To this day, Bud Grant still can’t answer the question. Neither can Rich Gannon or Bernie Kosar or Jon Gruden, or anyone else on the long list of luminaries who wonder why it took nearly 30 years for Marc Trestman to become a head coach in the NFL.
Trestman used to wonder, too, during 17 seasons as an NFL assistant with eight teams. But long before last January — when the discussion began anew, after he was hired at age 57 to coach the Chicago Bears — the St. Louis Park native had begun to see things in a new light. Fretting about his long wait wasn’t going to get him any closer to his dream job. Instead, Trestman came to believe that each twist in his circuitous career path was molding him into a man worthy of leading an NFL team, sustaining his faith that he would eventually get there.
Armed with that fresh outlook, he stopped worrying about the end and put his mind to the means. Nine years removed from his last NFL job, Trestman has become a more outwardly focused person, guiding the Bears into Sunday’s game against his hometown Vikings with a confident and compassionate hand.
His five-season tenure as a head coach in the Canadian Football League enhanced Trestman’s reputation as an offensive savant known for his way with quarterbacks. That made him an intriguing choice for the offensively challenged Bears and underachieving signal-caller Jay Cutler. Trestman already has earned high praise from his players — and the game ball after a 24-21 victory over Cincinnati in his debut last week.
Some have considered the former Gophers quarterback an unusual fit in Chicago; reed-thin and bespectacled, with a scholarly manner and a self-help author’s vocabulary, he comes off as the anti-Mike Ditka. None of that will matter if Trestman can lead the Bears to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. In that regard, they might be the perfect match: a franchise pining for an unfulfilled ambition, paired with a coach grateful for the chance to realize his own.
“Having looked back at the journey, I think I understand,’’ Trestman said last month, just after the Bears broke camp. “I have a much better perspective on it now than I ever would have had if this had happened 10 or 12 years ago. The wait was very much worthwhile, because all those experiences go into making you the person you are and the coach you are.
“I have complete appreciation for this moment and respect for why it took so long. People say this all the time: If you want to get to where you want to go, just stay focused on what you’re doing, put your heart into it and don’t worry about the returns. This came, really, out of nowhere. But really, it came out of hope and passion.’’
Not to mention persistence.
“I never did understand why he wasn’t hired earlier than this,’’ Grant said. “I’m glad he’s got this opportunity now. He’s certainly paid the price.’’
Had Trestman listened to Grant, he might be practicing law or selling municipal bonds, rather than roaming Soldier Field. When Grant hired him to coach the Vikings’ running backs in 1985 — the first NFL entry on Trestman’s voluminous résumé — he warned him that coaching is a sure ticket to a vagabond life.
He couldn’t have predicted that Trestman would become the ultimate football nomad. As a young law student at the University of Miami, Trestman convinced Howard Schnellenberger to make him a volunteer assistant in 1981; since then, he has coached for 12 different teams, in two countries, in the CFL, NFL and college. He served as a quarterbacks coach during most of that time, with stints as offensive coordinator for Cleveland, San Francisco, Arizona and Oakland.
Nicknamed “the quarterback whisperer’’ for his extraordinary rapport with players at that position, Trestman has made them the engines of his dynamic, complex and inventive offenses. The Bears’ new, hefty playbook can trace its roots all the way back to St. Louis Park, inside the mind of a boy who dreamed in X’s and O’s.
Trestman’s father, Jerry, owned a restaurant and bar on Chicago Avenue — just blocks from where the Metrodome would later be built — and played in a band. Marc helped out at the restaurant and shared his dad’s love for music and football. When he wasn’t designing plays for neighborhood street games, Marc was scrutinizing the Vikings with Jerry, imitating a coach long before he thought of becoming one.
Trestman played three seasons with the Gophers, backing up quarterback Tony Dungy, and transferred to then Moorhead State for his senior season. His playing career ended when he failed to stick with the Vikings, who twice brought him to training camp as a defensive back. Though Trestman was admitted to the Florida bar in 1983, he left the law behind, parlaying his volunteer job at Miami into a full-time gig as quarterbacks coach.
Two years later — based on Trestman’s work with Kosar, who led Miami to the national championship in 1983 — Grant came calling.
“I remembered what a good athlete he was,’’ said Grant, whose son Mike played against Trestman in high school. “And he was eager to learn.’’
He was not convinced he had found his life’s purpose. After coaching in Tampa Bay and Cleveland, Trestman returned to the Vikings as quarterbacks coach in 1990, then was let go by new coach Dennis Green in 1992. Trestman moved to Florida and sold municipal bonds, figuring he was done with the game.