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Lovie Smith would be a nice fit as Bucs coach

It is time for the safe guy.

It is time for the proven guy.

It is time for Lovie, the guy with the flame in his stomach.

Over the past few years, the Bucs have flitted between this personality and that one, as if the next coach can have nothing in common with the guy who came before him.

For a long time, they had the quiet guy. Tony Dungy looked at a football game the way a science instructor looked at a beaker. His eyebrow would raise every now and then but not a lot more.

For a while, they had the intense guy. Jon Gruden was all fire and fury in the way he approached football. His features would twist, and his face would redden, and he would cover 8 miles of sideline in a single afternoon.

After that, they had the nice guy. Raheem Morris was everybody's buddy, and if a player wanted to flare up at him, well, what was the harm? School was out with Raheem, the most likeable guy a team ever quit on.

Then came the hard guy. Greg Schiano was Sgt. Hulka from Stripes, and by golly, everyone better stand up and salute. Schiano was a tough guy. He micromanaged the Bucs something awful, and in the end, he coached them the same way.

So what now? Do the Glazers hire a funny guy? A smart guy? An angry guy? A driven guy? A guy who juggles?

Or, this time, do they simply hire the best coach available?

This time, do they hire Lovie Smith?

This coach search should not take long. It shouldn't take weeks of wandering through the candidates the way it did when the Bucs hired Gruden. It shouldn't take sacrificing the future by giving up so many draft picks to get him.

Nor should this search be a stroll through recycled coaches such as Mike Sherman and Wade Phillips and others who made you frown and shake your head, the way it was before they hired Schiano. Due diligence is one thing, and shuffling your feet while the best candidates go elsewhere is another.

Lovie is different. After nine years, yes, there were those who were weary of Smith's unflagging optimism. But if you look back on the Smith years with the Bears, they were a success. Three times, he won division titles. Once, he reached the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman as his quarterback, a miracle that ranks up there with the loaves and the fishes. Overall, he was 18 games over .500 with a bunch of guys named Ned playing quarterback.

From way down where the Bucs live, that all looks pretty good.

Who else are the Bucs going to hire? Are they going to get in the Bill O'Brien line and chase a guy who has never been an NFL head coach? A guy whose greatest success as a college coach has little to do with the won-loss record? Maybe it's me, but doesn't that strike you as Schiano's neighborhood?

Dan Quinn? A lot of people love Quinn, the Seattle defensive coordinator, and he'll get a few interviews in the weeks to come. But Quinn has never been a head coach, either. Yeah, there is a risk factor there.

Ken Whisenhunt? When he had Kurt Warner, Whisenhunt was a very good coach. Without him, Whisenhunt averaged six wins a season in his last three with the Cardinals.

Mike Shanahan? Unless John Elway is making a comeback, never mind.

Gary Kubiak? So you're going to hire one of the few coaches who had a worse season than the one who worked for the Bucs?

None of them seem to be as solid a choice as Smith, who grew up here as Dungy's linebackers coach. Now maybe it's time for him to come home.

Here's the thing about Smith. He's a ball coach. He demands loyalty without being soft, competitiveness without being hard. As Dan Pompei of the Sporting News wrote: "A sure thing if ever there was one. Consistent as a healthy heartbeat, steady as the terrain on a Midwestern drive.''

Yeah, Smith is a defensive coach. These days, some people are saying that as if it's a swear word. But in Tampa Bay, the defense is a lot closer to the rest of the league than the offense. Why wouldn't you want a defensive coach?

Here's the thing about defensive-minded coaches. If they can get the right offensive coordinator and the right quarterback, they tend to do just fine. Bill Belichick came up on the defensive side of things, after all. And Don Shula. And Tom Landry.

In Chicago, the Bears always seemed as if they were searching for the right quarterback. There was Chad Hutchinson in Smith's first year and Kyle Orton in his second and Grossman in his third. Jay Cutler, for all that he is and all that he lacks, took over in Smith's sixth year.

After nine seasons, Smith became a little familiar in Chicago. It happens. He was solid, but he wasn't dazzling. He didn't invent a cure for third down. And so Smith was fired after a 10-win season. This year, the Bears gave up 201 more points than in Smith's last year.

You want a number to think about? From 2004-12, Smith won 81 games. Over the same period, the Bucs won 62.

A story: Back in the 2002 playoffs, Lovie was in his first year in charge of the Rams defense. For years, the Rams had had plenty of offense but not a lot of defense. But suddenly, they were playing on both sides of the ball. Smith had taken the 23rd-ranked defense in the league, and it had risen to No. 3.

After the game, Smith leaned against a wall, his face flush with success.

"It's our job,'' Smith said that day, "to put out the fire.''

It was a simple, basic approach. Here, where the buildings are on fire as if it is ancient Rome, we could use a little of that, too.

Look, this isn't just about hiring a familiar face. If it was, Dungy, Gruden and Morris are all available. One caution, though. The Glazers have to hire a coach and a general manager. One man can't do both anymore.

(On the other hand, there are plenty of general manager types who have worked with Smith such as Tim Ruskell, the former Seattle general manager, and Jerry Angelo, the former Bears general manager. Both of them grew up here, too.)

My advice for the Bucs? Don't dally.

Other teams like Smith's resume, too. The Redskins. The Texans. Maybe the Lions. The Bucs need to be bold, and they need to be decisive, and they need to be quick.

It is time for the solid choice.

It is time for the familiar choice.

It is time for the right choice.

Lovie Smith would be a nice fit as Bucs coach 12/31/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 8:43pm]
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