Everything seemed to be flowing that night. The conversation. The chemistry. The red wine.
In the middle of an unforeseen January whirlwind, John Fox found himself at a familiar haunt — Fleming's in Englewood, Colo. — face to face with his improbable future.
He was about to become coach of the Bears.
Over steaks that night, Fox and new Bears general manager Ryan Pace let their rapport put the punctuation on a brief but energized courtship.
"It was encouraging," Fox says, "to be on the same page so quickly."
What a week.
Just four evenings earlier, Fox had been coaching the Broncos in the AFC playoffs, seemingly positioned to propel a 12-4 team toward the Super Bowl. But a 24-13 loss to the Colts set a new chain of events in motion.
The next day, agreeing to disagree on how best to push the Broncos to the next level, Fox and general manager John Elway decided it would be best if the coach departed. So that was that.
Fox's decision to leave Denver led to a spirit-filled gathering at Del Frisco's the night after the playoff loss to the Colts, a warm and somewhat nostalgic send-off thrown by Peyton Manning.
During that shindig, Fox received his first phone call from Pace inquiring about his interest in the Bears' vacancy. And that call led to a lengthy Wednesday interview at Halas Hall and an immediate intuition for both men.
The job was all Fox's.
"Man," Fox says, "that week was a (expletive) whirlwind."
As Fox left Halas Hall, Pace assured him he had knocked the interview out of the park and that his limo to O'Hare might be summoned to turn around, to return to 1920 Football Drive to finalize a hiring.
Yet on the 23-mile ride from Lake Forest to the departures procession at the airport, the call never came. And after clearing security, as Fox enjoyed a torta and a margarita at Tortas Frontera in Terminal 1, he had to press pause on his growing enthusiasm.
"You start to wonder for a second," Fox says, "did things go well enough?"
Ultimately Pace rang, with a request for dinner the next evening in Denver. Coach. GM. Both wives.
Pace wanted to be thorough with his first major move as an NFL executive. Bears Chairman George McCaskey and team President Ted Phillips encouraged the trip.
Through a multitude of close friends and mutual acquaintances — among them Jay Glazer, Archie Manning and, most significantly, Sean Payton — Fox and Pace had been told they would click instantly, that their value systems would mesh.
But, Pace says, "there were a few more things I wanted to learn on a personal level."
So at Fleming's, with the football chatter taking a back seat to profound discussions on leadership and team-building, Pace gained a deeper understanding of what makes Fox tick, of how he had amassed 119 regular-season victories and made the playoffs seven times during his 13 seasons as a coach, catalyzing speedy recoveries in both Carolina and Denver.
As the stepson of a Navy SEAL, the value Fox placed on discipline and mental toughness made sense. Pace also detected in Fox what he calls "a cool combination of confidence and humility," invigorated by the idea of a coach who spoke with so much purpose without being the least bit egotistical.
"Players want to play for him," Pace says. "Coaches want to coach for him. He just has this charisma, this presence that's hard to find."
When the dinner ended, Pace knew Fox had to be joining him on the return flight to Chicago.
"It was exciting," Pace says. "Because I had envisioned what the ideal fit would be. And I knew that I had found it."
Adds Fox: "We were in agreement on how to create the culture and that championship atmosphere."
So now Fox is the Bears coach, the 15th in franchise history, headed for Bourbonnais this week to begin training camp with a vision for resuscitating an organization that sunk to demoralizing depths a year ago.
Marc Trestman's two-season stay in the head coach's chair ended amid dysfunction, with too many people on too many different pages, too many humiliating losses piling up and too many folks within the organization questioning the strength of the leadership.
Fox, with his contagious confidence, should serve as a welcome antidote to last year's failures. He admits he's enthralled by the franchise's rich tradition. Yet as much as he enjoys admiring the Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl XX in the Halas Hall lobby, Fox always has a second thought when looking at it.
"That trophy," he says, "is far too lonely."
On a summer afternoon, Fox sits in his office at Halas Hall eating lunch and detailing his coaching philosophies.
An energized workplace, he asserts, often is the first flint for accomplishment. Fox also emphasizes his belief that coaching in the NFL is part of a "service industry."
"My experience has been that if players know you genuinely care about them and they know that you can make them better, they'll do anything for you," he says. "This can't be that you're the prison cafeteria worker and you just slop the food out there and say, 'Eat it or starve.' You have to have more of a five-star restaurant approach. Your players, your employees better get great service. They better get your attention. Or they'll go somewhere else. People sense the energy. So you have to create that — everywhere in the building."
Fox's first grand experiment came in Carolina, his first opportunity to test his team-building vision as a head coach. When hired in January 2002, inheriting a club that lost its final 15 games the previous season, he vowed to construct a tough team that won with a reliable running attack and tough defense.
Most of all, Fox emphasized his own responsibilities in managing and motivating his players and coaches.
Somehow, within 24 months, he had the Panthers in the Super Bowl.
Pro Bowl players Julius Peppers and Dan Morgan energized a top-10 defense. Yet on offense, tackle Jordan Gross says, the Panthers were "a band of misfits" with a veteran quarterback in his first season starting (Jake Delhomme); a diverse line; a 29-year-old running back who the Redskins had cast aside (Stephen Davis); and a brash third-year receiver coming into his own (Steve Smith).
Still, that unit jelled, reciprocating its coach's confidence.
"Foxy," Gross says, "did an outstanding job of motivating your Average Joe NFL player into believing that they could beat anybody. And that was the key to that team. … He wasn't afraid to praise you and he wasn't afraid to rip you if he needed to. I always appreciated both sides of that equation. Because a good coach can be your buddy at times. But he needs to tell you when you're being an idiot. And he was happy to do both of those things."
The Panthers' 2003 season was nothing short of storybook. Eleven regular-season victories. The franchise's first playoff berth in seven years. Ultimately a trip to Super Bowl XXXVIII and a near upset of the heavily-favored Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots.
Fox's mantra almost always centered around two words, the two qualities he most wants players to embody. Smart and tough. Smart and tough. Smart and tough.
"That will be driven home," Delhomme says. "But as a team, you begin to own it."
Being smart, Fox asserts, doesn't just mean being sound on assignments and reducing mistakes on the field. It means players comprehending time management, of understanding priorities, of realizing how to take their greatest skills and develop them.
And in the rigors of an NFL season, Fox is certain, the physical toughness needed to survive has to be complemented with a mental toughness that creates endurance.
Fox, Delhomme says, knew precisely how to remind each and every player of their big-picture value, of the reasons he wanted them on his team to begin with. That created a belief that resonated.
"Because it's real," Delhomme says. "With Foxy, there are no games. There are no hidden agendas."
Fox also showed a propensity for pushing the right buttons at the right time. During that 2003 season, when the Panthers' surprising 5-0 start was interrupted by a flat and mistake-filled effort in a 37-17 home loss to the Titans, Fox wouldn't let his players see it as a minor stumble.
Says Delhomme: "We go in the next day and Foxy ripped us a new one. Ripped. Us. A new one. It struck a chord. There was no reason for us to be feeling satisfied because we were 5-1.
"Sometimes, during the course of a season, you need those shock-and-awe moments. And that, I think, is when guys were like, 'OK, this man is on a mission.'"
Yet in early December when the Panthers hit a three-game skid that loosened their grip on the NFC South, Fox told his players to exhale, to stop thinking too much, to relax and zero in for the homestretch.
In a blur, the Panthers won their final three regular-season games and their first three playoff contests, capturing the NFC championship.
Fox quickly redirects credit for the Panthers' turnaround to the locker room, to the kind of player he most enjoys uniting with.
Super Bowlers, he says. Not Pro Bowlers.
"And there's a difference," Fox asserts. "One is very selfishly motivated. The other is selfless. At the end of the day to have an edge in this profession, you have to be selfless. In that locker room, we had a bunch of selfless guys who were good dudes and genuinely cared and played for each other. And I think that's the great separator."
Ernie Accorsi has no problem admitting it. In the second week of January 2001, his anxiety had spiked dramatically. Then the general manager of the Giants, Accorsi was worried sick about that week's NFC championship game, or more exactly his defense's ability to slow down a Vikings offense that averaged 373 yards per game.
The potential fireworks show looped through Accorsi's mind so often that he found himself being uncharacteristically reclusive at the office, intentionally avoiding Fox, his defensive coordinator.
"On my sleepless nights that week," Accorsi says, "the Vikings scored 18,000 points. All I could see was them running up and down the field. I didn't want to even look at John."
"Ernie was scared (bleepless)."
By the end of the week, Fox confronted his boss.
Says Accorsi: "John looked me right in the eye and said, 'I know you're ducking me. You haven't spoken to me all week. But let me tell you something: We may just shut them out.'"
Sure, Fox had his own worries, most notably whether diminutive slot cornerback Emmanuel McDaniel could slow Carter. Yet he also knew Jason Sehorn had the speed and swagger to contain Moss and that when the Giants defense operated within the game plan, success often followed.
When Giants offensive coordinator Sean Payton asked Fox how many points the ''O'' would need to provide for the defense to feel comfortable, Fox requested 34.
"He was dead serious," Payton says.
But with his defensive players, Fox continued pitching the idea of a shutout.
"He knew it was possible," former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan says. "It starts with that belief. He believed in us. And that just spread."
So ultimately, on a dominant Sunday at Giants Stadium, Fox's defense held the Vikings to 114 total yards and Payton's offense provided the requested 34 points by halftime.
Final score: 41-0, one of the Giants' signature victories in Fox's five-season tenure as coordinator.
After the final gun, with the George Halas Trophy waiting, Fox found Accorsi.
"See Ernie," he said. "I told you we'd be OK."
From the front office, Accorsi always had respected Fox's strengths as a communicator, a leader who rallied everyone around him. And that certainly provided valuable intelligence at Halas Hall this January when Accorsi joined the Bears as a consultant in their search for a new coach.
Accorsi never pushed Fox on the Bears. But he didn't hold back in lauding the veteran coach's ability to connect. Fox, Accorsi told the Bears' decision-makers, understands the importance of discipline and has a way of raising the bar for his players that's demanding but never demeaning.
"It is a thin line," Accorsi says. "But players love that. Real competitors want to get better. And the real good ones, they know that they're not going to get better from a guy who says, 'You can do whatever you want to do. There's not going to be any discipline.'"
During Fox's five seasons with the Giants, players came both to detest and respect him for his want always to keep the pads on and the contact high. And they appreciated Fox's ability to convince players to feed off his own fierce competitiveness.
Even as colleagues and close friends, Payton and Fox had their spats. With a cutthroat dynamic, Fox would get the best of Payton on the golf course, then see the tables turned on the racquetball court. And that's to say nothing of the intense defense-versus-offense scrimmages at practice.
"We'd have chunks of days where we wouldn't talk to each other," Payton says. "Just so pissed off when one of us got the best of the other.
"That was our normal."
Strahan, who continued jelling into a Hall of Fame defensive end for five seasons under Fox, believes his former coordinator's constant emphasis on being physical was crucial to his own development.
Fox also struck a chord as a tough but fair leader who understood how to keep his criticism constructive.
Says Strahan: "When he'd get on you, he'd say it in a way you understood that you didn't do what needed to be done but that he believed in you, that you could do it right. It was never, 'You screwed it up. It's your fault. You're a dummy and you'll never get it.' It was more, 'The reason I'm on you like this is because I believe in you, I believe you can do it better, I believe you can do it the right way.' That's a special trait."
Of the 32 regular-season home games Fox coached during his four seasons with the Broncos, he can't recall departing Sports Authority Field at Mile High to a more excited reception than he received in Week 5 of 2011. The Broncos lost that afternoon, 29-24 to the Chargers, falling to 1-4 as they headed into a week off. But just before halftime, Fox planted the seeds for Tebowmania, turning the offense over to an energized left-handed quarterback who almost rallied the Broncos from a 26-10 fourth-quarter deficit.
The fight Tim Tebow and his teammates exhibited that day, even in defeat, had roused the fan base.
"Like no other loss I've ever seen before in this league," Fox says. "You'd have thought we won a playoff game."
Tebow's promotion to starter, made official after the open date, was more than just a fan-pleasing quarterback change. For the Broncos, it required a complete reinvention of their offensive system into a run-centric attack loaded with zone read option packages.
From Fox's chair, the change required instinct and vision. It took guts. It also generated a surge of momentum.
"You do what you think is best for the team," Fox says. "And you hope you can sell it."
Fox recognized that particular team's best chance of maximizing its success required an effective running game, a stingy defense and a contagious belief that winning plays would be made in the clutch.
At 1-4, the new coach somehow gained his players' faith.
"Coach Fox had zero panic in him," says receiver Eddie Royal, now with the Bears. "You could feel the confidence in him that we were going to turn things around. … That soaks down through the rest of the team."
After the week off, Tebow fought through a sloppy effort, led the Broncos back from 15 points down in the final five minutes and sparked an overtime triumph over the Dolphins. And after a sobering 45-10 loss to the Lions the next week, the Broncos regrouped to tear off six consecutive victories — with a quarterback who hasn't started an NFL game since that season and was out of the league entirely for two.
On their way to an unlikely AFC West title, the Broncos won three games in overtime. They downed the Vikings with a last-minute interception and a field goal at the gun.
They beat the Chiefs 17-10 in Week 10 in a game in which Tebow threw only eight passes and completed just two, with the Broncos setting a single-game league record for rushing attempts with 55.
"That was probably the most incredible year I've ever spent in coaching," Fox says.
The Broncos led the NFL in rushing that season by a wide margin. A defense that had finished last in the league in yards allowed in 2010 jumped up 12 spots in Fox's first season and surrendered an average of just 16.7 points in their final seven victories.
And with every game-winning Tebow magic trick, belief swelled.
Of the eight teams with new coaches that season, the Broncos were one of only two to reach the postseason. Once there, the Broncos reached the second round — with yet another overtime victory.
Dennis Allen, then the Broncos defensive coordinator, noted how Fox created a fun yet pressure-packed environment at practice, a setting that no doubt aided the Broncos down the stretch of all those close games. Allen also noticed the Broncos feeding off Fox's knack for creating open dialogue, for building trust, for allowing his assistants the freedom to coach without micromanagement.
"He's extraordinary at putting his ego aside and identifying what's best for the team and for each individual," Allen says. "And how do you know what's best for each individual? You talk to them. You communicate with them. You develop a relationship with them and you have an openness to listen to what people have to say."
That, Allen says, is by far the biggest thing he took from Fox — that energy directed toward strengthening relationships proved more valuable than mastering details of a game plan.
"What Foxy allowed me to see was the need to step back and maybe grab that rookie, put my arm around him and ask him how everything's going," Allen says. "It's earning that trust, developing those bonds. And you realize that, god dang, that's more important than how can we add another blitz."
Fox looks back fondly on his involvement in Tebowmania, deeply appreciative that the quarterback gave him what he loves getting from players: a listening ear, a strong voice, an indefatigable work ethic and an abundance of positive energy.
"Timmy oozed belief," Fox says. "And he's all about doing things for something bigger than himself. That oozes, man."
Still, as this next chapter of Fox's coaching career begins, his achievements must be viewed within context. His seven trips to the postseason since 2002 are four more than the Bears have made during that same time frame — under three coaches.
But Fox's .533 postseason winning percentage hardly is Belichickian. And his exits from the Panthers and Broncos didn't create widespread mourning among their fan bases.
After the Panthers' Super Bowl run, Fox's teams too often hung around ordinary, reaching the playoffs just twice in his final seven seasons. The swan song was a 2-14 nosedive that kept his biggest critics skewering his conservative nature.
And even with four division titles in four seasons in Denver, Fox's Broncos twice lost their playoff opener while also suffering a 43-8 beat down in Super Bowl XLVIII.
To this day, Broncos fans still express outrage over Fox's decision to play for overtime in a divisional playoff game against the Ravens in January 2013. After the Ravens tied the game on a fluky 70-yard touchdown pass in the final minute, Fox opted not to take advantage of the last 31 seconds of regulation.
Even at home. With Peyton Manning at the controls.
A kneel-down ended the fourth quarter, and the Broncos ultimately lost.
That provided one of the first major cracks in a relationship with Elway that would fracture significantly over time. So when the Broncos GM and executive vice president of football operations tried to explain this past winter why he and Fox had passed a point of no return, he confirmed a divide in the vision on how to push the team to the next level.
"If there's one thing that you'd like to have … it's at least in the last game you want to feel like you go out kicking and screaming. And that you're right there," Elway said. "And I think two years in a row, it didn't feel like we went out kicking and screaming."
As strong as Fox may be as a motivator, some former players also have voiced concerns privately that he can be deficient as a strategist, too often vanilla with his game plans and cookie cutter with his pep talks.
These are knocks for folks in Chicago to file away, certainly. For while it's nearly unanimous around the league, Elway included, that Fox's energy and tenacity will put an immediate charge into the Bears, the challenge of sustaining momentum will be huge.
Still, Fox's personality remains consistent. And his perspective sharpened two years ago when in the middle of the season, he was overcome by severe chest pain during the Broncos' week off. Fox was rushed to a North Carolina hospital and later ushered into open-heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve, a congenital defect he had put off addressing.
"It's not real easy to say, 'Oh, yeah, today's a great day to go in for open heart surgery,'" Fox says. "And you feel fine. … I thought I could get through the season. I made it halfway."
For a month, Fox turned his coaching duties over to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Yet from his study in his home in Charlotte, N.C., he would scrutinize practice tape and contribute to game-planning, vowing to be back the second his doctor-ordered four-week leave was up.
Upon his return, at four weeks post-op, Fox carried himself with pride in his toughness.
"I had a guy with an ankle (injury) when I left and he still had the ankle (issue) when I got back," he says. "So it gave you a little street cred on injuries."
Adds Del Rio: "Any time you have your ribs cracked and your chest split open and they're working on your heart, that's pretty significant. I was actually shocked at how quickly he fought his way back. It shows you how much he loves the game, wants to be around the game, wants to be a part of the game."
Still, the episode also reminded Fox to handle his enormous coaching responsibilities with an understanding of their place.
Robin Fox, his wife of 30 years, and their four children — Matthew, Mark, Halle and Cody — understandably were shaken by the scare, their uneasiness striking a chord with Fox.
"It's life-changing a little bit when you see the fear on your family's faces," he says.
Fox marches forward now, a new challenge in hand. He will report to training camp in Bourbonnais with the backing of a success-starved fan base and the attention of his 90-man roster.
In each of his last three stops — with the Broncos and Panthers as head coach and Giants as defensive coordinator — Fox has propelled his team to the Super Bowl.
"Skins on the wall," Pace says.
Fox is wiser now, far more confident than he was when he broke into the NFL as the Steelers defensive backs coach in 1989. Yet he still hearkens back to that invaluable three-season apprenticeship under Chuck Noll, a four-time Super Bowl champion.
Fox always admired Noll's thirst for knowledge, particularly about topics that reached far beyond football. He learned from the legendary coach how to develop an even-keeled leadership, a stability that players could count on. And he grew to understand from Noll how much of a coach's success hinged on the ability to be an effective teacher.
"That's what coaching is. It's teaching," Fox says. "And when a player knows you can help him be better, that you're going to put him in positions to help him have success, then they'll give you everything they have."
Bears tight end Dante Rosario, who played for Fox in Carolina and Denver and again now in Chicago, confirms Fox still beats the "smart and tough" drum. Rosario even shares one of his favorite Fox-isms: "The brain is the toughest muscle in the body."
"I don't know what it is about him or his coaching style," Rosario says. "But he always has been that guy where you dig down and say, 'I have no problem laying it all on the line for this guy.'"
Maybe it's rooted in Fox's charisma, his passion for the game and the often juvenile sense of humor that allows the coach to connect to his players.
Says Pace, himself 22 years younger than Fox: "He has a real young soul. I always joke with him. 'Dude, in your head you're still 25 years old.' The way he talks. The way he communicates. The energy he has. That's what makes it fun."
Adds Strahan, the victim of more than a few Fox prank calls: "He made football fun. He made a tough business really fun and made you want to work hard at it and excel at it. He has that touch. … And if someone is having fun when they come to work, you're going to get the most out of them."
Fox's practical side, meanwhile, has had him tempering expectations in Chicago for the last six months. Under promise, over deliver, he says. And he's quick to issue reminders that his first Panthers team lost eight consecutive games during one stretch and that those 2011 Broncos lost four times in the season's first five weeks. Turnarounds take time.
So now it's paramount, Fox understands, for him to try to tap into each player's respective motivations.
He offers an analogy, noting how imprudent it would be to ask his players to climb to the top of a 50-meter platform and jump into a small pool below. Blank stares would ensue.
"There's no way you're going to do that," Fox says. "But now what if there's a loved one down there? Or what if whatever your 'why' is depends on you jumping off that platform? You do it. Because you'll do whatever it takes for that person, for that purpose, for that why."
"Everybody," he says, "has a why."
For Fox, entering his 14th season as a head coach at 60, the why has so much to do with his passion for connecting with people, for teaching, for enthusiastically pursuing improvement as a team.
Pace, his new boss, began to understand better that "why" on a deeper level in January — at Fleming's, during one of the most chaotic weeks of Fox's career.
Four days later, Pace introduced Fox at Halas Hall. This week, the coach will unveil his first Bears team in Bourbonnais.
Through the offseason program, Fox believes connections were established and the seeds for a significant resurgence were planted.
"I have loved the way these guys have gone about their business," he says. "The focus, the buy-in. Once you have that, anything's possible."
Fox understands his responsibilities in this revival effort but wants it known he won't be going it alone.
"This is a 'we' not 'me' profession," he says. "I think that culture and that environment is paramount to be successful on the field."