Jon Hoke may need a map to navigate his way around Halas Hall after a massive expansion completed in 2019 more than doubled the size of the facility. But it still feels like home to the veteran coach.
Earlier this month, Hoke was hired by the Bears as cornerbacks coach and passing game coordinator. It's his third stint with the organization; he played in 11 games as a reserve defensive back in 1980 and served as defensive backs coach from 2009-14.
"I had such a great experience here, a brief time as a player and coaching," Hoke said. "Those six years were probably some of the best years I've had in coaching. That was a big part of [wanting to return]."
The Bears job was also appealing because it gives Hoke the chance to work with coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams and coach promising young players such as Jaylon Johnson and Kyler Gordon. It also will enable Hoke to live near his twin daughters and two grandchildren.
"All those things aligned for me," he said, "so I was just very fortunate when I was given this opportunity."
Hoke boasts 40 years of coaching experience, working at the college level from 1982-2001 before entering the NFL in 2002 as defensive backs coach of the expansion Texans. After seven seasons in Houston, he joined Lovie Smith's staff in the same role with the Bears in 2009.
In 2010, Hoke helped the team win the NFC North title and advance to the NFC championship game. In 2012, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings both were voted to the Pro Bowl. Tillman led the NFL with 10 forced fumbles and returned all three of his interceptions for touchdowns, while Jennings topped the league with nine interceptions, the second most in franchise history.
"It was special when they did that," said Hoke, who remains close with both players. "We're very prideful of that. You're happier for them because they deserved it. They put the work in."
Reflecting on his first coaching stint with the Bears, Hoke marvels at the bond that existed on a defense that featured Tillman, Jennings, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and others.
"I'd never been around and still haven't been able to be around a group that was as close as that group," Hoke said. "It would be a Friday and we had been done with practice and all of a sudden you'd hear all this ruckus. They were playing dodge ball at an elite level in the locker room.
"It was unbelievable, but that was that group. They had such a special bond. Those are the things that I hope that we can recreate here. I think we have a good core of guys, and I look forward to that."
When Smith was fired by the Bears following the 2012 season, Hoke was retained by incoming coach Marc Trestman. After Trestman was relieved of his duties after two years, Hoke returned to the college level in 2015 at South Carolina as co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.
Hoke later served as defensive backs coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2016-18), defensive coordinator at Maryland (2019-2020) and secondary coach with the Atlanta Falcons (2021-22).
Hoke has never previously worked with Eberflus or Williams. But all three come from the same defensive coaching tree that blossomed when coach Tony Dungy and assistants Smith, Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli ran the "Tampa 2" 4-3 scheme with the Buccaneers.
"Tony Dungy is a driving force with the philosophy," Hoke said. "It's how the game's supposed to be played. It's about assignment, alignment, technique and key. It's toughness, it's running to the ball, it's taking the ball away."
If those aspects of the game sound familiar to Bears fans, it's because they're all key elements of the "HITS" principle that Eberflus has implemented. HITS is an acronym for Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways and (playing) Smart. Eberflus created the phrasing but has said the idea was influenced by Marinelli when they coached together with the Dallas Cowboys from 2013-17.
"So many coaches are scheme-oriented and think it's the call," Hoke said. "It's not. As long as you're sound, it's the players and how hard they do it. And the HITS principle touches all those things. Playing hard with intensity, taking the ball away, finishing—all those things—that's what it is."
Having spent the last four decades in coaching, Hoke doesn't reflect much on his playing days. But he did reach the NFL as an undrafted free agent from Ball State, playing his only season with the Bears, wearing No. 47. One highlight of the 1980 season was a dramatic 23-17 overtime win over the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Hoke suited up for that game and ate a turkey dinner later that night at Hall of Famer Dan Hampton's home.
"My kids like to remind of it," Hoke said of his playing career. "They think it's the coolest thing in the world."
Hoke was blown away in 2019 when he received his old Bears jersey in the mail and along with a personalized letter from chairman George H. McCaskey to celebrate the NFL founding franchise's 100th season. It's something that the Bears did with hundreds of their former players.
"I had a brief career, so for them to do that, it was really cool," Hoke said. "I always thought this was a special place. I tell people this and I've told coaches this, that when you get it right in Chicago and you're winning, there's not a better franchise in the National Football League. I truly believe that."