Bears' Smith snags honor

Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Lovie Smith is in the company of Hall of Famers.
Smith was hired to resurrect the proud Chicago Bears franchise once coached by George Halas and Mike Ditka. He did such a strong job in 2005 that he was chosen The Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year on Saturday.
Halas and Ditka each won the honor twice. In his second season with the Bears, Smith took them from 5-11 to 11-5, the NFC North title and a first-round bye.
"Each day I'm living a dream to even be talked about with those guys," Smith said. "I'm blessed to be a Bear. Each day I realize that, and it seems like more and more I realize that."
Smith also beat out his mentor, Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, drawing 24 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL. Dungy was next with 20.
"I would have voted for Tony for the award," Smith added. "I'm really happy for our assistant coaches, to get that award. Tony did a great job with his program, as a lot of other coaches did."
Chicago had the league's stingiest defense, which figures because Smith made his reputation as a defensive mastermind, first in Tampa Bay under Dungy, then in St. Louis.
Now, he oversees a team that surged to a Super Bowl contender, armed with a defense that allowed only 202 points, just 61 of those at home.
"I definitely get the sense this is the Bears' year," he said. "We have a special group of athletes, a special team with character. We have a great team chemistry. Whatever it is the good teams have that make a run, I just think that this team has it."
Smith, who served as Dungy's linebackers coach from 1996-2000 in Tampa, recently attended the funeral of James Dungy, his close friend's oldest son, who died last month. Their bond remains strong and Smith often has credited Dungy with helping develop his leadership skills.
Bears general manager Jerry Angelo also worked for the Buccaneers.
"Lovie, when we went out and started our search for a head coach, it starts with leadership," Angelo said. "And (with) Lovie there've never been any doubts about that. I knew that firsthand. I had the benefit of working with him down in Tampa and saw that come to fruition even more so now that he's in charge."
Smith, who moved from defensive coordinator of the Rams to the Bears, chose Ron Rivera to coordinate the defense, but remains heavily involved with a unit sparked by Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher. Chicago gave up 24 points in a loss to Cincinnati in Week 3, but otherwise never yielded more than nine points at Soldier Field in going 7-1 at home.
Rivera has become a prime candidate for some of the head coaching openings this month.
"You most certainly do have to say he is coach of the year," Rivera said. "We were supposed to be 3-13 according to a lot of people. We were supposed to the 32nd-ranked team, and he got us to believe in ourselves and believe in each other. It's tremendous. To accomplish what we did this year and not have a lot of people behind us is a great testament to his belief in the players, the team and the systems we have."
Urlacher thinks Smith deserved the award because of how the offense remained together - if ordinary - when quarterback Rex Grossman was hurt in the preseason, then running back Cedric Benson, the fourth overall draft choice, held out, contributed little, and hurt his knee during the season.
"I realize a lot of other teams have had great seasons - when you look at Tony Dungy and they were 14-2," Urlacher said. "Marvin Lewis did a great job at Cincinnati. But you look at what we had to deal with.
"Our starting quarterback went down. He had to bring along a rookie quarterback (Kyle Orton) who won 10 games for us. It seems like he always made the right moves.
"When we started out bad, 1-3, he never gave up on us, never changed the way he spoke to the media and to the team. I have so much respect for the guy just because of the way he is, the way he treats everyone."
Smith is the fourth Bears coach to win the award. Halas, the founder of the franchise, won it in 1963 and '65. Ditka was honored in 1985 and '88. Dick Jauron won in 2001.
A good omen, perhaps, for Smith: Chicago won the NFL championship in '63 and '85, the first seasons Halas and Ditka, respectively, took the award. The six total Coach of the Year awards are the most for any franchise.
Also receiving votes were New England's Bill Belichick (2), and one each for Seattle's Mike Holmgren, Cincinnati's Lewis and the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin.
San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer was the 2004 winner.

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