Mentor says Bears coach Matt Eberflus ‘can handle the heat and the pressure’

Not long after he accepted the Bears’ head-coaching job Thursday morning, Matt Eberflus called mentor Gary Pinkel, the former Missouri coach who earlier this month was named to the College Football Hall of Fame.

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The Bears hired former Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus on Thursday.

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Not long after he accepted the Bears’ head-coaching job Thursday morning, Matt Eberflus called his mentor Gary Pinkel, the former Missouri coach. On the most important day of his professional life, Eberflus told Pinkel how much he meant to him.

It reminded Pinkel of the conversations he used to have with the coach who changed his own life, the late Washington legend Don James. When Pinkel made the College Football Hall of Fame this month, he called James’ widow and was so emotional that she had to be the one to comfort him.

Pinkel played for James and then coached for him at two stops. Eberflus had a similar experience, playing his senior year for Pinkel — then a first-time head coach at Toledo — and then staying to coach under him. When Pinkel left for Missouri, Eberflus went, too, becoming one of the nation’s youngest defensive coordinators at 30.

“It was a very emotional conversation,” Pinkel said of speaking with James’ widow. “I tend to see the same thing when [Eberflus] sits there and tells me some of the things he told me. It’s kind of overwhelming on both sides. I’m putting a sticker up for Don James because that’s where it all started. I’m ready to pass the baton on. Down the road here, Matt Eberflus might very well, possibly, be doing the same thing 10 years from now. It’s pretty exciting.”

But first, Eberflus, 51, has to coach his first game in the NFL. He never has been a head coach at any level, much less the pinnacle of the sport. The Bears are betting he grows into the role alongside 36-year-old general manager Ryan Poles, who was hired two days earlier.

“I think he can handle the heat and the pressure,” Pinkel said. “Every head coach can say he handles pressure well. They’re lying — 60, 70% of them actually don’t cope with it. Eventually, it doesn’t allow them to do their job. [Eberflus] will stay poised.”

When Pinkel accepted the Toledo job in 1991, he stopped by the Washington football office to say goodbye to James on the way to the airport. As he was leaving, he turned around and asked James if he had any advice.

James took his glasses off and stared at him coldly.

“He said, ‘When things get down — and it’s gonna really, really get tough — you’ve got to focus every day on waking up and doing your job minute by minute,’ ” Pinkel said. “ ‘You can’t let anything in. Because if you let anything in, you’re never gonna make it.’

“It was the greatest advice I’ve ever had in my life. You’ve got to be able to handle that part of it. I think [Eberflus] will do well.”

Why?

“There’s no question who the boss is — it doesn’t deviate,” Pinkel said. “But at the end of the day, he’s a good person that cares about people. . . . You want players to get committed? They’re not going to get committed until they know you care about them. Not gonna happen. That’s the way he will be, because that’s the way he is with people. I don’t care who it is. He’s going to demand excellence.”

Pinkel envisions Eberflus combining college and pro tenets — he was a linebackers coach for the Browns and Cowboys before spending the last four years as the Colts’ defensive coordinator — to “create his environment of commitment and work ethic and being a great teammate.” Andy Reid, he said, has established that kind of culture with the Chiefs.

Eberflus will borrow from the coaches he has played and coached under: Pinkel, the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett, the Browns’ Eric Mangini, the Colts’ Frank Reich and even Alabama’s Nick Saban, who coached him his junior year at Toledo.

Pinkel said he noticed something special about Eberflus in his first year coaching at Toledo. Before his senior year, Eberflus, a former walk-on and Toledo native, told Pinkel he might want to be a college coach one day. He was the Rockets’ best player that season — voted captain and winning team MVP — and then jumped into coaching. He was a Toledo student assistant and a graduate assistant for a year apiece before joining the Rockets’ staff full-time in 1994.

“And as he matured more, it was really interesting to see him grow,” Pinkel said.

Eberflus was intense as a player and brings that as a coach, too.

“He has what you have to have,” Pinkel said. “I believed in him.”

Still, Pinkel knows defensive-minded coaches need help in the modern NFL.

“The offensive staff is going to be really important,” he said. “The coordinator, quarterbacks coach, offensive line coach — those guys are key, key people. I think he understands that. . . . A lot more offensive coordinators get hired [as head coaches] in this business — we all know why — than defensive coordinators. I think he’s excited by the plan that he has to get the right people to the right spots. I think that’s critically important.”

Pinkel thinks Eberflus is ready. We’ll find out soon enough.

“He’s just really excited for this,” Pinkel said. “He’s been waiting for so long to have this opportunity.”

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