that he had.’’ — Fangio

• • •

Jack Henzes knows he can count on ‘‘Victor.’’ Henzes, the legendary 82-year-old coach from Dunmore (Pennsylvania) High, will reach out to ‘‘Victor’’ for advice and schematic tips.

And ‘‘Victor,’’ regardless of his hectic schedule in the NFL, always finds time to reply. They’ve corresponded since the 1980s, when ‘‘Victor’’ worked in the U.S. Football League.

‘‘The things that he’s done defensively, we used quite a bit,’’ Henzes said.

Fangio, 59, always is happy to help his high school coach. To Henzes, the reason why is straightforward: Fangio never forgot where he came from.

Fangio’s late father, Vic Sr., was a tailor who was ‘‘very, very influential’’ in the local Little League. His mother, Alice, who worked at Dunmore High, still lives in town.

‘‘She’s 90-something years of age, and she still shovels her sidewalk and cuts her own grass,’’ Henzes said, laughing.

When Fangio visits his mother, he also visits Henzes. Last year, he ran some of Henzes’ players through drills. Henzes said Fangio was an outstanding receiver, but safety was his specialty.

‘‘He could really diagnose plays really well, which is what his forte is right now,’’ Henzes said.

Fangio’s coaching life has taken him from coast to coast. His high school friend Joe Marciano is the Lions’ special-teams coordinator. His longtime girlfriend, Kathy, still lives in San Francisco. His son, Christian, lives in Baltimore, and his daughter, Cassie, attends Towson (Maryland) University.

But Dunmore is home to Fangio. Growing up in nearby Hazleton, Maddon shares his conviction. When Maddon played minor-league baseball in the 1970s, Dunmore High was his home field.

‘‘When you’re from that neck of the woods, there is, like, this innate toughness about the people,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘A lot of self-confidence, a lot of assuredness. You feel you’ve put in your time.

‘‘It comes from our roots, our families, our dads, our moms, our relatives. . . . There is this unique feeling among us that we were raised right.’’

• • •

‘‘I got drawn to the schematic part of the game, the teaching part of the game, the technique part of the game, the game-day operations. I just really liked it and fell in love with it.’’ — Fangio

• • •

Jim Mora refused to do what Bill Polian wanted him to do after the Colts’ problematic 2001 season. It led to a fight that went to owner Jim Irsay.

‘‘Irsay did not want to fire me,’’ Mora said in a phone interview. ‘‘I said: ‘I’m not going to fire Vic Fangio. You can do whatever you want. I refuse to fire him. In good conscience, I cannot do it.’ ’’

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It was a decision that ended in Mora’s own dismissal as the Colts’ coach. Mora suspects the history between Fangio and Polian with the Panthers was a factor.

But it’s a decision Mora doesn’t regret. He knew what he had in Fangio. He first hired Fangio in the USFL before bringing him to the Saints (1986-94) and the Colts (1999-2001).

‘‘[Mora] gave me my first big chance,’’ Fangio said. ‘‘He took me to New Orleans with him, and the rest was history.’’

The Colts went 13-3 in 1999 after going 3-13 the season before. Quarterback Peyton Manning was pivotal, but so was Fangio’s arrival after his four seasons as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator.

‘‘He gets more out of his talent than just about any coach I’ve ever been around,’’ Mora said. ‘‘And he does it because of a lot of reasons.’’

Two years later, though, the Colts went 6-10 because of injuries and new starters on defense. Polian, then the Colts’ president, wanted Fangio out.

‘‘But I wasn’t going to fire Vic,’’ Mora said.

Mora’s decision since has been validated. Fangio played a role in three playoff seasons for the Ravens (2006-08) as a special assistant to coach Brian Billick. In 2010, he led a defensive turnaround at Stanford — where players called him ‘‘Lord Fangio’’ — under Jim Harbaugh. Fangio then followed Harbaugh to the 49ers, where he oversaw some of the best defenses in recent history.

Mora isn’t surprised the Bears were No. 10 in total defense last season despite not having a Pro Bowl player.

‘‘I’m surprised that he’s not a head coach,’’ Mora said.

General manager Ryan Pace interviewed Fangio after parting ways with coach John Fox, but it was imperative to pair quarterback Mitch Trubisky with an offensive mind. Once Matt Nagy was hired, retaining Fangio became the top priority.

‘‘He would be a great head coach because he’s just got a great demeanor about him,’’ Mora said. ‘‘First of all, the players would all respect him. They’d always think that their head coach is the best, that their head coach is a step ahead of the opponents.’’

• • •

‘‘There were a lot of possibilities. But at the end of the day, I thought this [the Bears] was the best place. It might not be the best place immediately. But in the long run, it will be the best place. And time will tell.’’ — Fangio

• • •

Cornerback Prince Amukamara expected to hear more swear words after signing with the Bears before last season. Fangio had that tough-guy look and reputation.

‘‘But he’s definitely not that guy,’’ Amukamara said.

Instead, what Amukamara heard from Fangio were lessons in Bears history and what he called ‘‘life nuggets.’’

‘‘He always just shares with us financial articles about guys losing their money in trying to find the newest Facebook and how they reap the consequences of searching for that,’’ Amukamara said. ‘‘It’s just letting us know to save our money. One of the things he dislikes most or hurts him most is when athletes lose their money on dumb decisions.’’

It’s another example of how there is more to Fangio beyond his defensive expertise. He reads plenty, just not books. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Earth, Wind & Fire are his favorite musicians.

Fangio loves golf, but he didn’t start playing until he joined the Saints. He’s a 76ers fan, listing Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham and Julius Erving among his favorite players. And now?

‘‘ ‘Trust the process,’ ’’ Fangio said.

And, of course, he loves baseball. Maddon has the texts to prove it.

‘‘He still concluded [his messages] with ‘Go Cubs,’ even though it was about the Phillies,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘But, yeah, he’s just what he is. There is nothing hidden with Vic. This is who he is. He does wear his heart on his sleeve. I can see why his defenses would rally around him.’’