Lovie Smith’s final lesson

Lovie Smith had a different relationship with players than with media and fans. The way it should be. (photo: AP)
Lovie Smith had a different relationship with players than with media and fans. The way it should be. (photo: AP)

Lovie Smith’s final lesson: reflections on a Bears head coach

by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)

I didn’t know how beloved Lovie Smith was until he was gone.

On Dec. 31, 2012, the day after the final Bears game of 2012, the day Lovie Smith was fired, emotion flowed from the locker room at Halas Hall. Charles Tillman told the Sun-Times he was “shocked” to hear that Lovie was gone. Brian Urlacher told ESPN 1000 that “We’re all mad right now. We just lost our head coach.”

Devin Hester memorably stood at his locker that day and told reporters that he was considering retirement. Though he tweeted the next day that Lovie’s firing did not cause his retirement talk, Hester’s locker room comments made it clear how he felt about the only NFL head coach he’d ever played for.

The tweets from his players poured in. The praise for their coach started before the season finale…

…grew on Dec. 31…

…and has continued since, starting with the freakish Jarrett Boykin fumble recovery touchdown in the 2013 do-or-die finale:

Still, what brought my understanding of The Lovie Effect to a new level was not the words of his veterans, but the players new to the team.

While Hester was talking to his pack of reporters on 12-31-12, I was on the other side of the locker room speaking with first-year Bears linebacker Blake Costanzo.

“I really look up to him a lot,” Costanzo said about Smith. “He reminds me of my father. Just a stand-up, class guy.”

First-year defensive tackle Nate Collins was next. He fought back tears talking about Smith.

“Lovie was a guy who took a chance on me,” Collins said. “Obviously I had a couple incidents in the offseason and I got let go in Jacksonville. And Lovie, I’ll never forget the day he brought me in here. He was just like, ‘The past is the past. I want you on this team because of the way you work and the way you play.’

“And I always respected that. It’s a big thing that he even took a chance on me, and I just want to say thank you.”

Second-year defensive tackle Amobi Okoye was overcome as well, calling the firing “unfair.”

I asked him to elaborate.

Lovie was not as staid and unemotional as his reputation. (see below for photo credit)
Lovie was not as staid and unemotional as his reputation. (taken from ToledoBlade.com)

“Unfair in the sense of I think he’s been very productive,” he said. “He’s won games. I mean, we were two touchdowns away from breaking a record, a defensive record, you know? We led the league in takeaways. But, I don’t know…”

Okoye trailed off there and did not finish his thought, one of five Bears I interviewed about a stunning end to a season that began 7-1.

For me though, I was most stunned to see this reaction from first- and second-year players. It told me everything I needed to know about Lovie Smith.

Eight years too late.

I am now watching Lovie Smith on the Soldier Field sideline for the first time since Dec. 16, 2012. That was a 21-13 loss to the Packers that dropped the Bears to 8-6 and out of the division race, two — but really three — games behind Green Bay.

This week in Chicago has been filled with reunion talk. On the train and in bars, in the newspapers and on the air, Bears talk has been Lovie talk.

At the Sun-Times, Adam Jahns gathered favorite Lovie stories from Urlacher, Tillman, Briggs and other men who played for him. The paper titled it “Still Feeling The Love.”

The story was a hit among fans, former players and local media members. At least nine non-Sun-Times-affiliated sportswriters tweeted it, an unusually high level of interindustry promotion.

Not everyone followed that spirit. Another common argument throughout the week was that Lovie just looks good now compared to Marc Trestman, a sentiment David Haugh crystallized in the Tribune.

Others argued that in the name of unity, it was inappropriate to lionize a former head coach at the expense of the current one, especially when that former coach is about to be the opposing coach.

I understood the complaints about the timing of such celebrations. Kind of. More important to me was simply hearing the message, whenever it came:

Athletes and coaches are more than their stats or their record, more than what reporters write about them, more than what radio hosts say about them, more than how fans feel about them.

I’ve been on the receiving end of Lovie Smith’s personality twice in my life. Once was in a Bears press conference, the only time I ever asked Lovie a question. I asked him if the team valued different wins differently, such as beating a team with a losing record compared to one with a winning record.

He respectfully disagreed with my suggestion that a game’s circumstances matter when judging an outcome. His response was detailed yet brief; when he finished he looked me in the eyes in a way that I interpreted as, “I trust you’ll agree that answer sufficed.”

The second time was this month when I spoke to him for a profile on his son Matt, an attorney and agent whose first client was Lovie.

He called my cell. When I answered, he introduced himself as “Matthew Smith’s client Lovie Smith,” a statement I found both endearing and loyal.

He laughed and joked throughout that interview. He was still direct and measured but was also raw and open.

Lovie Smith with his sons: from left, Miles, Matthew, Mikal.
Lovie Smith with his sons: from left, Miles, Matthew, Mikal.

The difference in his responses was obvious. In 2012, I was a Bears reporter, a man trying to cross the moat and scale the fences.

In 2014 I was already inside, sent by his son.

Lovie Smith announced three goals when he joined the Bears. The third, win a Super Bowl, was not fulfilled.

His promise was: a .539 winning percentage, three division titles, one Super Bowl appearance, four top-five defences. And just as important, players who loved him.

Their opinion matters. Ours doesn’t. That to me was the final lesson of the Lovie Smith era, a good one to recall no matter the week.

Jack M Silverstein is a staff writer for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Say hey @readjack.

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