TAMPA — At 10:21 Wednesday night, two days after saying his team was headed in the right direction, head coach Lovie Smith was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
General manager Jason Licht will oversee the search for the Bucs' next head coach, co-chairman Joel Glazer said in a statement released by the team.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will be interviewed for the position and appears to be a serious candidate.
Smith, 57, went 8-24 in two seasons with the Bucs, improving from 2-14 last year to 6-10 in 2015 with rookie Jameis Winston at quarterback. But the Glazer family is said to be "passionate to win" and decided to part ways with Smith with two years and $10 million remaining on his contract.
"After careful consideration, we informed Lovie that we have decided to make a change," Glazer said in the statement. "I want to thank Lovie for his hard work and dedication to the Buccaneers during his time here. This decision was difficult on a variety of levels. I am disappointed that we were not more successful these past few seasons, but we are committed to doing what is necessary to give our fans the winning team they deserve."
Licht is scheduled to address the media at 2 p.m. today. He will lead a search for the Bucs' fifth head coach since the 2008 season.
The news stunned the NFL, which has seen six other head coaching openings. It also shocked many Bucs players and the coaching staff.
In multiple tweets, linebacker Lavonte David expressed shock and disappointment over Smith's dismissal.
"This is stupid," David tweeted, "we can't even have a consistent coach, 3 coaches, 3 coached in 5. Outside looking in y'all wouldn't understand how great of a coach/person he is. I guess yall got what you been asking for smh ."
Koetter, 56, who was hired this season by Smith from the Atlanta Falcons, helped the Bucs improve from 30th in total offense to fifth in the NFL with Winston at the helm. Winston joined Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as the only rookies to pass for more than 4,000 yards. Running back Doug Martin finished second in the league in rushing with 1,402 yards and six touchdowns.
The decision to fire Smith came after three days of meetings with Licht and Bucs owners. Smith met individually Wednesday with his coaching staff, which learned of his dismissal through media reports.
Bucs tight end Brandon Myers endorsed Koetter on Twitter. "Dirk has been the man since he walked in the door," Myers wrote.
Former Bears and Bucs cornerback Tim Jennings said he wasn't surprised by the firing. "No surprise to me!!!" he tweeted.
After Jon Gruden was fired following the 2008 season, the Bucs attempted to hire Chip Kelly, who is available again after being fired last week by the Eagles. Other top candidates could include Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
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"I don't know what to think right now," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy told ESPN. "I'm at a loss for words. I was just out driving, out getting some gas, and my phone started blowing up.
"It's 10 o'clock at night. I don't know what is going on. I've always loved Lovie. He's always been great to me and my family. I've never had a bad thing to say about him. I'm just at a loss for words. I honestly feel bad for my coach."
The Glazers have demonstrated a quick trigger finger on head coaches. They fired Gruden after six seasons with three years left on his contract. Greg Schiano was dismissed after two seasons with three years left on his deal. But it was believed they would have more patience with Smith, who began his NFL coaching career as the linebackers coach for the Bucs under Tony Dungy in 1996.
Smith's first season as Bucs head coach was torpedoed by a number of poor decisions. He handpicked veteran Josh McCown as his starting quarterback at $5 million per season. McCown was released after he went 1-10 as a starter for the Bucs.
Smith also hired former California coach Jeff Tedford as his offensive coordinator in 2014. But Tedford went on an indefinite medical leave after having a routine heart procedure in the preseason, leaving the Bucs without a skilled play-caller.
As painful as 2014 was for Bucs fans and their staff, it brought them the No. 1 overall draft choice, which turned out to be Winston, a top rookie of the year candidate. The Bucs started 1-3 but improved to 6-6 and were in the thick of the playoff race before losing their final four games.