TAMPA — A look of anguish — or maybe anxiousness — washed over the face of Bucs general manager Jason Licht on Thursday as he described the clumsy dismissal of coach Lovie Smith after two seasons.
Licht and Smith had worked arm in arm as the Bucs went 8-24. The Glazer family, which owns the team, was scattered to parts unknown. That left Licht, 44, who had never fired nor hired a head coach, to talk about how he suddenly had been entrusted with doing both.
"We came in together two years ago with a shared vision of winning," Licht said of himself and Smith. "We've all shared in the blame of that not happening. Today is not a day to dissect the failures, particularly of Lovie as a coach. It's to talk about the future, to talk about the next head coach of this football team."
While there is no timetable in the search for the team's fifth head coach in nine years, Licht described offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter as a "very strong candidate."
Several teams — reportedly the Dolphins, Eagles and 49ers — have asked for permission to interview Koetter, 56, who is recovering from hip surgery. The Bucs are obligated to let him speak to those teams while they consider him for their opening.
"Dirk Koetter is definitely one of those. He'll be a very strong candidate," Licht said, noting that the Bucs had received strong interest in their head coaching job. "He's got a strong resume. I had a chance to work with him day to day in the last year. I like Dirk."
Licht was part of the Cardinals' hiring of Bruce Arians, a potential NFL Coach of the Year this season, three years ago.
In his first year with the Bucs, Koetter led the offense to a No. 5 overall ranking while quarterback Jameis Winston joined Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as the only rookies to pass for 4,000 yards in a season.
"I don't know if we're in a tug of war," Licht said. "He deserves the recognition he's gotten. I'm not surprised that a lot of teams are wanting to talk to him."
Licht said the decision to fire Smith was not made as a reaction to the burgeoning outside interest in Koetter, but rather only after the Glazer family finished their evaluation of the Bucs' 2015 season — going 6-10, up from 2-14 a year ago.
The Bucs will be on their fifth coach since 2008 — Jon Gruden, Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Smith and their hire — but Licht said the ownership had shown enough patience in what they saw from Smith's two seasons and the direction of the team.
"I think when you have eight wins in two years, three home wins in two years, I think they've been patient enough," Licht said. "It does take time, but I think while you're building a good football team, you can compete."
Licht said he will inherit the final say on the 53-man roster and will continue to preside over the draft and free agency.
The Bucs also decided not to renew the contracts of four of their six main defensive assistants: defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier; defensive assistant Larry Marmie; safeties coach Mikal Smith, the coach's son; and defensive backs coach Gill Byrd.
Neither Smith nor Koetter could be reached for comment.
Koetter is by far the front-runner for the head coaching job.
"He put a good resume in front of him this year. Historically, it's the best offense we've had here in Tampa Bay," Licht said. "He's a good communicator. He's done great things with Jameis. There's a lot of good coaches out there, and Dirk is one of them."
But there will be more. The Bucs have to satisfy the Rooney Rule by interviewing a minority head coaching candidate. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel, Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson could all draw interest from Licht.
Smith had wrapped up meetings with his coaching staff and was at home late Wednesday as he tried by telephone to reach Licht. The plan was for Joel Glazer to travel to Tampa on Thursday morning and meet with Licht and Smith to discuss their future. But Smith picked up that the ax might be falling, and Licht confirmed the Glazers' decision to fire him.
"Lovie gracefully declined the meeting," Licht said. "Very polite, the only way Lovie can do it."
There were several reasons why the Glazers and Licht believed Smith had to be fired. They didn't like his original choice of coordinators. Jeff Tedford went on an indefinite medical leave after a heart procedure in the preseason of 2014 and never returned. Smith relieved Frazier of his play-calling duties this year but the defense got worse, finishing 26th in scoring.
Although Smith was never asked to make changes on his coaching staff, he offered no plan to do so during a meeting with the Glazers this week. His plan was to bring in a former staff member during his time with the Bears as a consultant.