He was there for them all along, the calm to their chaos. Lovie Smith was waiting for his chance to return to the NFL. The Buccaneers needed the stability of a proven winner at the highest level. So he waited, no doubt arms folded as they are on the sideline, confident that he was the right man for the job.
And just like that, the Bucs fell in love with Lovie all over again.
Smith, 55, reached an agreement in principle Wednesday night to become the Bucs' fourth head coach in the past six years.
The team moved quickly to hire the former Chicago Bears head coach, interviewing Smith this week knowing that the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins also were in hot pursuit. The Bucs are in the process of finalizing the contract, which is expected to be a four-year deal in excess of $5 million per season. It includes a team option for the fifth year. The Bucs could make the hiring official with an announcement as early as today.
"I'm so excited for Lovie and the Bucs," said former linebacker Derrick Brooks. "It means so much to me personally. Hard to express it in words. Hard not to feel the franchise just got better tonight."
Smith was the Bucs' first choice from the time they fired head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik on Monday.
Smith began his NFL coaching career in Tampa Bay as a linebackers coach on Tony Dungy's first staff in 1996. He led the Bears to the Super Bowl after the 2006 season and was 81-63 in nine regular seasons and 3-3 in the playoffs. He won three NFC North titles. Smith was named AP NFL Coach of the Year in 2005.
Smith was fired after going 10-6 and missing the playoffs in 2012. He spent a year out of football and was destined to become one of the most highly coveted coaches available. Smith interviewed with the Houston Texans, who hired Penn State coach Bill O'Brien. The Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins also wanted to interview Smith.
The Bucs play against the Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago next season.
Dungy told the Times Wednesday that Smith would be the "perfect fit.'
"I think he knows the lay of the land in the organization, number one," Dungy said. "He's been there and knows how this thing really developed and how it got going well. I also think he could bring some of that back. They've got talented people in place and the one thing he had in Chicago if you talk to all those players was that loyalty factor, and guys wanting to play for him, and I think that's what he would bring and kind of bring this group together. So I think it could be a really good fit."
Smith provides exactly what they lacked under Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano — a proven NFL head coach who was two Rex Grossman interceptions away from winning Super Bowl XLI against Dungy's Colts.
Smith also will be able to assemble an impressive coaching staff. Various reports have said he plans to hire former California head coach Jeff Tedford as his offensive coordinator. Former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier also could become the Bucs' defensive coordinator. Cowboys defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, Smith's best friend, also is a candidate for that position.
"He really could (attract a good coaching staff)," Dungy said. "There's a lot of people that would like to work for him and I would guess the whole key will be who they want to get as a GM and the whole kind of structure they have and how they move forward. But I think Lovie knows how to win in the NFL, he knows a lot of good people. He would have a lot of people who would love to work for him on the staff and he'll have players who would love to play for him. So that's a pretty good combination of things to have."
Smith also will bring stability to a franchise that is coming off one of its most chaotic seasons in team history. Not only did they start 0-8, but quarterback Josh Freeman was benched and later released amid accusations that Schiano leaked confidential information about Freeman's involvement in the NFL drug testing program. Three players also contracted MRSA.
Known for his defensive expertise, Smith's Tampa 2 system should be a solid match for the Bucs personnel with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David, safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson and cornerback Darrelle Revis.
The Bucs still have to hire a replacement for Dominik. Although typically the new general manager would be involved in the process of picking a head coach, the Glazers' familiarity with Smith and the competition for his services meant the Bucs had to move quickly to land the new face of their franchise.
Smith's long-time friend Chris Ballard, the Kansas City Chiefs' director of player personnel, could be joining him in Tampa Bay as general manager.