Bears' Lovie affair
Published: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
MIAMI — Lovie Smith's first day as coach of the Chicago Bears brought a big smile to his face and a Texas-sized promise to those who hired him, even to those who didn't know him.
First, he vowed to beat the archrival Green Bay Packers. That was a real crowd pleaser. Then he turned his sights on something greater.
"I will do everything possible to bring back the pride, tradition and excellence of the glory days of past great Bear teams," Smith said on that January day just more than three years ago. "We want to win a world championship. Just like our '85 Bears, led by a great coach that I deeply admire, Mike Ditka."
Ditka was as fierce prowling the sidelines as he was catching passes over the middle during his playing days as one of the NFL's most rugged tight ends. Snarling at times and often showing his emotion openly, he coached the Bears to their only Super Bowl where they overwhelmed New England 46-10. He'll always be Da Coach.
Now Smith is one victory away from making good on his promise to reclaim the NFL title for the storied franchise. And he's doing it with a style that is very unDitka-like — he's hardly confrontational, very low-key, doesn't holler or yell.
Not even about being the lowest paid coach in the NFL, at $1.35 million per season. (That compares to the $8 million per season Mike Holmgren reportedly earns.) Smith asked about a contract extension before the season began, he said, but didn't get one; now in the third of a four-year deal, he's expected to finally get that extension after the Super Bowl.
"There is this stereotype of how all coaches have to behave, what you are supposed to be and that isn't the case," Smith said. "I just think guys should be who they are. You can win a lot of different ways and whatever your approach is, just believe in it, get the guys to buy into it and of course you can accomplish anything."
Smith ability to stay calm, to keep his composure on the sideline, mirrors the personality of his good friend Colts coach Tony Dungy. It was Dungy who gave Smith his first NFL job in 1996, and it is Dungy whom he'll face in pro football's biggest game on Sunday.
The two have already made history as the first two black head coaches to compete in the Super Bowl in the event's 41 years of existence.
"I take pride in that," Smith said. "Me being in this position right here will just open the eyes of a lot of young African-American men to see what you can accomplish if you have a goal. Really it should be about what you have inside, not the color."
Tackle John Tait noticed that Smith was more animated than usual when Robbie Gould made a 49-yard field goal in overtime to beat Seattle in the opening round of the playoffs. He lifted his arms in joy on the sidelines following what was, at that time, his most important win as a coach.
"He showed that emotion you don't see that very often," Tait said. "When you have a coach who is really even-keeled and doesn't get really upset, when he does say something, it gets your attention. I enjoy his coaching style as an older player who's been in the league a few years. I think it's good, a good fit for our team."
Tait's been around long enough to be able to compare coaching styles.
"I've had a couple other coaches and they've kinda been on the opposite end of the spectrum, yelling and kinda carrying on and stuff like that — which is good, in some ways, because I think it is a motivator," he said.
"But Lovie's not that way. He kind of treats his guys like we're grown men. Shows you a lot of respect, and in return I think we give a lot of respect to Lovie."
For defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, Smith's style earned him the team's respect on several fronts.
"His word is his word and whatever he says goes. But he's a realist. He doesn't have bigger expectations for us than we have for ourselves and I respect that," Ogunleye said. "He treats all the players like men. He treats Brian Urlacher the same way he might treat a guy who's on the practice squad."
Urlacher would be happy to finish our his career working for Smith.
"He's great to play for, he always lets you know where you stand. If you want to talk to him, you can go talk to him. His door is always open for us, sometimes you don't want to, but he'll call you in there. He's a great coach and I can't imagine playing for anyone else, and I don't want to," he said.
In the short time he's been with the Bears, Smith certainly has been tested.
Rex Grossman broke his ankle before the 2005 regular season even began, and Smith was about to turn to backup Chad Hutchinson. But when he was ineffective, he was quickly released and Smith called on raw rookie Kyle Orton just before the season started.
Orton struggled at times but also played well enough to get the Bears 10 wins. But when it was time to push for the playoffs, Smith went back to a healthy Grossman. This season he's stuck with his often-criticized quarterback, refusing to budge when many clamored for a change due to his inconsistency.
He's also dealt with a series of off-field incidents. Defensive back Ricky Manning Jr., defensive tackle Tank Johnson and tight end John Gilmore had brushes with the law. And last season, there was an off-day fight on an FBI shooting range between center Olin Kreutz and tackle Fred Miller that had to be patched up.
"He is a leader," Bears president Ted Phillips said.
During a 23-year coaching journey, Smith worked his way up from high schools to numerous college assistant jobs before Dungy hired him to coach linebackers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Smith went on to become the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, helping them earn a trip to the Super Bowl. In 2005, he was honored as NFL coach of the year for leading the Bears to the first of two straight NFC North titles.
"When you talk to Lovie, he's very pragmatic. He understands the game. You look at his resume — geez, he earned his stripes. Nothing was given to him," general manager Jerry Angelo said.
Smith's small-town roots in Big Sandy, Texas, have kept him grounded. He's a devout family man and strong in his belief about doing things the right way. His way.
"You know, life is short," he said. "I realize the position I'm in right now. It was a long journey to get here, and that makes you appreciate where you are a little more, too, some of the struggles you've had."
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