LAKE FOREST – We’ll dive into the question of who Mel Tucker is as he inherits a Bears defense that is laden with veteran playmakers.
But first, let’s go over who Tucker is not.
He is not Lovie Smith.
He is not Rod Marinelli.
He is not George Halas or Dick Butkus or Buddy Ryan or Mike Singletary or Richard Dent or anyone else who has worn the “C” on their shirt or their helmet through the years.
He is Mel Tucker. And he is perfectly OK with that.
“I’m different,” Tucker said Thursday at the Walter Payton Center, where he was introduced along with the rest of the Bears’ new assistant coaches. “I’m not going to try to be someone that I’m not. But as guys get to know our staff, I think they’ll like what they see.”
Before he was named as the Bears’ defensive coordinator last month, Tucker was unknown to most Bears fans. He worked the past four years as the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he worked one year before that in the same role with the Cleveland Browns.
Tucker carried an impressive résumé, as do most NFL coaches. He played defensive back for four years at Wisconsin. He developed as an assistant coach under leaders such as Nick Saban at LSU, Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Romeo Crennel with the Browns.
But Tucker’s latest job will be his biggest.
He has to win over a group of players who loved and respected their former defensive-minded coaches, Smith and Marinelli. The Bears’ defense feasted on takeaways and touchdowns under the old regime, and more than a few players were angry after Smith was fired one day after wrapping up a 10-win season.
Now, in comes the new guy.
Is Tucker up to the task? Will veteran players buy in to his coaching?
“It’s a trust-respect deal,” Tucker said. “It’s earned.”
If Tucker’s meetings with his players go anything like his meeting with Trestman, then he will earn their respect in no time. Unlike Trestman’s cadre of Canadian Football League carryovers, the new head coach never had known Tucker before he interviewed him.
Several hours later – after talking about life, leadership and football – Trestman had his guy.
“He’s got tremendous potential as a leader,” Trestman said. “And his ability as a teacher is as good as anybody I’ve been around.”
The new coaches are alike in a lot of ways.
Both men describe themselves as teachers. They are methodical. They are positive.
“I only raise my voice in enthusiasm, so you can look forward to that,” Tucker said with a smile. “It’s an up-tempo, very positive, very high-energy, attention-to-detail [style]. We’re based in technique and fundamentals.
“The most important time of the day is when you’re on the field, on the grass. That’s a very, very special time, and we don’t have time to waste, so we’ll get after it.”
But we’re talking about professional football players who earn millions of dollars here.
By the time they have made it this far, how much of a difference can teaching really make?
“Teaching is the difference,” Tucker said. “Guys, they will respond to you when they know that you can help them play better. And that comes through teaching in the classroom and on the field.
“Whether it’s a young player or a veteran player just trying to sharpen his saw, to speak, it’s all about teaching. Guys need to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. That’s when you get the best type of buy-in – when they understand the why.”
It’s a style Chris Harris appreciates. Harris spent eight seasons as an NFL safety, including parts of four seasons with the Bears, before he traded his helmet for a clipboard last month to become the Bears’ defensive quality control coach.
Harris’ final stop as a player was in Jacksonville, where he played for Tucker.
“I think it’s a good approach,” Harris said. “Everybody has their different coaching style, their different ways of teaching things. It’s different strokes for different folks.
“Some players adapt to it. Some can’t. You’ve just got to feel out your players. But I think Mel does a tremendous job in his approach to teaching the game.”
At times, Tucker’s positivity could be tested.
Bad practices will happen. Gut-wrenching losses will occur. Tough questions will emerge.
All the while, expectations will be sky high.
Because under Smith and Marinelli, the Bears’ defense already was good. Really good.
“I understand that,” Tucker said. “It’s a challenge, but we’re up to it.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.