Marc Trestman, left, the new head coach of the Montreal Alouettes, was an outstanding high school athlete and scholar growing up in a Minneapolis, Minn. suburb.
In his senior year he won the Mercury Award, presented to the area Jewish student who has excelled in both sports and academics.He grew up in St. Louis Park, a suburb with a significant Jewish community, which has produced a number of famous sons, among them Trestman’s near contemporaries New York Times writer Thomas Friedman and the movie-making brothers Joel and Ethan Coen.
Trestman, 52, who had an impressive career coaching in the National Football League for 17 years, shies away from making much of his being Jewish.
“In my 30 years around the game, or even in childhood, my religious background has never been broached by owners, coaches or other players,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Raleigh, N.C.
After high school, he was the quarterback of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team for three seasons, while earning a degree in political science, and was good enough that he thought of playing professionally.
But when he failed to make the cut in two tryouts with the NFL Minnesota Vikings, he packed up his car and headed south to Florida to pursue a law degree at the University of Miami. After his NFL ambitions didn’t pan out, he never thought of coaching, he said, until he was asked to be a volunteer quarterbacks coach of the Hurricanes.
In 1983, Miami won the national college championship Orange Bowl.
Trestman passed the Florida bar that year and was clerking in Miami, but his success in college football caught the attention of the NFL, in particular Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant, who hired him.
Between 1985 and 2005, Trestman worked with eight different NFL teams mainly as quarterbacks coach or offensive co-ordinator. He was with the Cleveland Browns when they made it to the AFC championship game; the San Francisco 49ers when they led the league in points scored, pass attempts and passing yards; the Arizona Cardinals when they reached the playoffs for the first time in 16 years; and the Oakland Raiders when they were 2002 Super Bowl contenders. That year he was named NFL offensive co-ordinator of the year by American Football Monthly.
Overall in those 17 seasons, his teams made 15 playoff appearances. Among the outstanding quarterbacks he’s coached are Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde and finalist Bernie Kosar, with whom he goes back to his University of Miami coaching days, as well as superstar wide receivers like Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens.
Trestman, who has a low-key personality, was regarded as one of the most intelligent coaches in the NFL, with an in-depth knowledge of the game.
To those who are not football fans and see the game as a bunch of brutes piling into one another, Trestman says they are missing a lot. “Football is a very cerebral game. That goes for playing and coaching. Physical skills are not enough without character and intelligence. I’ve seen many with abilities but were just not smart enough to play well,” he said.
“Millions of variables come into play in each game,” not the least of which is the weather, which will be more of a factor in Canada’s colder climate.
Trestman finds tremendous satisfaction in melding men from diverse economic, cultural and religious backgrounds into a team. “The beauty of the game is seeing people from all walks of life come together as one. If the team does not come before the individual, you will not succeed,” he said.
Trestman spent his last season in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins before returning to college football as the North Carolina State Wolfpack’s offensive coordinator in 2005.
He never thought he would work in the Canadian Football League, he said, and, in fact, had never been to Montreal until he came up to guest coach for at the Als’ summer camp. He replaces Jim Popp, who remains as the team’s general manager and vice-president.
Trestman is remaining in North Carolina until the start of the season, with periodic trips to Montreal. His two daughters are in high school, and he and his wife felt it best that the family stay in Raleigh until they graduate. The girls, he feels, need a little stability at this age, after growing up all over the United States.
Trestman is now getting up to speed on the Canadian game, with its 12 rather than 11 players, larger field, and different rules. “I’m learning from scratch,” he admits.
The pressure’s on to see the Alouettes, who made it to the semi-finals last season, through to the Grey Cup. The Grey Cup game is hosted by Montreal this year.
Among those he’s consulted is the legendary Marv Levy, who was head coach of the Als in the 1970s when the team won two Grey Cups. At 82, Levy just retired as GM of the NFL Buffalo Bills.
Trestman’s philosophy for success is to be “hardworking, humble and disciplined on and off the field, with a common respect for everyone in the program, our opponents, and the game of football.”
He is also trying to learn some French, and wants to speak the language as Quebecers do, rather than like a Parisian. During the interview, he tried out his new phrases: “Comment allez-vous?” And its response. “Très bien.”
He is taking that initiative with little knowledge that language is a touchy issue in Quebec, and that professional sports is by no means free of the controversy. He appreciated learning that Finnish-born captain Saku Koivu has been taken over the coals by the French media for not speaking French in public.
Trestman is eager to be respectful of francophones, and its cultural diversity is one of the things he likes about Montreal so far.
Last season, the only Jewish player in the CFL was an Alouette. Laval native Shaun Diner, a special-teams member and backup receiver, however, saw little playing time last year.
Trestman was chosen by the Als from about 10 potential candidates. “We believe he will be able to bring great leadership skills and knowledge to our league and take the Alouettes back to the standard to which our fans are accustomed, and to our ultimate objective, which is the Grey Cup,” said team chief executive officer Larry Smith.