'He was born to coach:' Bears counting on Matt Eberflus' passion, consistency

Matt Eberflus impressed people early on that he had the makings of a head coach. AP Photo/Gary McCullough

When Monte Kiffin was interviewing to become the Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator in 2013, team owner/general manager Jerry Jones and his staff insisted he have a conversation with the Cowboys’ up-and-coming linebackers coach who was pondering his own future.

Kiffin followed through, putting Matt Eberflus in front of the dry erase board in his office and picking his brain, going in depth into defensive schemes and approaches, coaching philosophies and practice plans.

After about an hour, Kiffin said, he was blown away.

“We talked a little bit afterwards, and after I got done I said to myself, ‘This guy can coach. He was born to coach,”’ Kiffin recalled. “Not everybody can say that, but I could tell this guy’s got it.”

Kiffin, who eventually was hired as defensive coordinator to replace the fired Rob Ryan, made the easy decision to keep Eberflus on his staff.

Nine years later, Eberflus, who spent the last four years as the Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator, made a similar impression upon the Chicago Bears and general manager Ryan Poles, who hired the 51-year-old to be the franchise’s head coach last week.

Judging by the immediate reaction by some Bears fans, the Eberflus hiring is a head-scratcher. They see a young, talented quarterback in Justin Fields who, they believe, could instead benefit from the development and mentorship of an “offensive-minded” head coach, a la Patrick Mahomes with Andy Reid or Joe Burrow with Zac Taylor.

Only time will tell if leadership in Chicago made the right call with Eberflus. But for several key NFL figures who knew it was only a matter of when, not if, he would get this sort of opportunity, there’s a sense of confidence Eberflus’ leadership style and consistency is exactly the winning formula the Bears need.

Alabama's Nick Saban earned his first opportunity to be a head coach in 1990, when he inherited a University of Toledo team led by a tough-nosed junior linebacker out of nearby Whitmer High School. That season -- Saban’s only year guiding the Rockets before jumping to the NFL to become the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator -- Eberflus led the team in tackles en route to All-Mid-American Conference honors.

Toledo turned to Gary Pinkel -- Saban’s college teammate at Kent State -- as its head coach in 1991, and Pinkel was immediately struck by Eberflus’ presence.

“He was impressive,” Pinkel said. “You could tell he was kind of a ‘G.I. Joe’ guy. He loved football, he loved the preparation, and you just keep your eye on a guy like that.”

Eberflus blossomed as a senior, as the former walk-on was named All-MAC for a second straight season. The following year he joined Pinkel’s coaching staff -- first as a student assistant, and then as outside linebackers and defensive backs coach.

When Pinkel was hired as Missouri’s head coach in 2001, he brought Eberflus with him as his defensive coordinator. The Tigers for years had been digging themselves out of the depths of the Big Eight and Big 12 conferences, but the new regime was intent on making its mark. By the 2007 season, Missouri had posted a 12-2 record and was one win away from an appearance in the BCS championship game.

By that point, Pinkel knew a head coaching job was in Eberflus’ future.

“He knew our system,” Pinkel said. “He knew when we went there exactly what we were going to do, not just defensively, but offensively what we were going to do in terms of how operationally we were going to run our program.”

Following the 2008 season, Eberflus told Pinkel he was having discussions about the possibility of making the jump to the NFL. Pinkel advised his friend and former player to think about it. The next day, Eberflus made his decision; soon he would take a job with the Cleveland Browns as their linebackers coach.

Eberflus spent two seasons with the Browns before following Ryan to the Cowboys.

In 2014, with Kiffin being named assistant head coach, Rod Marinelli -- the former Detroit Lions head coach -- was named the Cowboys defensive coordinator. Kiffin and Marinelli brought with them the same 4-3 base defense that had worked so well for them in Tampa Bay under Tony Dungy.

Marinelli quickly determined that Eberflus possessed the same level of discipline, commitment and talent as those with similar backgrounds from the Dungy coaching tree, including future head coaches Lovie Smith, Herm Edwards and Mike Tomlin, as well as current Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry.

“You could see that early on. And probably this is one of the fastest guys I saw grasp that,” Marinelli said. “I came in with Lovie Smith and Herm, and you could see it early. And Mike Tomlin, he came in, and it was like, ‘Wow.’ And Joe Berry. Well, those guys were all on that staff (in Tampa), and you could just see them take off. And it’s because they really teach the game.”

Chris Ballard had his eye on Eberflus for quite a while by early 2018, when the Colts general manager was looking to build a coaching staff following the firing of head coach Chuck Pagano.

Ballard was a scout and director of pro scouting for the Bears from 2001 through 2012. While there, he developed a close relationship with Marinelli, who was on Chicago’s defensive staff from 2009 through 2012. Eventually, Marinelli connected Ballard with Eberflus, who by then had been promoted to passing game coordinator on the Cowboys’ staff.

In 2018, Ballard said he had asked the Colts' coaching candidates to consider hiring Eberflus as their defensive coordinator, though he didn’t make it a mandate to get the job. He was pleased to learn then-New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who initially agreed to terms to become the Colts coach, was going to follow through on that plan to bring Eberflus aboard.

The Colts hired Eberflus and scheduled an introductory news conference for McDaniels. The night before that news conference, however, McDaniels called Ballard to let him know he wasn’t taking the job, after all.

Jolted, Ballard and the Colts moved on with their search. Eventually they landed on Frank Reich, who was fresh off a Super Bowl title as the Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator. Reich, well aware of Eberflus’ prowess from their battles in the NFC East, was more than agreeable to keep Eberflus aboard as his defensive coordinator.

Since that time, Eberflus’ star has continued to rise, as he’s guided an opportunistic Colts defense that has taken his no-nonsense “alignment, assignment, key” approach to heart. Since 2018, the Colts have ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in takeaways, interceptions, rushing defense, points allowed and total yards.

Now, like Smith before him, Eberflus hopes to be a “defensive-oriented” head coach that can guide Chicago back to Super Bowl contention. As he works on gaining the trust of the Bears’ passionate fanbase, however, Eberflus knows he has plenty of support from his coaching brethren as the next man up in a long line of successful leaders.

“Oh yeah, I’ve seen it with Mike Tomlin and Herm Edwards and Coach Marinelli,” Dungy said. “You see guys who had that leadership skill, who you can see head coach written all over them. No doubt, Matt does, too.”