Notes on a coach: Looking for leadership in the Bears’ Matt Nagy

As Chiefs players ducked their heads through the door of the plane and shuffled toward their seats, about to head off to another road game, their offensive coordinator would sit in his seat, open up his well-worn notebook and begin to write.

With his four sons — Brayden, Tate, Jaxon and Jett — moving past their toddler years, Matt Nagy thought it was important to write about them, to capture the fleeting moments of parenthood. The plane trips gave him reason to pause and reflect on the day.

Always an avid note-taker, Nagy started keeping a journal regularly two years ago, hoping it could someday serve a second purpose.

“The idea, the mindset,” he said, “of trying to be a head coach.”

Bears head coach Matt Nagy was hired Monday (Getty Images)

He wrote down the speeches Chiefs coach Andy Reid gave and the circumstances that led to them.

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“It could be during a losing streak — a way of reaching the team and connecting with them,” Nagy said. “Sometimes it’s tough love; it could be calling people out, connecting with them. [The detail is] good if you write it down. The other part is, it’s about life. I’ll jot it down so I have it.”

The Bears made Nagy their 16th head coach on Monday, to tap into his vast quarterback knowledge. He’ll call the Bears’ plays and mentor young quarterback Mitch Trubisky into, the Bears hope, the face of the franchise.

While general manager Ryan Pace has praised Nagy’s leadership ability, Nagy has never been a head coach. He knows offense, but the most important question is just three words: Can he lead?

Nagy has his notebook for reference as he begins to write the first chapter of his own book with the Bears.

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It would have been rude to scribble during dinner, so Nagy waited until he got in the car and wrote from memory. A mutual friend — their trainer — had put Nagy in touch with Keystone Custom Homes president Larry Wisdom in 2008, hoping Wisdom could help Nagy, then an Arena Football League quarterback, earn a steady paycheck. Nagy had a real-estate license but little business experience.

“The thing that stood out to me was, [Nagy] was a student about what we had done,” said Wisdom, who had moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from the Chicago area the year before. “And he was a student about what he wanted to do.”

Wisdom hired Nagy and began teaching him the business from scratch. Whether he was 1-on-1 or in a staff meeting with 100 people, Nagy kept taking notes.

“After a while, I sort of felt like a psychiatrist,” joked Wisdom, a Marmion Academy grad. “I was worried about what was written down.”

Wisdom allowed Nagy to leave for training camp internships with the Eagles in 2008 and 2009. By the time Nagy left to be a full-time coach in 2010, he had begun to excel in home sales by knowing what his customers wanted. Leadership, Wisdom said, starts with listening. Nagy did that on sales calls and in the office.

“That whole note-taking — he’s constantly preparing himself,” Wisdom said. “He will get to know every single one of those players, and he will understand what their strengths are, what their gaps are, any potential weaknesses.”

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Nagy always sat at Louis Riddick’s left elbow when Riddick, then the Eagles’ pro personnel director, delivered advance scouting reports on Monday nights. Riddick noticed that Nagy, the offensive quality control coach in 2011-12, would always have a pen or a highlighter in front of him, circling passages and scribbling in the margins.

“He was one of those guys that was always looking for more knowledge,” Riddick said.

Riddick, Nagy and Doug Pederson — now the Eagles’ head coach — spent hours in the team’s offices and weight room talking quarterbacks.

“His observations were sharp. His opinions were sharp,” said Riddick, now an ESPN analyst. “His football acumen is right up there with anybody’s.”

Columbus Destroyers coach Doug Kay noticed that in 2006, when he traded for Nagy, then the Georgia Force quarterback. But he also saw how Nagy interacted with his teammates.

“I’ve always said a true leader is someone who tells a person he’s wrong without making them feel guilty for being wrong,” Kay said.

Former Manheim (Pennsylvania) Central High School head coach Mike Williams clashed with Nagy when he was a junior but said his player’s blunt honesty resonated. He became one of his favorites.

“He’s the kind of guy people want to follow and look up to because of his personality,” Williams said.

The trick is making that translate as the boss.

“Everyone is going to have questions about what a first-time head coach is going to be like, as far as setting the standard, handing out discipline, coaching the other coaches and doing it consistently over the course of a season that’s going to have some ups and downs,” Riddick said. “You can have some questions about that. I’m sure everyone is going to wonder a little bit about it.”

Can he lead?

“Everybody grows into that role,” Riddick said. “They already have natural leadership skills, but he’ll refine those skills. He will not be intimidated. He won’t come off as someone players won’t listen to or will feel like they need to respect. He’ll command that respect.”

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Early entries in Nagy’s notebook as Bears coach might involve paint samples and carpet swatches. He noticed how the small details Reid changed after inheriting a toxic atmosphere in 2013 resonated with Chiefs players.

Reid had staffers paint off primo parking spots, awarded each week to the team’s players of the week.

“These are the little things that I think can help the culture, that isn’t talking from the coaches,” Nagy said. “That part you can do everywhere you go.”

That’s only a surface change, though. He knows that.

“The other part of it is, how are you relaying your message to the players and the coaches? How are we going to attack each day from the mentality of passion?” he said. “It can’t be like that on Monday and Tuesday and not like that on Wednesday and Thursday. You have to be like that the whole way through.”

Nagy’s notes came in handy during the Bears job interview; he brought evaluations of Trubisky from their six-hour meeting a year ago, and from the quarterback’s game film.

They will serve him well again.

“That’s why they selected me to come in here — to help get that culture back to where it’s just a prideful thing, where we go out there each and every day and practice [and] at the games,” Nagy said. 

“I have my notes. I have my journal. And now I’ve got to put it to use.”

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com