When Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio became the Broncos’ head coach in January 2019, he took two Bears assistants with him: defensive backs coach Ed Donatell, a three-time coordinator in an NFL career spanning almost 30 years, and little-known outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, who would two years later become the Chargers’ head coach. To bring Sean Desai, who was under contract, Fangio had to ask the Bears for permission.
The team said no, even though Desai was merely a quality-control coach. “Vic didn’t take my calls for, like, three months after that,” head coach Matt Nagy said. “But it’s OK. I knew he’d get over it.”
Nagy thought Desai was smart and well-prepared. He gave him a small promotion — when Chuck Pagano replaced Fangio, Desai became the safeties coach — but couldn’t assure him of anything greater. “I was not letting Sean go,” Nagy said. “I knew that his goal was to be a coordinator. At that time, I couldn’t promise anything, but I could at least tell him and give him my word that, ‘If an opportunity does arise, you’re gonna have a chance at it.’
“It happened now. And here we are. And I’m more excited than anybody to see him out there this season, doing his thing.” Nagy hired Desai after interviewing nine coordinator candidates following Pagano’s retirement in January. It was a popular decision inside Halas Hall — defensive players root for Desai — but less understood outside the building. Either way, it’s a high-stakes bet on someone who has never called plays before. If the Bears fail this season, general manager Ryan Pace and Nagy could both be fired. But both of them believe in Desai.
“I’m so excited for him and proud of him,” Pace said. “And the path that he’s taken.”
The professor of the “Leading Organizational Change” course at the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management unveiled a slide of the first day of class that revealed his background. It read “Today’s Gameplan.”
What followed, though, had nothing to do with football. “I thought we were really going to hear something about the Bears,” said Diana Booth, who took the class in spring 2018. “It was something entirely different.”
In addition to being the youngest Bears defensive coordinator in the Super Bowl era and the first Indian-American coordinator in NFL history, Desai is a teacher. He got his doctorate in educational administration with an emphasis in higher education while coaching at Temple. He taught in the master’s and doctoral programs there.At Halas Hall, he’s known as “Doc.”
As an assistant with the Bears — he has worked under three head coaches, dating to 2013 — Desai has taught offseason business courses at Lake Forest, which shares a corporate park with the Bears. He didn’t teach this year but remains on the faculty. “You can tell that background is there sometimes, but it’s not a hindrance or anything like that,” outside linebackers coach Bill Shuey said. “I think he can relate to everybody.
‘‘But there’s times — once in a while there’s a word that comes out, and I have to ask somebody, ‘What’d that mean?’ ”He was kidding — kind of.
“He’s an efficient guy,” Shuey said. “He’s efficient in his teaching, and you can say that, even though he might be new at the coordinator role, he’s not new at the teaching role.”At Lake Forest, Booth said Desai arrived early and waited at the podium while students streamed in. Class started on time. He was impeccably organized.
“It’s just a personal leadership philosophy,” Desai said. “I think you’ve got to be organized. I think that reflects through your whole organization.“In my current role, I’m responsible for the defense and the staff and the players, and I’ve got to make sure I provide the roadmap for that. And they’ve got to feel that. And I think from a staff perspective and a player’s perspective, they know real quickly when you’re not organized. And so that’s a big pet peeve of mine.”
He was a perfectionist, Booth said.“He had very direct feedback — often with the terms ‘how’ and ‘why’ next to the points — to develop my critical-thinking skills,” she said. “To this day, those words are etched into my memory.”
Desai talks often about “why.” It’s not enough to force players to do something; you have to explain why it works in the context of the defense.“I want to have great teachers,” Nagy said. “And I think he’s an elite teacher. He knows how to connect.
“I get to see him in the classroom, when he’s in there explaining to every position the ‘why.’ How he teaches that and gets that point across, to what he does in walkthrough to having it come to fruition on the field . . . I think the guys see that and love that.” The more difficult question to answer is the “how.”
How will Desai, who has never called plays before, spark a defense that must dominate in order for the Bears to improve on back-to-back .500 seasons?How will he manufacture takeaways for a unit that led the NFL in 2018 but finished 22nd and 25th in the league, respectively, in the last two years?
How will he unlock pass rushers —Robert Quinn had two sacks after signing a $70 million contract last year— whose reputations outweighed their performance last year?How will he reinvigorate a defense with five starters in their 30s — including Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack and a slowed-down Danny Trevathan — and prop open their window of success for at least one more year?
How will he do what Pagano couldn’t?
Mack used to call Fangio an “evil genius.” Trevathan has a different way to describe Desai.“He’s a wizard,” he said.
Fangio is the best in the world at disguising pass coverages while keeping the scheme simple. From the classroom to practices, the players already see so much of Fangio in Desai. “He’ll say something, and it will sound just like Vic,” Pace said. “I think that’s a really good thing.”
Desai doesn’t want to be known as simply a branch on the Fangio tree, though, listing influences from former Temple head coach Al Golden to Pagano. “Vic is a mentor,” he said. “We’re close. We talk. We text. We do all that stuff, as I would with a lot of other mentors I’ve had in the profession. . . .
“The philosophies we’re trying to build here as a defense, there’s roots of everybody I’ve worked with. Everybody’s voice is a little bit in there, and I think that’s the benefit of it. That’s why I’m my own person. And we’re going to try to do this thing the way these players want to do it and the way these coaches want to do it, and we’ll be unified in what that brand is going to be out there.” That brand?
“He’s going to force teams to beat us the long, hard way,” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. Desai will be more creative than Pagano in masking pressure and coverage.
Expect Mack to line up in different spots on obvious passing downs to mitigate double-teams and — in true Fangio form — for coverages to stay blurry until the last minute.
“Just moving us around, making it hard for quarterbacks to read us,” safety Eddie Jackson said. “If I line up on the left side one game, I might line up on the right. . . . Just keeping them on their toes so they won’t just go in breaking down film.”
Desai introduced the “Takeaway Bucket” during training camp. It’s a laundry bin that defensive players dunk footballs into after interceptions or fumble recoveries. “He’s allowing guys to be themselves, have a little more swagger,” Quinn said.
Desai himself has brought “a little flavor,” Trevathan said, even if it’s scholastic. “Sean studies football to a whole other level, to which it makes me step up my studying time and study game and makes me look at film a lot more than I used to,” Trevathan said. “I know he’s going to be studying.”
That trust is exactly what Nagy was looking for when he promoted Desai. “That starts in the classroom, when you can teach and connect,” he said. “The more of those that you have, I really believe the better you’re gonna be.”
Desai, though, needs to navigate the bridge from teacher to play-caller — and fast. He’ll need to learn play-calling on the fly, even as the Bears’ aging defense knows it must dominate starting in Week 1 to have a chance at a playoff berth. The learning curve for “Doc” will be steep.
But every coordinator, Nagy said, has to start somewhere.“ The greatest coaches in the history of the world in every sport have had their first time, and there was always an unknown,” Nagy said. “So for Sean, that’s going to be an unknown for him until we get through this year.
“But that’s the fun part. That’s the challenge, the more you believe in somebody — and I believe in Sean.”