Elegy Written in a Coaching Graveyard

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
—Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751)

The day after the NFL regular season ends is often referred to as “Black Monday” because it’s the day on which many coaches are fired. Among those fired this year were Rex Ryan of the New York Jets, Mike Smith of the Atlanta Falcons, and Marc Trestman of the Chicago Bears. (Dennis Allen of the Oakland Raiders was fired during the season, and Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers decided it was in their “mutual best interest” to part company, making them both Black Monday asterisks.) On Black Monday 2014 “only” three coaches were fired, so compared to Black Monday 2012 when eight coaches were fired, this particular Black Monday was really only a dark gray.

Of these now-unemployed leaders of football men, Marc Trestman is little more than a face in the crowd. He compiled a record of 13-19 with Chicago and, by some accounts, had lost favor in the locker room for not firing offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer when he (Kromer) badmouthed inconsistent quarterback Jay Cutler to the press. Compared unfavorably to a “buttoned up nerdy science professor in a tweed jacket” and a “dork” and a “graduate student prepping for his Ph.D exam,” who didn’t emote or get angry enough. (To be fair, when Trestman was winning, those nerdy qualities were praised, and he was referred to as a “genius” and to “Willy Wonka.”) In parting with his players, the dork’s eloquence stood out: Trestman was gracious in accepting his ouster, thanking the organization and the fans of the Chicago Bears. Said tight end Martellus Bennett, a player Trestman suspended earlier in the season for a fight that broke out in a Bears practice (about which more later), “He has his notes written down, and he’s meticulous about what he says. He’s very good with the words he chooses to use.”

Perhaps that’s because Trestman is a dork. Prior to becoming head coach of the Chicago Bears, Trestman’s path to NFL head coach was a circuitous one. A lawyer by trade, Trestman began coaching football as a graduate assistant for the University of Miami where he attended law school. He was a positions coach in the NFL for nine different teams, and established himself as something of a mastermind as the offensive coordinator for the 49ers and Raiders. After a short stint as head coach at North Carolina State, Trestman leaped to the Canadian Football League where he coached the Montreal Allouettes to two Grey Cup titles. Then the Bears came calling.

His tenure with the Bears got off to a rather mediocre start with an 8-8 season, but his team was still only one Aaron Rodgers’ pass away from winning the 2013 NFC North title. His customary offensive ingenuity made the Bears offense more productive and efficient than it had ever been. And when the Miami Dolphins hazing scandal broke and we got to listen to Richie Incognito’s special brand of psychological torture, Trestman became known as a coach who conducted his locker room in a different, more compassionate way.

His more enlightened ideas about how NFL players and human beings should treat one another received considerable attention. Upon taking the Bears’ head coaching job, Trestman had specifically banned any form of hazing in his locker room, summing up his philosophy like this:

The words you use, the way you act, the things you say, affect people from all different backgrounds and places. We’ve got to understand that the beauty of this game is it draws people from everywhere, from different realities and different perceptions, but that can all be neutralized through respect and using the proper language and proper words in the right place and the right time, in this building, on the field, and when we’re out in the community because we represent the entire city.

I’ve seen the incidents [of hazing]. I know what it does. We’re not going to spend time having players worry about things that can’t help us win and are going to be disrespectful… Our whole foundation’s built on respect for everyone in the organization, respect for the players, respect for the game, honoring the game.

As a Green Bay Packers fan, I naturally incline toward antipathy for anything Chicago Bears-related. But Trestman was different; he seemed like a genuinely thoughtful person. A mensch. Founding a football philosophy on mutual respect, one that takes into account how the language of abuse becomes a culture all its own, might sound laughable at first, but his message came across as considerate in ways that seemed antithetical to a football culture laden with violence. Trestman offered us a way to see the game as less barbaric and cruel. (Keeping in mind, too, that the Ray Rice fiasco lie just on the horizon of Awful NFL News.)

When the aforementioned Bennett was suspended for fighting with another Bears player during practice, Trestman quickly stepped in to suspend and fine him. The reasoning for the punishment seems strange—but also refreshing—in the context of an NFL locker room:

The overriding philosophy is getting to know each other to develop levels of trust between each other – coaches and players, players and coaches – and to define our behavior through respect and humility. We’re gonna respect everybody around us. We’re gonna treat them with high regard. We’re gonna understand what humility means, which is we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Trestman even wrote a book in which he espouses his philosophy. Still beaming from his first of two Grey Cup victories in the CFL, Trestman wrote Perseverance: Lessons on Leadership and Teamwork (2010). While the title sounds like something a seminar speaker might deliver in a Radisson hotel conference room, it’s difficult to dismiss simply because of Trestman’s overwhelming sincerity and desire to do good. Less interested in writing a testament to ambition, he sees the book as an opportunity to show others the value of “serv[ing] others.” He even has reservations that the book will be seen as an exercise in self-promotion rather than an attempt “to thank the many coaches, players, and others who have shaped my character and allowed me to follow a totally unexpected path.” Establishing ethos — as one who should be listened to and followed — is nothing new for a football coach, or any authority figure for that matter, but that Trestman would base his ethos on humility is a rather a novel concept in the NFL.

But, alas, the coaching of football proved to be problematic for Trestman this year. Two bad losses to the Packers. Offensive coordinators badmouthing franchise quarterbacks. Benched quarterbacks. Confused players.

All of which conspired to send Trestman to the coaching graveyard because the humility and respect he tried to instill in his players didn’t translate to wins on the field. He will be missed, though, because people of Trestman’s character are sorely lacking in the NFL, which is desperately trying to combat the negative publicity it received in the wake of the Ray Rice/Adrian Peterson/Greg Hardy/Ray MacDonald domestic violence scandals. The current “No More” campaign, for instance, features ads that feature current and former NFL stars saying “no more,”

and an uncomfortable close-up of Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter’s face, unable to talk about the abuse he suffered as a child:

The messages, well-intentioned though they may be, ultimately raise more questions. How will the NFL change its culture without really thinking about what values might replace the current barbarism that seeps from the field into daily life and vice versa?

In Gray’s poem, the speaker contemplates the capriciousness of fame and fortune; had circumstances been different, beneath the sod might lie not just another unfamiliar name but rather “Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,/ Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.” So, too, had circumstances been different, might Trestman have won more games; might this mute, inglorious Lombardi’s message of compassion have found greater purchase in the NFL; might he have been able to marry his message of humility and respect to football success; might he have changed the culture of masculinity in professional football. Perhaps his ability to do his job well was hampered by a value system that seems out of place in the NFL.

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