“Guys understand: You don’t get it done, we’re gonna get somebody else to do it,” says Smith. “To me that is a positive.”
Will Chicago ever love Lovie?
Yes, you say: When he lifts a Super Bowl trophy over his head, confetti fluttering around his smooth bald dome, that’s when we’ll love him.
I’m not so sure.
Chicago loved Mike Ditka, who may be the most overrated coach in the history of the National Football League. We loved Ditka for his energy, his bluntness, and his fury. We loved him because he won a Super Bowl. But we loved him even after the Super Bowl, when he should have won several more and didn’t, when his stomp-curse-and-spit approach became a liability, when the Bears underperformed in games that mattered most.
And yet Ditka remains the standard by which all successors have been judged. Which brings us to Lovie Smith, who is finishing his eighth season as head coach of the Bears. Only Ditka and George Halas held the job longer.
Smith—or Coach Lovie, as some of his players call him—could not be more different from Ditka. For starters, if anyone had ever called Ditka “Coach Mike,” the perpetrator would likely have had a cigar shoved someplace tight. Ditka coached with his jaw in constant motion, eyes flashing anger, and fists clenched, and television cameramen loved every minute of it. Coach Lovie shows little or no emotion. Whether his team is down by a touchdown or up by 30 points, his expression is the same. He’s Tom Landry without the hat. I can’t recall ever seeing him yell, not even at a referee. And according to my own unscientific survey (three guys on barstools, drunk), this irritates Chicagoans. They don’t trust a guy who doesn’t blow his top. Referees are like slow drivers. They exist so you can yell at them.
Would Chicagoans love Lovie if he shouted?
The sad but true answer is yes, probably (see: Piniella, Lou, the Cubs manager whose approval ratings seemed to rise after every tantrum). Shouting shows fans that a coach feels their pain. But fans may not notice that shouting can also help shift the blame for failure. A coach who hollers at the running back who didn’t pick up the first down diverts our focus from the coach who called for the run on third and short.
But that’s not Lovie. The players and coaches I talked to said they’d never seen him yell—not on the sideline, not in practice, not in the locker room.
“He’s not real loud, just very strong,” says Rod Marinelli, the team’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. “He’s the same, win or lose—very analytical.”
So when I sit down with Smith in a meeting room at the team’s practice facility in Lake Forest, I ask: “Coach, don’t you think you’d get more love if you showed a little more emotion?”
He tilts back in his chair and smiles. “I always get this,” he says. “‘Hey, Lovie, scream and yell.’ Whenever something’s going wrong: ‘Hey, scream and yell at those guys.’”
He pauses, smiles again, and shakes his head.
“I think it’s a mistake to think that coaching is just yelling and screaming at guys. That’s not coaching, all right? That doesn’t get the job done. But people think that by not screaming and yelling publicly, you never discipline guys. No. We’re as disciplined a program as you’ll see. Every little thing a player does, I deal with, a lot of it behind closed doors. I’m never going to change.”
He stares straight ahead, confidently. He’s in coach mode even now. He’s coaching me. Trying to get me to buy into the program. His powerful shoulders and arms are hidden under a gray hoodie with a Bears insignia on the chest. This is not just a coaching philosophy, he says. It’s a way of life.
* * *
Smith is a religious man. He begins each morning with what he refers to as “spiritual food” (reading the Bible, watching a religious video, or listening to spiritual music), followed by real food (granola), followed by exercise (“I won’t tell you how many pushups I do, because that would be bragging”). Success comes through discipline, he says. Personal and professional. You set standards for yourself, for your team, and then you work every day to meet those standards. Talking about discipline excites him. He’s not yelling, of course, not pounding the table, but his Texas accent grows more pronounced as he explains his approach.
“You come to a game at Soldier Field, I’d like when you leave for you to say, ‘You know, man, they played ha-ard.’” Two syllables for “hard.” “‘They’re well coached, they’re disciplined, and they played ha-ard.’ That’s what it’s about. Blue-collar, hard work—that’s what you expect from a Chicago Bears team.”
Yelling at guys doesn’t make them tougher, he continues. What makes them tougher? Holding them accountable. “Guys understand: You don’t get it done, we’re gonna get somebody else to do it,” he says. “To me, that is positive.”
After each game, players and coaches gather to review film. Each player gets a grade on every play, presented for the entire team to hear. Players who don’t consistently make good grades get demoted. It’s the only honest way to operate, Smith says. Set standards and hold players to those standards.
Thirty minutes into the conversation and he’s got me believing. I’m ready to throw a block for this guy. Yet we hear that today’s big-time athletes are spoiled and don’t respond to discipline. We hear that modern athletes care about themselves first, their cars second, their teams third.
Aeneas Williams, who played for Smith when Smith was the defensive coordinator in St. Louis, says some coaches do have trouble getting through to players. They make threats and never follow up, and once that happens they lose the players’ respect. Not Coach Lovie. “I’ve never seen him upset in a demonstrative way,” says Williams. “But I never, ever wanted to disappoint him.”
After a blowout win in Miami early in the 2001 season, Williams recalls, “there was real excitement in the room. Then the postgame meeting started, and Coach Lovie comes in and says, ‘It feels good, doesn’t it?’ Then he says, with a calm voice, ‘But there are some of you in here who continue to make the same mistakes time after time, and I’ll tell you right now we are looking to replace you.’”
One of the players eventually benched was a $2-million-a-year starter.
Smith’s critics don’t question his work ethic or his ability to motivate. They do, at times, question his play calling. But a head coach makes hundreds of difficult calls every Sunday. Everyone blows a few. I think Smith calls a good, solid game. And he has been getting strong performance from teams that are not exactly packed with stars. My hunch is that he takes heat because some reporters covering the Bears think his confidence verges on arrogance. They also find themselves with few, if any, controversies to cover because Smith runs such a smooth operation, which leaves them with little to complain about but his play calling. The Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh grudgingly admitted recently that Smith deserved more respect but called the coach “hard to embrace.”
That’s life in the NFL, and a head coach with eight years on the job knows it. He also knows this: It won’t matter if he’s a brilliant teacher, a great leader, and an upstanding citizen who eats right, does his pushups, and prays to God every day. Only four NFL head coaches have served longer with their current teams, and eight years might sound like more than enough time to deliver a Super Bowl championship to a town that hasn’t had one since 1985.
Smith has two more years on his contract. He knows what’s expected.
“That’s life,” he says. “There are no guarantees. But you have to believe in what you’re doing. I believe. I’m OK going to work every day and doing the best job I possibly can. Treat people the right way, and do things the right way. Then whatever happens, I’m OK with it.”
He doesn’t worry that the Bears could cut him loose. In his vision of the future, the Bears are Super Bowl champs, and he is their coach. “That Vince Lombardi trophy—I see us holding it up. It’s a big thing for me for [Bears owner] Virginia McCaskey to be able to hold up that trophy. I see that picture. It’s part of my future.”
Illustration: Josue Evilla