During Lovie Smith’s nine-year run as head coach of the Chicago Bears, the team endured one of its most successful stretches in franchise history. Between 2004-2012, Smith led the Monsters of the Midway to a regular-season record of 81-63 (.563), including three division titles and a 3-3 postseason record, as well as two NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl (XLI) appearance.
Under Smith, the Bears were competitive nearly every season. Other than his first year (5-11 in 2004), Smith’s teams never finished worse than 7-9 and he was fired following a 2012 campaign in which the club went 10-6 – a record Bears fans can only dream about this season.
“I’m proud of everything we were able to do,” Smith said today, speaking with the Chicago media for the first time since his departure. “I loved my time there. I loved the organization that I worked for and the opportunity that they gave me. But as much as anything, the players that I got a chance to lead and to coach. The lifetime memories, the lifetime relationships that I was able to form from being there, of course that’s what will stay with me forever.”
Smith, now the head coach of the 2-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will be returning to Soldier Field this Sunday for the first time as an opposing head coach.
“I realize I was in Chicago for a long time. I have special memories there. So I’m sure there will be a little of that,” Smith said. “But as far as the game is concerned, once we tee it off, it’s another game that we’re trying to win.”
Looking back on his years in Chicago, Smith said his ability to connect with players and have them buy into his system was the key to his success.
“When you come into a new program, you lay out the blueprint on how we’re going to do things. What would be our philosophy. Just how we’re going to win football games,” said Smith. “So I laid that out and we had guys who bought into it right away. A lot of students of the game. A lot of good players. And then from there, you just start building each day and working to get better. And we did that. We had a few tough times early on but after we got going, things really turned around quickly.”
Smith took over in the Windy City in 2004, after a five-year reign under Dick Jauron that produced just one winning record (13-3 in 2001). Smith immediately revitalized the franchise with an effective defensive scheme built around the Cover 2.
In just his second season, Smith and the Bears won their first of three NFC North crowns, and in his third year, he brought the organization to its first Super Bowl in more than 20 years.
“For me, being my first head-coaching job, all of my philosophies and things that I thought I believed in, I got a chance to see,” Smith said. “Every imaginable situation you can be in as a head football coach, I feel like I had a chance to be in there. Just about any game – coaching the Hall of Fame game to a Super Bowl. Besides winning a Super Bowl, I think as a coach I got a chance to witness and be a part of just about everything you could want to as a coach. So there were a lot of things that came around.”
The team slowed down following its Super Bowl run in 2006, earning a playoff berth just once between 2007-2012. Yet Smith said he has nothing but good memories about coaching in Chicago.
“It was a dream come true,” he said. “To come to a storied franchise with a great fan base and to just help to bring that fan base and what was expected, back, it’s the things you dream about. That’s how it really turned out for me. I enjoyed every day I came to work and the people I had a chance to work with. Not only the players, of course, but the staff and the administration too. I’m sure everyone would hope that your first job would be something like my first job.”
Smith said that, while he has fond memories of his time as head coach of the Bears, he's out to win a football game this Sunday."I know how I'm remembered there. As I come in Sunday, 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, the administration was [also]," he said. "I have lifetime friends on the Chicago Bears football team. I think I have all those things. But right now, I'm an opposing coach on the other side of the field coming in this week."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.