Despite last year's struggles, Bears defensive coordinator Bob Babich expects big things from his defense this year.

Three years after North Dakota State fired Bob Babich, Bison fans still wouldn’t let his son forget.

Bobby Babich was a three-year academic all-conference cornerback. His senior year, the NDSU student paper wrote about five things you’ll never hear at a Bison game. No. 2 was: “Good game, Bobby.”

“That’s a tough place, but it’s a great place,” Bob Babich, the Chicago Bears defensive coordinator, said. “Football is really important there. The fans are always rough, even when you lose one game.

“Being a head coach up there helped me grow and mature. And to end up in the NFL, which is the pinnacle of our profession, was a sweet move.”

In a way, Babich seems as if he’s landed in the same place. Fargo, N.D., is so crazy about football and so used to success (eight Division II national championships) that it used to draw sellout playoff crowds of 15,000 in sub-zero temperatures before building a dome 15 years ago.

It’s a place where even a 46-22 record in six years didn’t cut it for Babich; he’s the only coach hired there since 1957 not to win a conference title.

So after going 2-8 in his final season, NDSU’s only losing season since 1965, Babich was ousted. And immediately hired by his good friend Lovie Smith. As Chicago’s linebackers coach, Babich was on top of the world again. The Bears ranked No. 2 and No. 5 on defense his second and third years, won back-to-back NFC North titles and reached the Super Bowl in 2006.

It’s enough to make a coach pinch himself.

“Oh, yeah,” Babich said. “I’m just fortunate that Coach Smith gave me an opportunity. Things have gone well. It’s been a lot of fun. I’m enjoying the ride.”

Except the ride turned bumpy last year. Babich was promoted to defensive coordinator, replacing the popular Ron Rivera, a linebacker on Chicago’s famed 1985 Super Bowl champs.

And the Bears’ defense, ravaged by injuries, fell apart, finishing with a No. 28 ranking.

“That was never a concern,” Babich said of replacing Rivera. “I was just excited to be the Chicago Bears defensive coordinator.

“I learned an awful lot last year. It helped me grow up and mature. We went through some tough times. That tested my mental toughness, my beliefs and my confidence. But I’m very pleased with the way things are going this year.”

Chicago’s defense, with 10 healthy starters back from the Bears’ 2006 Super Bowl season, could be one of the league’s best. Babich has the defense feeling re-energized.

“He always talks about AT&T. That’s attack, tackle and takeaway,” cornerback Nathan Vasher said. “That’s our new motto.

“He’s a great teacher. He knows all the ins and outs of every position. And he’s a straight shooter. He would never tell us anything wrong. You can trust the guy. That makes you go out and play that much harder.”

Defensive end Alex Brown said Babich “brings a lot of energy” to team meetings, but mostly he brings trust to the defense.

“You can trust he’s going to put us in the best position to make plays,” Brown said. “He’s had to change some since he was the linebacker coach, but for the most part he is still Bob Babich. And no one has a problem with Bob Babich. He’s a great guy who really shoots you straight.”

He’s a guy who has been Lovie Smith’s close friend since the two started out together in college at Tulsa in the early 1980s.

“I was the linebacker coach and he was the graduate assistant way back in the day,” Smith said. “I just liked the way he coached.”

Babich said he and Lovie “think the same way” and just naturally hit it off.

“You would think we wouldn’t,” Babich said. “He’s from Big Sandy, Texas. I’m from Aliquippa, Pa. But we were both young and had young children, so our families had a lot in common. We’ve been friends ever since we met.”

Smith said he hired Babich as a coach, not a friend.

“Our families have been friends for a long time, but I have a lot of friends that I don’t coach with,” Smith said. “Bob is on our staff because he’s a good football coach.”

And Babich is back in a good spot again, with a defense that should be among the NFL’s best. But, then, Babich always thinks he’s in a good spot. Even at NDSU.

His son wound up marrying a forward on the school’s women’s basketball team. Babich still follows the Bison, talking about their win at Minnesota last year and coach Craig Bohl’s new contract. Bohl is 43-12 in five years since replacing Babich.

“It wasn’t that bad of a situation,” Babich said of his Fargo days. “We had one tough year out of six, but we were going to have a great year the next year. And they did.”

He expects the same scenario will now repeat itself with the Bears.

“We’re excited,” he said.

Matt Trowbridge can be reached at (815) 987-1383 or
Bob Babich

Who: Bears defensive coordinator

NFL coaching experience: Bears defensive coordinator from 2007-present; Bears assistant head coach/linebackers 2006; Bears linebackers 200-05; Rams linebackers 2003.

College coaching experience: North Dakota State head coach 1997-2002 (46-22 record); Pittsburgh linebackers 1994-96; East Carolina linebackers 1992-93; Bowling Green linebackers 1991; Tulsa volunteer assistant/offensive line 1990; Wisconsin assistant offensive line/tight ends 1988-89; Tulsa tight ends/assistant offensive line/strong safeties 1985-87; Tulsa graduate assistant 1984.

Playing experience: Tulsa linebacker 1981-82; Mesa (Ariz.) Community College linebacker 1979-80.