From the NAIA to the NFL: Meet Chris Tabor, the man who could be leading the Beras on Sunday
Two decades ago, Larry Smith was ousted as Missouri's football coach following the 2000 season and most of his assistant coaches were out of a job. That included young running backs and special teams coach named Chris Tabor.
Tabor had been coaching in the college ranks for several years after playing quarterback at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
Smith suggested Tabor find a job as a head coach at a small school.
"'You'll learn things I can't ever teach you,'" Tabor recalled Smith telling him. "And he was exactly right."
Tabor took a position as the head coach at Culver-Stockton in Canton, Missouri, an NAIA football program. He coached the Wildcats for one season in 2001, posting a winning record at 6-5 before jumping to a Division I coaching position at Utah State.
Twenty years later, Tabor might be a head coach again. Or at least an acting head coach.
With Bears head coach Matt Nagy in quarantine with COVID-19, Tabor could serve as the acting head coach in Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field.
"If that comes to fruition, I'll be honest with you, I run a team meeting every day," Tabor said. " And I know, in the special teams world, it is a team meeting. I deal with every player on this football team, from the quarterbacks to the defensive linemen to the offensive linemen. I meet with them every (day). To me, that's no different."
He has been the Bears' special teams coordinator since 2018 and has been coaching in the NFL since 2008.
Tabor, the longest serving coordinator under Nagy, has been leading practices this week. The team moved most of its meetings online following the COVID-19 outbreak that has placed six players on the COVID-19 reserve list over the last two weeks.
The casual fan probably doesn't know what a special teams coordinator does. It's far more involved than watching over the kicker and punter.
Field goals, kick and punt returns, kick and punt coverage -- all involve players from all sorts of positions.
With an NFL team, which has only 47 active players on game day, those tasks are given to players of varying offensive and defensive positions.
In his position, Tabor truly does work with more players than maybe any other position coach or coordinator.
It's not a glamorous position, but it's a vital one.
That's one reason why special teams coordinators make great head coaches.
Mike Ditka was a special teams coordinator during his Dallas days. Bill Belichick was a special teams coach with the Giants in the 1980s.
"It'll be great," defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. "He's been somebody on the team these past few years that you have a great deal of conversation with. He's a voice on the team already, so I think it's going to be a productive situation this weekend."
If Nagy is ruled out Sunday, Tabor will take on much more added responsibility. Coaching in the NFL is always a group effort. These guys are in each others' ears all game long on the headsets. Ultimately, though, someone has to have the final say on timeouts, challenges, going for it on fourth down, and other key factors that can swing a game.
Looking back now, that head coaching job at Culver-Stockton prepared him for pretty much anything.
"From learning how to line the field to ordering the equipment to leading a team and handling different situations, it was a great experience," Tabor said. "So I got a little taste of that, and if something ever happens down the road you always feel like you've been prepared by what's happened in the past."
Nagy, who met with the media over Zoom this week, wouldn't say where he's working from or where he plans to watch the game if he must remain in self-isolation. When Tabor spoke with the media Thursday, he was focused solely on his duties as special teams coordinator.
Tabor said he would worry about head coaching duties when the time came.
"(I'm) just giving him support so that he feels good," Nagy said. "A lot of it, too, when you're in the moment, there's some things you just can't predict. There's a feel to it as well, and that's where that feel will come into play and we have a nice little plan in place if that's the case."
Nagy said he won't know until Sunday morning if he's allowed to coach. As a vaccinated individual, Nagy would need to be symptom-free and produce two negative COVID-19 tests at least 24 hours apart.
If that doesn't work out, Tabor will be running the show.