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Lovie Smith back in Chicago as Bucs coach

Lovie Smith is the Bucs' third coach in four seasons. [BRENDAN FITTERER | Times]
Lovie Smith is the Bucs' third coach in four seasons. [BRENDAN FITTERER | Times]
Published Nov. 23, 2014

CHICAGO — He has had a lot of coaching jobs, and lived in many places. That's all Lovie Smith wants you to know.

He rattles them off like items on a grocery list. Big Sandy (Texas) High School, Arizona State, Kentucky, Ohio State, Tennessee, the St. Louis Rams. He's proud of the fact that in one calendar year, he cashed checks from four different employers.

"This is how I feel about it," Smith said. "We've got an NFC opponent, a chance to get a win. I used to coach there a while back. … What's the rest of the story?"

The story begins with the ending. Smith was fired following nine seasons as Bears coach after going 10-6 in 2012 and narrowly missing the playoffs.

The man who restored the Bears to their championship luster, who took them to Super Bowl XLI in his third year (only to lose to Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts), who is mentioned by Chicagoans in the same sentence as George Halas and Mike Ditka, suffered a dismissal colder than any wind chill at Soldier Field.

Some players cried, some cursed.

"I mean, I don't know how you can knock a guy who always wins," said Brian Urlacher, the former Bears Pro Bowl linebacker. "I still can't believe he gets fired. He goes 10-6 and gets fired and the next couple years, you see what's happened here after he left. It's so mind-boggling to me. People are seeing how hard it is to win here."

Smith returns today as coach of the Buccaneers (2-8), where he has found it hard to win in his first year. He still is revered by his former Bears players, respected by the fans and reviled by some in the Chicago media who suffered "Lovie fatigue."

Smith harbors no bitterness. In fact, for a year after his firing, he remained at his home in a suburb north of the Windy City, surrounded by friends and family.

"Oh, I know how I'm remembered there," Smith said. "So as I come in (today), I'm coming in as an opposing coach. That's how I'm looking at it.

"The year I had off and just being in Chicago for nine years, I don't need anything validated this week. Fans were great to me and my family while we were there. Administration was. I have lifetime friends on the Chicago Bear football team. So I think I have all those things."

Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, like many players, speaks glowingly of Smith and the bond they continue to share.

"I think that when you think of Lovie here, you've got to put him in the category of with the great coaches of Chicago," Briggs said. "You have George Halas, you have Mike Ditka and then you have Lovie Smith. When you think of Chicago, you think of defense and Lovie did a great job of maintaining the tradition of great defense in Chicago. … It was a special time."

•••

From the start, the slow-talking Texan wasn't interested in much more than winning games. Chicago had become a city of coaches with huge personalities, from Ditka to Phil Jackson, Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella and Ozzie Guillen.

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"Lovie Smith was a celebrity because he was the coach of the Bears, but he wasn't a celebrity because he was Lovie Smith," Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh said. "I don't think there was a rock star following. During his time in Chicago he deserved respect, he earned respect but he was hard to hug as a city. That was part of his own doing."

Inside the locker room, he had few detractors. Smith won over people the way he won games — because he cared. He would take the blame for the team's failures and deflect criticism from players.

"He was our leader, No. 1," Urlacher said. "He brought a way of football here that hadn't been played in a few years and we adapted to that style of football and played it the whole time he was here. We were pretty good on defense.

"He was like a father figure and we didn't want to disappoint him. During our week of practice, our walkthroughs were challenging as hell. I mean, there were no easy plays. He liked it when our defense looked bad in practice. In our meetings, he would call us out, but he liked it when our scout team offense made us look bad. Practice was hard."

Smith was so demanding of his defense that during halftime of a game at Jacksonville in 2012, with the score tied 3-3, he held his players back in the locker room and got on them using his G-rated form of cussing.

"He doesn't swear, but he uses filler words," Briggs said. " 'Jiminy Christmas' or 'You've got to be freaking kidding me' and things like that. To me, I know exactly what filler words are, they're just filling in for the words that you really want to say. But I've never heard him swear or use a cuss word.

"He pulls the defense together and just rips into us. 'You're better than that, Jiminy Christmas!' I was next to Julius Peppers at the time and when he was done Julius leans over to me and he was like 'Son, why is he so mad? The score is tied up, it's 3-3, and we're not losing.' I really kind of looked at Pep and I was like 'I guess that's the standard that he has for us.' We went into that second half and dominated defensively, we scored on defense, we had some turnovers and we ended up winning that game."

Off the field, Smith's compassion galvanized his relationships. When Charles Tillman's infant daughter, Tiana, was rushed to the hospital in 2008 with a serious heart ailment that required a transplant, Smith and linebackers coach Bob Babich were among the first to reach the hospital and stayed the night.

When Urlacher's mother died at the beginning of the season in 2011, he told him to take as much time as he needed away from the team. "If you had a personal issue or a family issue that came up, there was never a doubt what his answer was going to be," Urlacher said. "It was, 'Do what you need to do, take care of your family. We'll be here when you get back.' "

•••

The Bears are 4-6 and struggling under second-year coach Marc Trestman. Smith might again be the most popular coach at Soldier Field today. His players know what a win would mean to him.

"It's going to be fun, emotional," said cornerback Isaiah Frey, who played for Smith in Chicago. "I think he's going to be excited, too. Quite honestly, I think he's going to have a chip on his shoulder."

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow @NFLStroud.

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