Football Thursday: Before Bears, Marc Trestman went to Montreal to overcome perceptions, find his coaching soul

Les Carpenter
Yahoo Sports

MONTREAL – The legacy lives in a notebook.

Sitting outside the Olympic Stadium here, Montreal Alouettes wide receiver Brandon London searches for his now. He digs into a backpack, rustling through pockets until at last he pulls out a small, spiral-bound, black-covered Mead Five Star notepad. He holds it in the air and smiles bright into a cloudy day.

He calls this his "Trestbook" and it stands as the most tangible remnant of the previous five years when Marc Trestman coached the Alouettes to two Canadian Football League titles before leaving to coach the Chicago Bears. The book was the essence of Trestman – "a little treasure trove of knowledge," linebacker Marc-Olivier Brouillette calls it – where Trestman stored his best thoughts as they came to mind.

From Trestman's notebook spilled fantastic lessons, gameplans and pregame speeches. It became such a constant in the lives of the Alouettes that the players wanted Trestbooks of their own. One day London went out and bought one as did running back Noel Devine and the team's other running back Brandon Whitaker. Even the person who sits at the reception table in the team's headquarters got one. Soon there were Trestbooks everywhere; on desks and in bags and at the back of locker stall shelves, all filled with their own treasure troves of knowledge.

London is the son of a coach – his father, Mike, is the head coach at the University of Virginia and an inspiring presence who was once nearly murdered and saved his daughter's life with a desperate bone marrow transplant. Yet Trestman was different from any coach London ever had. He made the complicated simple. He got the players to understand each other. He built a unity that London – a practice squad player on the 2007 New York Giants team that won the Super Bowl – had never seen. He was a parent, a mentor and a coach all at once. The Alouettes listened to him like they had never listened to another coach before and then they won and won and won.

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So much that nine months after he left for the NFL, his former players were using his favorite style of notebook.

"He taught us to be men," London says clutching his Trestbook tight in his hand.

"We developed a trust factor here," adds receiver S.J. Green. "That's why we were so successful."

Of course Montreal's players would not know about the report the people in the Chicago Bears' scouting department gave general manager Phil Emery back in January as he considered hiring Trestman as the head coach.

The report – a standard summary of everything the scouts had heard about Trestman, from his time as an NFL assistant coach between 1985 and 2004 – said many flattering things. It said Trestman had been a brilliant offensive coordinator for four NFL teams. It said he was outstanding at developing quarterbacks. And it portrayed a coach who, at nearly 57, should have been put in charge of an NFL team long before.

But the report also said this:

"Doesn't relate well."

"Struggles with other coaches."

Emery received the report just hours after interviewing Trestman in a hotel not far from the Bears' headquarters north of Chicago. During that interview Trestman had said the same thing as the report, an expression of candor almost shocking for a head coach. Emery was perplexed. The man he had interviewed was outgoing, relaxed and exhilarated. He didn't seem like someone who "doesn't relate well" or who "struggles with other coaches."

And he wondered: What happened in Montreal to change Marc Trestman?

Though its teams play in many major cities within an hour of the American border, many in the CFL feel a sense of isolation. In the minds of old coaches, teammates and colleagues, they might as well have disappeared. The moment Trestman slipped into Canada he all but dropped from the NFL's radar.

He was 52 when he arrived and already was on a kind of sabbatical from coaching after the North Carolina State staff he was on was fired in 2006. He promised his two daughters, then in junior high school, that they could live in Raleigh, N.C., through high school and Trestman began work on a book about leadership with the idea of using it to start a speaking career. He was working in a part-time consulting job for New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, which he enjoyed, when Alouettes general manger Jim Popp called looking for a coach.

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Trestman took the interview only because he had once worked with Popp's father, Joe, and had become friendly with the son. Trestman was so blasé about the opportunity he told Alouettes owner Robert Wetenhall, "I just want to let you know I'm not sure if I'm really interested in this job," as he sat down for the interview.

Over the next couple hours, Popp sold Trestman on the CFL. He said the league's restrictions on offseason workouts would allow Trestman to spend six months a year in Raleigh. They talked about Anthony Calvillo, Montreal's star quarterback who would come to thrive under Trestman. The men at the table could see Trestman's mind was working, imagining himself as the head coach he had never gotten to be and they could see he wanted the job – a lot.

"I knew when I got the head job I was going to do it selflessly," Trestman says now. "I was going to do it to build men and teach them football and do it all in the best interests of the team. I feel even on the professional level you can model behavior, build a leadership team and teach men how to be better husbands, fathers and teammates."

Trestman is standing on an empty field at the Bears training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill., as he says this. He is a thoughtful man in a profession where most of his colleagues are abrupt. Where other head coaches mumble injury reports and roster moves, Trestman appears to search for the right words to match his emotions. In the distance, equipment men are cleaning up after a morning practice. He watches them as he ponders a question about Canada.

"The lesson I learned [in Montreal]," he finally says, "is the more I gave and asked for nothing in return, the happier I got. That was it. That's the lesson. Give them everything you got and don't ask for anything in return. But you've got to do it with your heart. There's a connection between the mind and the heart. If the heart's not in it, you don't get anything back."

He stops for a beat.

"This has come at the best time in my life because now I can see why things happen the way they did," he continues. "I see why this moment was wired to all those moments of failure and loss of dignity – and success. I see how it all transpired and look at it from afar and know that it all happened at the right time for the right reason."

The Alouettes had never encountered anyone like Trestman before. He came to Montreal with a lifetime of ideas gleaned from men like Bud Grant, Howard Schnellenberger and Bill Walsh, all of whom had employed or influenced him at some point in his career.

New players, accustomed to a traditional football world where each position group had separate meetings, were stunned to find themselves asked to sit in another position's meetings. London, for instance, didn't understand why Trestman wanted the receivers to watch film with the offensive linemen, listening as the coach broke down designed runs that had nothing to do with wide receivers.

"Why do I care about this run play?" London said to himself. "Why do I care about a draw play or a toss?"

But the more Trestman spoke, the more London understood. If he could see what the linemen and running backs have to do to make a run play work, the better he could block for it downfield. The more plays the Alouettes ran, the more chances he would have to catch the ball. Then it hit him: If each of them could see the game through their teammate's eyes, grasping what that man had to do, they could bond over the shared responsibility. And once they had that bond they would truly be a team. 

"The way he runs his offense it's like an assembly line," London says. "The body comes in and you put the wheels on and the next guy puts the rims on. It clicks, and when it works, you feel like you can't be stopped.

"He wanted everybody on the same page," London continues. "He wanted everyone to be accountable."

London stops, still holding his Trestbook in his hand.

"I'm going to say 'accountability' about 100 times in this interview," he says.

Trestman besieged them with details. Everything needed to be precise. Pass routes were to be run at exact angles, linemen's stances required fingers on specific spots without a deviation of even a couple inches. But with each demand came an explanation. He told them why a sloppy pass route could lead to a bad throw or a lineman's failure to stand in his assigned place might destroy a run play. He made each of them believe their role was the most important on each play because if they slipped up and something went wrong, the whole play could be compromised.

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He prepared an organizational manual that he mailed to his assistants and the front-office people during the offseason. It was an inch thick and it contained page upon page of team policies from how they ate lunch in the cafeteria to how they threw towels in the locker room hamper. To see who was actually reading, he inserted a line about 2/3 of the way through the book that read: "When you get to this, call me."

And yet at the same time he immersed himself in his players' lives. He told players to skip practice to tend to family issues and encouraged them to have a life away from football. When Brouillette, a lawyer in the offseason, passed the bar, Trestman called the team together and announced the news. Last year, after London injured his leg and couldn't play, Trestman encouraged him to take the acting classes he had been considering and even inspired him to move to Los Angeles when the season ended.

"It was never about titles," Trestman says standing on the field in Bourbonnais. "We never talked about it. We talked about building authentic relationships so on gameday they knew you had their back. It wasn't you gave pep talks, it was showing guys how valuable relationships are and how working hard will give you a chance at success."

Popp looks perplexed. He sits at a conference table in the Alouettes' offices pondering the question of why Trestman had never been given the chance to be a professional head coach before Montreal. On occasion, Popp has heard a coach from Trestman’s past say they "know how he is" or understood why no one would hire him without every explaining what they meant. Sometimes even Trestman himself dropped an occasional: "Hey, a lot of coaches in the past might not want to work with me." But it never made sense.

"I do think he worked hard at changing his image here," Popp said. "Whatever it was he had to change – or what people perceived of him."

Popp knows a lot of people around the NFL and college football. When the CFL season ends, he moves back to his home near Charlotte, N.C. He talks constantly to football coaches, and repeatedly over the past five years they would tell him to say hello to Trestman or Trestman would tell him to say hi to someone who had worked with him.

"He's got a lot of people who do speak high of him and well of him," Popp says.

He shrugs. Trestman was never "one of the guys." In Montreal he lived in an apartment in the cobblestoned street near the St. Lawrence River. If he wasn't there he was in his office at Olympic Stadium either writing one of his books or working on gameplans. His indulgence was not beer but the occasional glass of wine. He was often in bed by 9 p.m. and up and in the office by 4 the next morning.

"I know he expects a lot from his coaches," Brouillette says. "He expects them to be in early and leave late. He may not be the easiest guy to get along with because he demands so much of the people around him. But I think he knows that's for the greater good."

But none of this makes Trestman a bad person. Pro and college football are early morning sports. Many coaches take pride in getting to the office before the sun rises. Some even sleep at their desks during the season. And looking at the way Trestman approached the job in Montreal he obviously had been thinking for years about what he would do if he was ever a head coach. Popp sighs. There's something he has been wondering. Something he fears that may have hampered Trestman for years. Something superficial, something so ridiculous he seems hesitant to mention it.

"Marc looks very lawyer-ish," Popp says. "I do think when people choose people they get caught up in the way they look. And maybe someone didn't give him an opportunity because of the way he looked. He wears those little, small glasses and [they] say: 'Is that what we want?' "

After Emery fired Lovie Smith on Dec. 31, he put together a long list of candidates. Eventually he interviewed 19 of them alone – 12 in person, seven by phone. He wanted to understand the coaches as men. He wanted to know how they thought, where they were from, what they liked, what made them good. Most of all, he wanted to know if he could work with them.

He started each interview the same. "Take me back from childhood," he said. "I mean as early as you can remember moving forward. I want you to remember who was involved in your life, how your family functioned, who was important to you, who was the key person in your growing as an athlete. I want to know every sport you were involved in. I want to know about your uncles and aunts. I want to know how you got to where you are today."

Many of the candidates tried to give a fast answer, stuffing a lifetime of work, memories and mentors into a five-minute response. "No," Emery told them. Give more. Go back to Little League, to the playground, to high school. Who were their mentors? Who taught them the most? Some of the men's answers lasted only half an hour. With others it stretched for nearly two.

"I told them all the same thing," he says. "'Now that I know where you are coming from here's my next question. Why do I want to get in a room with someone I don't know?' I want to find out who they are and this was the best way to find out who they are as people.

"That's how the connection [with Trestman] was born," Emery continues. "He's very open and honest and you can really feel his journey as a person and what became important to him. And it just echoed all the way across the board.

"I think Montreal was a big part of it. That's a huge part of it."

At first Emery wondered if Trestman's story of putting aside ambition to help people grow and finding greater success because of it was too sappy to believe. But there was also something about Trestman's journey that touched the hardened general manager, who also found it difficult to ignore the coach's 59-31 record and three Grey Cup appearances in five seasons or the fact that Calvillo had thrown for 25,444 yards and 164 touchdowns under Trestman's coaching.

"I connected with [Trestman's story] because we all go through that," he says. "I certainly went through it. You put your self-interests first and then you figure out life a little bit, that we are all in this together and the only way you are going to enjoy it is if you are all inclusive. You want to help others enjoy the process too. He had gone through that and finally had a revelation about it and he had other people help guide him and it all worked out very well for him."

Suddenly Emery knew the person he wanted to hire was the one who had been the most open with him, the one who told him about the lessons in life he had to go to another country to learn. Two weeks after firing Smith, he offered Trestman a job no one imagined him getting 10 years ago.

The announcement of Trestman's hire came as a surprise to many. He had been gone for so long people had forgotten about him. But slowly word has trickled from Chicago about the Bears' new fast-paced offense, about a team slowly learning to buy into a culture many had never experienced and a coach who is just different than any other coach they have ever had.

"He's just surprised me in terms of he's got even more depth, level of intelligence, interpersonal relationship skills than I even saw then," Emery says. "And those were big factors. He doesn't miss anything, very detail oriented and he's constantly got a plan in his head and stays on top of it."

Something that a team of players half a continent away already knew.

Weekly MVPsLes Carpenter picks each team's standout for the season opener.

  1. Arizona Cardinals – Carson Palmer might just fit well in Bruce Arians' system.

  2. Atlanta Falcons – Matt Ryan still had 304 yards despite drops and line glitches.

  3. Baltimore Ravens – In a bleak opener for Ravens, Torrey Smith was solid.

  4. Buffalo Bills – Numbers don't show how solid E.J. Manuel's debut was.

  5. Carolina Panthers – Star Lotulelei helped squash Seattle's run.

  6. Chicago Bears – Trestman already working magic on Jay Cutler.

  7. Cincinnati Bengals – Is there anything A.J. Green can't do?

  8. Cleveland Browns – Jordan Cameron was a glimpse of light in bad offense.

  9. Dallas Cowboys – We will be hearing a lot about the Tony Romo offense this year.

  10. Denver Broncos – Peyton Manning's 7 TDs will stifle arm strength questions.

  11. Detroit Lions – The older Reggie Bush is the better he gets.

  12. Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers gave the Packers a chance.

  13. Houston Texans – Maybe this is finally the year of Matt Schaub.

  14. Indianapolis Colts – Hard to ignore LaRon Landry's 15 tackles.

  15. Jacksonville Jaguars – Linebacker Paul Posluszny was the Jags' lone bright spot.

  16. Kansas City Chiefs – Dontari Poe was a big part of K.C.'s stifling of Jags offense.

  17. Miami Dolphins – Brian Hartline's nine catches will open things up for Mike Wallace.

  18. Minnesota Vikings – Adrian Peterson's 93 yards were tough.

  19. New England Patriots – Pressure's on Danny Amendola to deliver, he did.

  20. New Orleans Saints – Rob Ryan for bringing Saints D back to life.

  21. New York Giants – Victor Cruz was worth every cent.

  22. New York Jets – Given his preseason, Geno Smith was a pleasant surprise.

  23. Oakland Raiders – Terrelle Pryor gives hope to Oakland's future.

  24. Philadelphia Eagles – How much fun will it be to watch the Chip Kelly offense this year?

  25. Pittsburgh Steelers – Punter Zoltan Mesko kept Steelers in game despite stale offense.

  26. St. Louis Rams – Can Jared Cook be the league's next big tight end?

  27. San Diego Chargers – Despite the loss Philip Rivers did have 4 TDs.

  28. San Francisco 49ers – So now Colin Kaepernick can beat them through the air.

  29. Seattle Seahawks – When Seahawks couldn't run, Russell Wilson won it through the air.

  30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Other than the last play, Lavonte David had a fine game.

  31. Tennessee Titans – Zach Brown feasted on a weakened Steelers line.

  32. Washington Redskins – Ryan Kerrigan did all he could to hold off Eagles offense.

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