Matt Eberflus sometimes likes to dust off a Lou Holtz quote that he has kept in mind during his 30-year career climb to become the Chicago Bears head coach.
“You improve yourself by the people you meet and the books you read,” Eberflus said, paraphrasing the Hall of Famer.
One version of Holtz’s quote also includes “the dreams you dream.” That part has been clear to Eberflus for a long time.
It first occurred to him in high school that he would like to be a coach when two assistants took a special interest in helping Eberflus, then a safety, learn the linebacker position. Since that realization, he has gathered information along the way from successful mentors: High expectations from Nick Saban. Establishing an identity from Gary Pinkel. Teaching players from Rod Marinelli.
Eberflus stowed away principles, skills and concepts so that when the Bears hired him in January to be the 17th head coach in franchise history, he knew how he wanted to run his team.
In the months leading up to the opening of training camp last week, Eberflus revealed himself as a serious, CEO-style leader whose emphasis on effort is clear. People who know him well start by mentioning his intensity but also say he is caring, honest, detailed and mentally quick, all traits they hope will help him succeed in a place where few coaches have over the last four decades.
“I’ve been around to see guys when they’re prepared for the job,” Marinelli told the Tribune. “He’s prepared in all areas. His intelligence, he can flip over to offense and really understand it. And he’s a head football coach — not the defensive coordinator. He’s not calling (plays). He’s coaching the morale of the team. He’s coaching the standards of the team, the effort of the team and what it’s going to look like, so they have one voice. That’s the thing that’s important.
“He is so well prepared for this job and he’s humble and loyal, and somehow that all comes back to you.”
Eberflus’ preparation for the task ahead started in Toledo, Ohio, with parents that first instilled the work ethic he promises to demand of players as the Bears get deeper into practices this month.
Stan Eberflus would come home covered in dirt — his pants filthy with soil, his hands cracked so badly from the Midwestern cold that his wife, Joanne, would rub cream on them for relief at night.
That’s the lasting image Matt Eberflus has of his father, an electrician first with Laibe Electric and then the city of Toledo.
“It’s just amazing that he could never get his hands clean because he worked so hard,” said Eberflus, the youngest of the couple’s four children.
That work ethic carried over to the kids, who were required to get summer jobs if they weren’t playing sports, Joanne said.
“Everybody worked every single day,” said Joanne, who stayed home to raise her children before going to work part time at a department store. “They didn’t loaf around and do nothing.”
They were a football family.
Stan was an all-city center at Woodward High who turned down a scholarship to Defiance to become an electrician. He would spend hours in the front yard teaching his kids how to snap. His instructions on playing to his two sons were: “Never disrespect the game. You play it the right way, and that’s full speed.” Eberflus later found out the rules from his father were rooted in a desire to prevent injuries.
Joanne was the ultimate fan, renown by those who attended games for her silver cowbell. She rang it anytime Eberflus made a tackle, sometimes using it so often she needed to put a handkerchief around the handle to avoid blisters.
“I would tell everybody in front of me, ‘Now, I’m going to ring this bell whenever there is a good play, so if you don’t like it, you better move over,’ ” Joanne said.
She recalled how Eberflus’ Whitmer High team was in the playoffs on the day of her oldest daughter’s wedding. When the wedding group moved from the church to the reception hall, Stan put on his headphones, and the family shocked guests by hollering about Eberflus’ game. The wedding party went to greet the team buses at the high school after their win.
Stan and Joanne continued to travel to games as Eberflus advanced his coaching career into college and the NFL. Even after Stan was diagnosed with ALS, Joanne took him in a wheelchair to their son’s Dallas Cowboys games. Joanne said Stan, who died in 2015, would have been “ecstatic” and “crazy” about his son’s coaching climb.
Their fervor for the game matched Eberflus’ intensity, which surfaced even as a young player. Joanne called him “just like a little bull, especially on defense.”
“I was over the top a little bit,” Eberflus said. “The intensity meter was high. But I’ve calmed down since then. I channel it for the good of others.”
By the time Eberflus was a junior or senior in high school, Joanne saw him running the defense, instructing other players where to be. When the family would go to restaurants, Eberflus drew up plays, X’s and O’s on paper napkins.
“I’d find them all over the house,” Joanne said. “He was always doing football plays. I think that was the start of it.”
Eberflus’ love for the game grew between his junior and senior seasons, when Whitmer assistants Rob Rose and Tim Rubino helped him transition from defensive back to linebacker on coach Pat Gucciardo’s team. They conducted hourlong film sessions after workouts, which sparked not only an All-Ohio senior season for Eberflus but also an interest in coaching.
“Sometimes as a coach you have to believe in your player before he believes in himself, and that’s what they did for me,” Eberflus said. “I didn’t really know I could do it. So they showed me belief and showed me trust and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you in there. You’re going to be the guy.’ And they challenged me along the way, no doubt. They really helped me with my path.”
Eberflus earned a scholarship offer to Kent State, and the family bought hats and T-shirts on their visit to the school. On the way home, Eberflus announced he didn’t want to go there. He would walk on at Toledo instead.
“I said, Ohhh-K,” Joanne said. “It was a little bit disturbing, and I thought, ‘Wow.’ But he always has known what has been best for him because he’s very strong in his faith in God. Our church has always been the center of our life. … God has always put him in the right place at the right time according to his plan, and Matt has always believed that.”
It didn’t take Eberflus long to go from walk-on to scholarship recipient at Toledo, and soon he would meet the mentor who launched his coaching career.
The career mentor
It’s no surprise Eberflus — who declared his Bears players should bring their track shoes for practices — still speaks with reverence about Saban’s “16 stations” offseason workout program.
Toledo had gone 6-5 in back-to-back seasons under Dan Simrell when the Rockets brought in Saban for his first head coaching stint in Eberflus’ junior season. Saban immediately raised the bar. The 16 stations consisting of agility, speed and mat drills were so intense Saban strategically placed trash cans in case players needed to vomit, according to ESPN.
Watching Saban change the culture of the program in his lone 9-2 season there in 1990 sparked a renewed interest in coaching for Eberflus — and an understanding of how to set expectations.
“If you love football, and you exhibit that and you’re willing to work hard, you’ll have no problem,” Eberflus said. “It’s going to be hard, but you’ll have no problem. You’ll dive in with both feet.”
Saban’s exit to the NFL the following season set the stage for Pinkel to arrive in Toledo for his first head coaching job.
Eberflus was a captain in his senior season and approached Pinkel about a potential student assistant coach position the following year. Pinkel had a gut feeling.
“When you coach quarterbacks, you talk about ‘it.’ They have that something that makes them special,” Pinkel said. “(Eberflus) has the stuff inside of him. He likes people, he cares about people, he’s trustworthy, he’s honest, he’s going to have a lot of friends. Even though some will be different from him, he’ll still be their friend. That’s the way he is. That, and he’s also a great competitor. This business, that’s what it’s all about.”
Eberflus grew his career under Pinkel over the next 17 years, rising from grad assistant to outside linebackers and defensive backs coach at Toledo before Pinkel named him his defensive coordinator when they moved to Missouri in 2001. The impact of such learning experiences is perhaps immeasurable, but Eberflus can point to two key takeaways: You get what you emphasize, and you must establish an identity.
“We believe in certain ways we’re going to do things,” Pinkel said. “We stand for a lot of things: being mature, getting your job done, being a great competitor, having players be responsible and accountable to their teammates. … You have to define what you’re going to be, and that turned out to be pretty easy for us to do. Hard to get done but easy to set the base.”
It’s a basic philosophy that Eberflus hammers into his coaches and players because that foundation gives them something to “grab onto” in tough times.
“You might lose a game, you might lose two games in a row, but what do you stand on?” Eberflus said. “What do you stand for? Who are you? And if you know that without any question, any hesitation, you’ll be fine.”
Eberflus was at Missouri for eight seasons before an opportunity came to join the Cleveland Browns in 2009. He had always loved the NFL — he rattles off the names of Jack Lambert, Dick Butkus, “Mean” Joe Greene, Lester Hayes and Jack Tatum as those he grew up admiring — but he kept his dream of coaching in the league mostly to himself.
When he approached Pinkel with the idea — a little afraid Pinkel might be upset, he later told the coach — his mentor reminded him that moving between college and the NFL could affect his trajectory to head coach. Did he really want it?
The sign first hung in the Cowboys linebackers room about eight years ago.
Eberflus, then with his second NFL team, was trying to figure out a way to communicate his defensive principles to his players.
“I said, ‘Well, I like acronyms, they’re easy to understand,’ ” Eberflus said. “The players can understand, coaches can understand it, the whole team can understand it. I made a sign.”
- Smart situational play
HITS was born.
Of course, the genesis of Eberflus’ principle actually came many years earlier.
Marinelli was a part of Tony Dungy’s first Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff in 1996 that included Monte Kiffin, Herm Edwards and Lovie Smith. The group developed a grading system for how players performed, which included “loafs,” a term for not fully hustling familiar around Chicago during the Smith era.
“We want to see, within a game, how you impacted the game,” Marinelli said. “What inspires a player? The grading should be there to inspire the players to go further.”
Eberflus was familiar with the principles from studying Dungy and Smith, but when he teamed up with Marinelli, who was the Cowboys defensive coordinator starting in 2014, Eberflus studied old Bucs tape of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber. He developed his “standards of performance” to measure players in practices and games, which includes wanting seven-plus players around the ball on intermediate passes or runs, and he furthered it when he became the Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator in 2018.
“How do you measure what a good hit looks like? What a good tackle looks like? What does a good block look like? How do you finish your run the right way?” Eberflus said. “The standards of performance of how we hit, run, block, hustle, give great effort, those are all measured, and there’s examples of the past. I could show (Brian) Urlacher and (Lance) Briggs and Brooks and (Sean) Lee and now it’s going to be Roquan Smith and Darius Leonard. I have tape, and I’ll show over and over and over again what it looks like.”
The idea takes buy-in from players. Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson laughed when asked on the opening day of training camp if he had been called out for not going hard enough.
“We all have,” Johnson said. “If someone says they haven’t, they’re lying to y’all for sure.”
That’s where the lessons from Marinelli come in.
He and Tom Amstutz, who was the defensive coordinator at Toledo when Eberflus was a position coach there, taught Eberflus how to work with players.
“Some of that is instinctual, and some of it is innate or you learn it from your parents,” Eberflus said. “But how to get the best out of a guy. … They were masters at that, master teachers, master coaches. Unbelievable at their position being able to get those guys to max out and play their very best. Because they’re great encouragers. First of all, they’re great coaches, from the technical side of it. … But to be able to pull out from somebody their very best is a special trait to have.”
Marinelli said telling players why is “everything” in teaching. When players understand why they do something, they have clarity, and with clarity comes speed.
He also said the buy-in starts with building morale, and that begins with developing habits. Marinelli pointed to Eberflus’ insistence on intensity in the opening individual periods of practices, setting the expectation that players would get something out of even those basic drills.
“I just really believe the No. 1 issue in the NFL is morale,” Marinelli said. “It’s a coach’s and player’s responsibility to have good morale. What is good morale? It’s living to standards. If some guy can get away with something that somebody else doesn’t, then morale goes. If a coach walks by a mistake, morale goes. You can’t walk by mistakes. It’s hard.”
Earlier this year, Eberflus’ task got a lot harder.
Eberflus doesn’t disregard “the books you read” part of Holtz’s quote.
Eberflus, who has two daughters of college and high school age with his wife, Kelly, reads the Bible in the morning, sending scripture passages every day to his mom and siblings, Joanne said. He chooses books that will help him grow in his leadership and emotional intelligence, citing “Lead Like Jesus” by Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges and “Laugh Again” and “Strengthening Your Grip” by Charles R. Swindoll as some he liked. He had three books lined up for his short break between mandatory minicamp and training camp.
“He is extremely well-read, real disciplined in his reading,” Marinelli said. “And sometimes if you read for the right reasons, you can help men with problems.”
And now the man Marinelli said has become “a real historian of football” has new subject matter to explore on the history of the Bears.
After seven seasons with the Cowboys, Eberflus became the Colts defensive coordinator and helped create a top-10 defense in several categories by 2020-21, including second with 33 takeaways in 2021.
In 2018, Colts coach Frank Reich inherited Eberflus, who originally was supposed to be part of Josh McDaniels’ staff in Indianapolis before McDaniels backed out of the job.
Reich said they immediately connected through their faith, process-oriented approach and belief in practicing hard. Eberflus called Reich “a rock-solid human being” and said he helped him grow in his Christianity.
Reich also left an impression on how to lead a coaching staff. He visited the defensive room once a week to speak from a quarterback’s point of view, tell a story or deliver the weekly message, but he didn’t micromanage Eberflus. Likewise, Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams said Eberflus is allowing him to put his stamp on the defense.
“He let me do my job as the defensive coordinator,” Eberflus said of Reich. “But he also would interject and help me when I needed some help from his point of view, from the quarterbacks’ point of view.”
Over the last six months, after Bears general manager Ryan Poles introduced Eberflus as his head coach — citing Eberflus’ standards, discipline, passion and plan to raise the bar — Eberflus has continued to connect with his mentors.
Joanne said she wanted to run out of her house and scream when she heard the news of the hiring and loves the fit with the Bears, not least the fact she’s not too far away from games. Marinelli visited Halas Hall in June to speak with Bears players at Eberflus’ request, delivering his message about morale.
And Eberflus has talked a few times to Pinkel, who spoke of his pride in watching Eberflus patiently climb the ranks — but also the challenge ahead as the Bears coach tries to get a rebuilding team off the ground. Eberflus must lead young, inexperienced players in a city thirsty for success after just one division title in the last 11 years.
“In college football, there are a lot of levels of football, there are a lot of head coaching positions open,” Pinkel said. “There are only 32 teams in the world that you can coach in the NFL. So there are a limited number of exceptional people that have these opportunities to do it.
“Certainly I thought he was very capable. He’s very sincere. He genuinely cares. I keep using the word ‘competitor’ because that competitiveness is something you’ll see in him, and players will feel it and know it. That’s the kind of team he’s going to have. … It’s hard to win. We all know that. But he really has a plan — a detailed, A-to-Z plan on building this organization. And I don’t doubt that at all.”