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Bears CEO Ted Phillips learns from 'lost hope' year

Bears president/CEO Ted Phillips called last season the worst in his 32 years with the team. (Sun-Times media)

He can’t pinpoint when he knew for sure, but the feeling was strong.

Ted Phillips considers himself an optimist. He said he didn’t come to a conclusion about the fate of coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery until he gave them every chance.

After the Bears went from 2-1 to 3-3 to losing games by ever-increasing margins — 13 against the Dolphins, 28 against the Patriots, 41 against the Packers — it began to become clear.

“It was a painful year,” the Bears president/CEO said in an interview with the Sun-Times last week at Halas Hall. “If I remember right, we won two of our first three games. And then it was kind of the way we started losing after that.

“As things kind of unraveled, the way I looked at it was, you got to a point where you lost confidence in the decision-making. And when that happens, it’s over.”

Phillips, who first joined the Bears as controller in 1983 and was named to his current position in 1999, couldn’t remember a similar time in his tenure.

“That was the most difficult year of the 32 I’ve had,” he said. “And there have been, for different reasons, difficulties in different years. But last year, I think people lost hope.”

The Bears fired Trestman and Emery on Dec. 29 after a season filled with drama — Brandon Marshall, Aaron Kromer, Lance Briggs’ restaurant and more — and 11 losses.

Chairman George McCaskey shared a dais with Phillips, saying “our family has complete faith in Ted” and vowing to team with him and consultant Ernie Accorsi to find the Bears’ next GM.

Ask Phillips what he learned, and he points to the two leaders the Bears brought in — GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox.

“The biggest thing I learned as we went forward and started interviewing GMs and head coaches in the offseason was, try to understand how someone’s going to overcome adversity,” he said. “Because, guess what? If you start drafting the right players and you start winning games, it’s pretty easy to feel good about who’s in place.

“In the course of a season, there’s going to be ups and downs. There’s going to be ebbs and flows. That’s really what, in my mind, the focus was on. The head coach and the GM that we hire, can you feel as best as you can without having results that they can overcome adversity?”

He thought he knew how Emery and Trestman would react to adversity.

“It obviously didn’t happen the way I would have hoped,” he said.

Phillips said it made sense for the Bears to hire someone with NFL head-coaching experience for the first time in the modern era. Fox’s success “stemmed that negative tide a little bit,” he said.

There was no specific reason that the Bears never had hired an experienced coach before.

“But when you go through what we went through, it makes you reassess,” he said. “I do think to myself, ‘Always keep learning.’ ”

With a smile, Phillips shared how Fox pitched him for a new sound system. The Bears had bought Trestman one to pump in crowd noise, but Fox wanted one that blared music better. Player focus improves that way, Fox said.

“When you have a head coach that’s been successful in the league and he has certain ways of doing things that have led to success, it makes you stop and think about, in all kinds of different areas, ‘Well, we haven’t done it this way. Does it make sense?’ ” he said. “It’s interesting.”

With McCaskey and Accorsi — the former GM who “gave two businessmen, George and myself, more credibility,” he said — Phillips sensed that Pace would handle adversity well. He helped the Saints maneuver through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago.

Pace interviewed for the job the same day as Chris Ballard, a Bears scout from 2001 to ’11 and the team’s director of pro personnel in 2012. The Bears liked Pace, but they knew Ballard.

“Anytime you interview someone you have a history with, too, it’s difficult to tell them no,” Phillips said.

Phillips said Ballard didn’t want the Bears to restructure their front office. Phillips characterized the power structure as the same as last season. Pace, who controls the roster, brought in at least 30 football-operations staffers during the offseason.

Phillips admitted it’s early, but he never has had to worry about “who’s in charge of who, who’s talking to who.” He said that Pace and Fox “carry themselves with confidence — but not the arrogant part.”

“It creates a quicker buy-in from the team,” he said. “Because they’re both very approachable. I think that also lends itself to being able to delegate more easily and more comfortably and make everyone feel like your input matters. That’s not easy to do.”

In an eventful offseason — from Ray McDonald to contract squabbles to Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman departing — Phillips has noticed Pace and Fox’s steady hand.

“What I’ve been impressed with, with all those swirling issues right now, is that it’s quieted down,” he said.

Phillips always has admired teams, regardless of sport, that have stayed successful even with roster turnover.

“Don’t get me wrong. Our goal is to win the Super Bowl every single year, get into the playoffs, give yourself a chance,” Phillips said. “It’s always going to be that way. It’s just not words. It’s how we live as a whole organization. The whole focus is on that.

“But, wow, the one thing I’ve learned in 32 years is, it’s hard to win. I won a Super Bowl ring the second year I was with the Bears. I thought at the time, ‘I won’t have enough fingers.’”

Phillips said that when things went poorly last year, fans had reason to complain.

“They’re loyal,” he said. “They’re passionate. They have hope.”

From what he learned this offseason, so does Phillips.

“I’m optimistic,” he said.

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com