LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) New Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace recalled driving from Eastern Illinois to New Orleans in a beat up car for a job interview all those years ago.
From working in game-day operations with the Saints for a year to rising through their front office and landing Chicago's general manager job, it has been quite a climb.
Pace was introduced Friday as the Bears' GM, charged with turning around a franchise with just one playoff appearance in the past eight years.
''I'm really proud of the path that I took. It just makes me smile,'' said Pace, who at 37 is the league's youngest general manager.
Pace comes to Chicago after 14 years with the Saints - 13 in their personnel department.
He has a big task rebuilding a team that went 5-11 and fired GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman after one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory.
Pace, a defensive end at Eastern Illinois in the late 1990s, helped build a championship team with the Saints. He also was the interim GM during the ''Bountygate'' sanctions.
''I was in a good situation in New Orleans,'' he said. ''I worked with great people there in a good environment. I wasn't one of those guys looking to jump to the next job. This was a very thorough and calculated decision by me and my family. And that's because this is a historic franchise that desperately wants to win and they're willing to do whatever it takes for that to happen. And I want to be leading that charge.''
Topping Pace's to-do list is hiring a coach.
As for Cutler, who signed a seven-year, $126 million deal after the 2013 season, Pace is not ready to draw any conclusions. The contract makes him tough to trade. Cutting Cutler could be an option if the Bears decide not to keep him.
''I want to get to know Jay,'' he said. ''I want to get to know him further before I come to these conclusions.''
Pace beat out Kansas City Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard, who spent 12 years in Chicago working under Emery and his predecessor Jerry Angelo, along with Tennessee Titans vice president of player personnel Lake Dawson and Houston Texans director of pro personnel Brian Gaine.
Pace will report directly to team president Ted Phillips and will ''lean heavily'' on him along with chairman George McCaskey and consultant Ernie Accorsi in the coaching search. But he will have final say on that as well as the makeup of the roster.
''I want to win,'' he said. ''The challenges, the first step, again is hiring the right head coach to help me lead that charge. And that's all I'm focused on right now. That's the most critical thing we can do right now. I think it helps me, again, to have a step-by-step plan in my head - a progressive plan - and right now, that's hiring a head coach, Step 1.''
Phillips said Pace impressed the Bears during his interview.
''He just did a great job, from showing intensity, from showing toughness, from really being able to articulate the kind of head coach he wants and how to build the roster,'' he said.
The Bears interviewed Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase before Pace was hired. They also interviewed Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles on Thursday right after they hired their GM.
Pace, who was in on that session, indicated he won't hire a coach based on a certain scheme. He said more interviews have been lined up since he was hired, but would not reveal names. Previous head coaching experience in the NFL is not a requirement.
He mentioned how the Saints' hiring of Sean Payton in 2006 sparked a jump from 3-13 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the NFC South championship. Signing Drew Brees obviously helped, but the new coach was quickly able to get his players to buy in.
''Sean came from (Bill) Parcells, so discipline was important right off the bat,'' Pace said. ''But Sean has a charisma, a confidence and an energy to him that's infectious. I think that's important, you know? When a head coach gets in front of the room, think about it, he's selling his plan to the players. And there needs to be buy-in. Sean Payton has that, and we'll be looking for some of those qualities.''
He mentioned re-establishing Chicago's identity as a team that relies on the run and tough defense, areas it veered from under Trestman.
Pace also insisted he is fine with the Bears maintaining their chain of command, with the GM reporting to the president rather than the chairman. He said Phillips reminds him of Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and that there's ''an automatic connection.''
''It's a structure that we like,'' McCaskey said. ''It's a structure that we think works. But as Ryan pointed out, more important than the structure are the people that you have in the various positions. We think we have a good one in general manager.''
Note: McCaskey does not expect Accorsi to remain on the payroll after the coaching search is completed.
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