Now the Bears are one game away from Super Bowl XLV.
It's hard to imagine that they would even have made the playoffs had Smith been fired last year, which is exactly what a lot of observers were calling for and fans were wishing for. But the positive impact that Smith has had in his seventh season with the Bears is unmistakable.
Remember, Smith was instrumental in recruiting Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, practically camping out on his doorstep to be there to woo him at the dawn of the free-agency period. If Peppers isn't the Bears' MVP this season, he's at least in the top two.
And don't forget, it was Smith who promoted Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator and hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator and Mike Tice as offensive line coach. All three have done magnificent jobs this season. Marinelli's squad, with major input from former defensive coordinator Smith, was No. 4 in points allowed, No. 2 in rushing yards allowed and No. 9 in total yards allowed.
Martz inherited a group that had little success in 2009 and included an inexperienced group of wide receivers, an offensive line in transition and a quarterback with phenomenal talent but no track record as a winner. He was able to install a new and complicated system on the fly and, after some relatively minor growing pains, produce an improved product.
Tice may have done the most impressive job of all, mixing, matching and transforming a patchwork unit of inexperienced youngsters and past-their-prime veterans into a cohesive unit.
It's unlikely any of those three would have been part of a new coach's staff, and it's hard to imagine three assistants having the positive impact that those three had this season. Much of the success the Bears have enjoyed is the result of the production of star veteran players, who have bought into Smith's system and his style of leadership.
"He's always very calm," said middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who was voted to his seventh Pro Bowl this season. "I know you guys don't like that he's like that most of the time, but we love it. He's that way on the field with us, he's that way in the meetings with us. He lets you know where you stand, and he keeps us prepared. He lets us know the schedule for this and that. Lets us know at practice how we're going to do it. It's nice to know what to expect, and we're always prepared to play. We've got a great coaching staff, and they always have us ready to play."
Smith prides himself on being an even-keeled leader and having an even-keeled team as a result.
"We're not a roller-coaster team," he said. "We're pretty level-headed about what we need to do. We have great veteran leadership."
But most great teams are a reflection of their coach, and this year the Bears are a great team - at least their 12-5 record says so. Maybe they didn't defeat a powerhouse Seahawks team on Sunday, but that team eliminated the defending-world-champion Saints a week earlier. Now they're one win away from getting back to the Super Bowl, which they reached four years ago in Smith's third season.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a better leader, someone that the guys rally around better than Lovie," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We've had some ups, we've had some downs. And with Coach Smith's personality of being even-keeled, it's never as bad as it seems; it's never as good as it seems. Let's just keep on going down the path that he's planned out for us. It can't help but trickle down to the rest of us. He kind of sets the tone for this team and it's not a coincidence that he's been so successful."