Vic Fangio: The Most Overlooked Coaching Candidate


In September, Bruce Arians’ Cardinals offense put up 34 points on Vic Fangio’s Bears defense.  And Arians might be the best thing that ever happened to Fangio.


Fangio has been an assistant in the National Football League for many years as Arians was.  Arians’ first year in the NFL was 1989; Fangio’s was 1986. Like Arians, Fangio received little attention for head coaching jobs for most of his career.


And like Arians, Fangio has seen and experienced so much that could make him a strong head coach. Arians’ success, and the success of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, could open avenues for longtime assistants like Fangio.  Arians was 60 when he became a first time head coach.  Zimmer was 57.  Fangio is 57.


The three coaches share some traits. Each of them can be a little crusty and strong-willed. They are well-liked even though they are not out to win popularity contests.  They all have a homespun way of connecting with people. The benefit of experience comes through in their personalities as well as in their coaching styles.


Fangio and Arians worked together on the Colts, and Fangio agrees they are alike in some ways. “He is demanding, he holds people accountable and yet he has fun and cuts it loose,” Fangio said. “He brings an aggressive mentality to his team.  So there are a lot of similarities in that regard.”


Arians could not be ignored anymore after being named interim coach of the Colts in 2012, leading them to a 9-3 record and being named Associated Press coach of the year.


Fangio still is operating largely in the shadows working with a rag-tag group of defenders.  In fact, never in the history of football has there been such an unlikely springboard to a head coaching job as the 2015 Chicago Bears defense.


On Sunday, the Bears won a game in Tampa by coming up with three takeaways and limiting Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin to 49 rushing yards on 17 carries. They did it with three undrafted players making big plays, seven starters who were not supposed to be starters and five rookies in the lineup.  Fangio was working without a single Pro Bowl player, and with only one first round pick.


“Fangio has done a hell of a job,” said a front office man from another NFC team. “He doesn’t have a whole lot of guys on defense, but they are physical and sound. They make you earn it.  The linebacker corps is atrocious. They are doing it with smoke and mirrors.”


This is a coach who has worked with greatness in the past. Among the players Fangio has enjoyed coaching most are Ricky Jackson, Sam Mills, Kevin Greene, Eric Davis, Cornelius Bennett, Arron Glenn, Ray Lewis, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner.


In Chicago, Shea McClellin, a frequent target for critics, is a perfect example of a player Fangio can make it work with. McClellin was moved to a new position, inside linebacker, in the offseason. He has not made one big play worth mentioning. But Fangio has been pleased with him because he took to coaching and for the most part, been assignment sound.


One of the qualities about Fangio that stands out is he has been able to work with players of varying abilities and styles, and he has changed what he emphasizes to suit the situation he’s in.  When he was with the Saints and Texans, he was known as a zone blitz proponent.  When he coached the 49ers, he didn’t have to take many risks, so he simplified.  With the Bears, it’s mostly about avoiding mistakes.


“The schematic thing is always evolving, and pro football is different now from when I came into the league,” Fangio said. “It still comes down to fundamentals and techniques and being demanding on that. We’ve emphasized that more so than scheme this year, getting our players in the right place all the time. That’s saved us.”


How else could you explain that the Bears went from the 30th-ranked defense one year ago to the 16th-ranked defense this year?


There is little doubt Fangio can coordinate a defense.  Being a head coach requires a different skill set entirely. Fangio has thought a lot about what it would take. “You have to manage the team in a positive, efficient way,” he said. “You have to be a good game manager in all the critical situations that can happen particularly at the end of a half, and end of the game from time management perspective. However you do it with your personality, you have to create an environment where players enjoy it and are held accountable.”


Fangio certainly has had strong influences in his career, having worked with a variety of solid head coaches with different styles.  I asked him what he took from his head coaches.


From Jim Mora: “I learned the ability and the importance to hold everyone accountable, demand excellence and effort every day. He never let up on that, with players or coaches.”


From Dom Capers: “He had a great way of being organized, of having everything written down. His organization was his strength.”


From Brian Billick: “He had a good pulse of how to work a team, how to bring a team along through the season. He was a good schematic coach offensively, and he worked hard at his craft. Working with him helped me gain a new perspective and broaden my horizons on coaching.”


From John Harbaugh:  “He ran the team more like a CEO, but with a youthful enthusiasm.  He understood his team well and knew how to push the right buttons.”


From Jim Harbaugh:  “He brings an excitement to the game you have to have. He likes to make the game fun and competitive, which I think is important. He’s always looking to try something new. He is not afraid to try something unconventional. It could be anything--schedule, play calling or something schematic. My time as his coordinator was critical for me.”


From Fox:  “He does a good job of managing the team, relating to every player, keeping his finger on the pulse of his team. He keeps the team positive and focused. You can take a lot from him.”


If Fangio gets an interview for a head coaching job this year, it will be his second in two years.  Last year, the 49ers interviewed him as a courtesy.  But an interview in 2016 also would be his second interview in 17 years.  His only other interview came for a head coaching position came in 1997 with the Chargers.


It seems he is quite overdue for another.