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Former players praise new Bucs coach Smith

 
Smith returns to the place where he spent five seasons as linebackers coach. “He is the boss, everybody respects the boss,” former Bears guard Ruben Brown said.
Smith returns to the place where he spent five seasons as linebackers coach. “He is the boss, everybody respects the boss,” former Bears guard Ruben Brown said.
Published Jan. 6, 2014

TAMPA — When Lovie Smith took over as Bears coach in 2004, he told his team it was going to beat the Packers.

Chicago did that in Smith's second game, defeating the two-time defending NFC North champions at Lambeau Field. Smith won seven of his first 10 meetings against Green Bay.

After going 5-11 in 2004, Smith suggested the Bears would win the division, and they completed that feat, finishing 11-5 in 2005 before losing in the first round.

"Then he said, 'We're going to win the Super Bowl now,' " recalled former Bears guard Ruben Brown. "I was like, 'Look who's getting too big for their britches.' But he wrote the check and we were going to back him up. That's the kind of atmosphere he built there. He won us all over. We went all in. His demeanor was just right for us, coaching and teaching and letting everybody be themselves."

Smith's Bears nearly backed up his boast, reaching Super Bowl XLI before losing to the Colts, which were led by his former boss in Tampa Bay, Tony Dungy.

The Bucs will officially introduce Smith today as their coach, bringing the 55-year-old back with hopes he can spark a similar turnaround.

And those who played for Smith when he was a Bucs assistant (1996-2000) and Bears head coach (2004-12) say he's the right man for the job.

They rave about his ability to bring out the best in his teams, garnering respect by giving it back to players.

"I think it's the way he treats people," said former Bears safety Todd Johnson, a Sarasota native. "He doesn't treat you any different if you're the first man on the roster or the scout team player. He treats everybody great. … I think Coach Smith will be refreshing for (the Bucs), because the way he's going to run things, it's not going to be like college or high school, it's going to be a professional football team, and he expects things to be done in a professional manner. And when people expect that, nine times out of 10, they do it."

While the Bucs whiffed on their past two coaches — from the relaxed Raheem Morris to the rigid Greg Schiano — Smith has been described as providing the perfect balance: a proven winner and demanding leader with a calm and stoic demeanor.

There's the softer side, with former Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie recalling the family atmosphere Smith fosters, getting wives and kids involved while actively helping players deal with personal issues.

Bears radio analyst Jay Hilgenberg, a Pro Bowl center for the Mike Ditka-coached Chicago teams (1981-91), recalled Smith attending the high school game of one of his assistant coach's sons. Players are galvanized by Smith's personality and remain intensely loyal, with Bears star returner Devin Hester saying he considered retiring after Smith was fired from Chicago in 2012.

"He can be a big brother," Brown said. "He is the boss, everybody respects the boss. But he toes the line and paves the way."

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With Smith, there's no calling out players in the media, and "no politicking" in the locker room, Brown said. But Smith, often compared to the calm, Christian style of a Dungy, provides discipline in his own ways. Johnson said Smith "treats you like a man;" if you're late for a meeting, he won't scream, he'll leave a fine in your locker.

"Just because a guy doesn't curse doesn't mean he's not tough," former Bears receiver Muhsin Muhammad told WDAE-AM 620. "When (Smith) was upset, you absolutely knew about it. If he said, 'Jiminy Christmas,' you knew you were in trouble."

Said Brown: "He's an alpha male, so you respect him. He's not going to take your garbage."

Practices can be hard, but Muhammad said Smith really knows the pulse of the locker room, when to let up when the team is tired, and when to push. Hanie said players appreciated "Victory Mondays," days off after wins, and team bonding activities during training camp.

Hilgenberg called Smith "one of the best defensive guys I've ever seen," with his units ranking among the best during his nine-year tenure in Chicago, where he went 81-63 with four 10-win seasons and three division titles.

Smith's downfall was Chicago's offense. But Hilgenberg likes the hire of new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, and though Smith reportedly has the final say over all personnel matters, he has allowed his coaches freedom.

"Assistants love working for Lovie," Hilgenberg said.

So did players, including Brown, who fondly recalled Smith's speeches, which were more poignant and factual than "rah-rah."

"I think (Smith) will be a great fit for (the Bucs)," Johnson said. "He's been there, knows the ins and outs. He'll get guys that are able to succeed and everyone will be showing up to games and excited, the cannons will be firing. I'm excited. It's going to be really good for Tampa."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.