In 2004, the Chicago Bears moved on from the unsuccessful regime of Dick Jauron and hired first-time head coach Lovie Smith. Little did anyone know that Smith would go on to win the third most games by a head coach in franchise history.
Still, winning just three playoff games in nine years, and making the postseason just once in the past five seasons, wasn't good enough for one of the biggest media markets in the NFL. As a result, Smith this morning was fired.
Smith has been known as a player's coach, so it was no surprise to find the team's locker room today filled with shocked and saddened Bears players.
"Everyone's surprised and shocked," said Jay Cutler. "Ten and six didn't get it done this year so it's unfortunate."
The team relieved Smith of his duties early this morning. He then addressed his players for the last time in a team meeting at 11 a.m.
"It's tough. It's a tough situation to be in, to see a great man, a great coach, have to sit in front of a room and do that," Roberto Garza said. "But this is the NFL. It happens. Unfortunately we put ourselves in this situation."
The Bears won seven of their first eight contests this year but went 3-5 in the second half of the campaign, falling out of the playoffs for the second straight season. It was the straw that finally broke GM Phil Emery's back.
"I'm just disappointed, disappointed we didn't make the playoffs, disappointed our coach is gone," said Kyle Adams. "[The meeting] was difficult, but Coach Smith is a real man, and he stood up and thanked us for everything we've done, and he said he was so proud to be a Chicago Bear. He thanked us, and as we move forward he said he'd be there for us if we needed anything."
For a number of Bears players, Smith is the only head coach they've had in their NFL careers. Nickelback D.J. Moore, who was drafted by Smith and the Bears in 2009, is one of those players.
"[He meant] everything," Moore said. "He gave me my first opportunity to play and get my name around the league a little bit. He's meant a lot to me. And he was personally my coach, so I spent more time with him than anybody else."
Bears players to a man talked about how enjoyable it was to play for Smith.
"He brought out not just the best football player in us, but as person, things that we'll carry with us for our whole life," said Craig Steltz. "How to be a man, I think that's the biggest thing he taught us. It wasn't always about on the field. He taught us how to be a man off the field."
Nick Roach said it was the constant respect Smith showed to his team that impressed him the most.
"He treated you with respect. He respected you just as a person, as a man," Roach said. "He wasn't a condescending type of teacher. He just wanted guys to be able to get the job done, and he was able to get that done without screaming and yelling and swearing and all that. He was able to communicate what he wanted effectively, which I think is clear by our successes that we had. From that standpoint, it would be hard not to say you'd want a coach like that."
There was also a feeling of disappointment at Halas Hall today. Most players admitted that, had they been more successful this season, Smith might have been able to keep his job.
"Absolutely [we let him down]," Cutler said. "I take a lot of pride in the way that I play, and offensively, we didn't show up in the last four years for him. A lot of that blame is going to be on me. As soon as I heard he was fired, there was instant regret on what we could have done, what we should have done, offensively."
Typically in the NFL, coaches who win 10 games don't get fired. With Smith's track record, it wouldn't be surprising if he's asked to fill one of the seven (and counting) head coaching vacancies that have opened today.
"There are a lot of opportunities out there for him," Garza said. "Obviously he wants to be [in Chicago] but that's not the scenario. Coach Lovie Smith is a great coach and a great man and he'll get an opportunity somewhere."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.