CHICAGO — Mike Tice walked off the Chicago Bears practice field, stepped through the door and smiled, extending his hand. There is less hair and more gray. He no longer keeps a pencil behind his ear; affectations don't seem so important any more. He does wear horn-rimmed glasses, but only because he has to.
"Bifocals," he explained. "I can't see."
He is so quiet. Sitting on the couch, his deep voice is so soft you have to lean forward to hear. "I hardly ever raise my voice anymore," he said.
Can this be the same guy? Is this the Mike Tice Vikings fans often loved and sometimes laughed at during his stint as a head coach not too many years ago?
Yes, he insists.
Tice is in his first year as the Bears offensive coordinator. He was promoted from line coach when Chicago and Mike Martz parted ways. He inherited a mercurial quarterback and some high expectations. Both have taken hits. Jay Cutler has been up and down and, most recently, out because of a concussion; the Bears' best offense has often been their defense. Still, they are 7-3 and tied for the NFC North lead.
But in Chicago -- which he famously called a "tough-guy town" years ago -- Tice is determined to do something he has never done: make it to the Super Bowl. And he believes, given good health, it can be done. Since being let go by Vikings owner Zygi Wilf moments after the 2005 finale, Tice has been working toward that goal.
By his own admission, he wasn't ready to be a head coach when he was first given the chance by former Vikings owner Red McCombs in 2002.
"I was organized," he said, "but I wasn't ready. But of those who get their first chance, who is?"
Tice said he is happy where he is, without being a head coach. But given a little prodding, he will look back. Sunday the Bears and Vikings will meet, Tice's present and past. And, just about every day, he looks back at one game and wonders how things might have been different. Tice admits he wasn't ready to be a head coach when he started, but he said he is convinced he was by the time he was let go.
"I'll tell you the biggest hurt I have from the whole head coaching thing," Tice said. "It's not being let go by Mr. Wilf. It is the fourth-down play in Arizona. I will never forget that one. I cannot forget that one. That one still hurts."
Tice was referring to the final game of the 2003 season, when a last-second 28-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-24 from Cardinals quarterback Josh McCown to Nathan Poole denied the Vikings both a division title and a playoff berth.
"If we win that game," he said, "life might have gone a different direction."
Old Tice, new Tice
Tice, 53, and his wife, Diane, still have a home in Minnesota, and daughter Adrienne, a St. Thomas grad, lives in St. Paul. His son, Nate, is a graduate assistant coach at Pitt.
Tice still shows up at Bunny's in St. Louis Park -- the bar where he used to have his own parking spot -- from time to time.
The coach and man you see today is a product of his past, and Tice remembers all of it. A native of Islip, N.Y., he was a college quarterback at Maryland before 14 seasons as an NFL tight end -- 10 in Seattle, three with the Vikings, one with the Redskins. He worked his way up the coaching ladder with the Vikings and, after being fired, was an assistant for four seasons in Jacksonville before joining Lovie Smith's staff in Chicago.
"As you get older, you gain more experience," he said. "You make mistakes, you learn and grow from them. I'm surrounded by a tremendous network of friends from over the years in Minnesota, Seattle and Jacksonville. So right now? I don't want to say I'm more relaxed, but I'm not as uptight. I don't scream and yell much. I've gotten a little more religious as I've gotten older. I try not to miss church."
That's not to say Tice has completely changed. On a Bears staff filled with buttoned-down types, he stands out. It's no surprise he's a media favorite.
When an unhappy Cutler was caught on national TV getting up and walking away from Tice on the sidelines during a tense victory over Dallas in October, Tice used charm rather than anger to deal with the situation. "He probably had enough of me telling him why the play didn't work," Tice told the media. "I get enough of me sometimes, too. I can talk a little bit."
Tice has been known to demonstrate blocking techniques during news conferences. At the same time he is careful not to push the comedy too much. Again, he has learned some lessons.
The Vikings years
During the playoffs after the 2011 season Tice reflected on his career path in a story with the New York Times.
"I started out being known as a good offensive line coach," he said. "Then I became a head coach, and everybody decided I was a buffoon. Then I made a couple of mistakes and people thought I was a bigger buffoon. I'm still a good line coach. I'm still a good coach. More than anything, that's what you want your legacy to be."
Asked about those comments nearly a year later, Tice shifted in his seat, leaning forward. "Well, some people called me a non-scheme guy," he said. "Just a motivator. I really think I know a lot about football. People say, 'He's not a scheme guy.' Then I said, 'How the hell did we have so many good offenses?'"
Tice was named interim coach for the final game of the 2001 season after McCombs fired Dennis Green. After the interim tag was removed, he assembled a staff that included Scott Linehan, who was plucked out of the college ranks to be his offensive coordinator.
In 2002 the Vikings went 6-10, leading the NFL in rushing. In 2003 they improved to 9-7, with that heartbreaking loss in Arizona, after leading the league in total offense.
The Vikings dropped to 8-8 in 2004 but won a playoff game in Green Bay and set team records for total yards and passing yards.
Of course, there were problems. The ill-fated Randy Ratio with Randy Moss. The Super Bowl ticket scandal that landed Tice a $100,000 fine, the largest ever for a head coach to that point. And, during the bye week in 2005, the infamous Love Boat incident.
"I made a mistake with the tickets," Tice said. "That's unfortunate. I sold a couple tickets. I'm not going to sit there and say, 'That's what everyone's doing.' I did it. It was against the rules, and I paid the price. The boat thing? Real disappointed in the guys. Bye weekend, going and doing something like that? That was more disappointing than anything else. But you learn from these things, from your mistakes. If you don't, you're a dummy."
The end in Minnesota
That 2005 season was doomed from the start. There was the ticket scalping. Then McCombs, in penny-pinching mode with the team for sale, wouldn't give Tice the money to re-sign Linehan. The Wilfs became owners that spring.
With Steve Loney as offensive coordinator, the Vikings started 2-5. After Tice became more involved in the play-calling, the Vikings won six straight. But the team's playoff hopes were doomed with a loss to Pittsburgh. It finished 9-7 with a victory over Chicago, and Tice was quickly let go.
"I was given a fair chance by the old ownership because they gave me the opportunity," Tice said. "I was given a chance by the new ownership because, if we had made it to the playoffs, I probably would have stayed. But with the things that were going on, with the controversies, they had to make a decision and bring their own guy in. And I respect that."
From afar, though, Tice watched as the Wilfs invested in the Vikings in ways McCombs didn't. He couldn't help but wonder what he could have done in that environment.
"Like my father used to say: A day late and a dollar short," Tice said. "You can't look back now. You have to just cherish the memories. I wish I'd won a few more games. If we had, who knows what the story would have been? But we didn't."
Lessons along the way
So here's what Tice learned:
• To succeed as a coach requires distance from the players. Tice went from playing for the Vikings right into an assistant coaching job with the team. That distance took some time to learn. "I didn't have that separation when I was coaching there," he said. "That had to change. As I've gotten older, it's become easier to have that separation."
• To examine football from both sides of the ball. Tice said he has learned a lot about the game working with Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville and Smith in Chicago.
"I had never worked with a defensive head coach before," he said. "When you do, you see they look at the game differently than an offensive head coach."
It is that perspective he uses today.
Admittedly it's still a work in progress. The Bears offense has struggled at times, especially in the 1 1/2 games Cutler missed. Still, Chicago is in the running for the NFC North title, and Tice's ultimate goal does not look out of reach.
And then what? Does Tice feel the itch for another shot at being a head coach?
"No, no, I wouldn't say that," Tice said, perhaps protesting too much. "You have to understand, I'm not going to turn down a good job. But I'm working to get to a Super Bowl. I have never been there, not as a player, or as a coach. I want to get there, and win it. Anything after that would be just nice. ... We'd all like to have a second chance. But, for me, it's not ranked No. 1 on my radar."
At this point Tice looked down at his watch. Time was almost up. But he had one more message for Vikings fans.
"Love 'em," he said. "Fantastic. I miss my purple. But that's the way it goes."