The thing that most people probably wonder about first is the name. It’s probably thought that by most of those same people that the name is a nickname. This would be an incorrect assumption. Lovie Smith is the man’s name and it was the one given to him by his parents.
You see his parents were expecting to have a girl. Lovie had an aunt named Lavana. When Lovie came out with all of the wrong equipment for a name like that they did the best they could. The name Lovie was born.
These days, in Chicago, no one is making fun of the man’s name. Of course, Lovie is hardly a man to make fun of no matter where you are from. Tall, built like the football player he was and the football coach he is and intimidating he is hardly a man to insult to his face. Still, when he speaks to the media he tends to talk calmly and without the bluster and shouting that was common when Ditka was in town. Lovie tends to let his players and his team do his talking for him.
Lovie Smith was born in the deep south. Gladewater Texas to be exact. It’s the kind of place in this country where football is pretty much a way of life. This was something Lovie learned early. He played in high school and he played well enough to get noticed.
Lovie did not have an easy childhood. His mother suffered from diabetes. His father battled alcoholism. Despite these things Lovie says his father and mother never missed a Friday night game and supported him at all times. He still rates his parents as his major inspirations in life.
Lovie first made his mark in High School, playing for Big Sandy High School. The town Lovie is from was very small, with the population numbering the hundreds. It is the kind of place they make movies about where the high school football team is the center of everything and a winning high school football team is pretty much the end-all be-all of sports. Lovie was part of three championship teams. He was even part of a team that has become legendary even by Big Sandy standards, scoring 820 points in a single season.
In high school, Lovie was all-state three years as an end and a linebacker in addition to being on those three championship teams.
“Most people today in Big Sandy can’t recite everything that happened back then in those days,” Lovie is quoted as saying. “but I can. It’s a football town. Five hundred people in the town, most of them interested in football.”
When Lovie went off to college is when his football career began to truly take shape. In 1976 he went to Tulsa where he was first a linebacker. This is also where he met one of his future coaching influences in John Cooper. It was Cooper who would later give Lovie his first coaching job after college when Lovie came back to coach linebackers at Tulsa. From 1977 – 1979 Lovie switched to a strong safety position.
While in college at Tulsa Lovie was a two-time all-America and three-time all-Missouri Conference defensive back.
After college is when Lovie first stepped into coaching. If you have seen the movie “Friday Night Lights” you have some idea of where he started out as a coach. He went back home to Texas and began coaching the high school team at Big Sandy High School. Considering that Lovie Smith is still talked about highly in that town gives you some idea of the success he achieved there. He achieved it so well that it was only a matter of time before college and the pros would come calling.
Before stepping into the college ranks as a coach Lovie spent a couple of years coaching at Cascia Hall Prep in Tulsa. It was just a short walk from the pres school in Tulsa to the college where he had made a name for himself as a player into coaching. Once again, it was his mentor and friend coach John Cooper who gave him the job.
Lovie spent a lot of time in the college ranks as a coach. He definitely earned his stripes before making it into the pros, establishing a name for himself and establishing himself as a man who believed in a strong defense for a team. He also began to develop his strong coaching manners and attitudes.
He coached linebackers at Tulsa from 1983 – 1986. After that he moved into the northern Midwest and coached linebackers again for Wisconsin. In 1988 he continued to coach linebackers but this time for Arizona State and he stayed there through the 1991 season. In 1992 Kentucky came calling with a need for a linebackers coach. From 1993 – 1994 Lovie was with Tennessee as a defensive backs coach. Then, in 1995 he coached Ohio State defensive backs. It was finally in 1996 that the pros took notice. In particular Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s coach Tony Dungy took notice.
The Bucs had not had a defense ranked above 20 in the NFL the four seasons prior to Lovie’s hiring. Lovie once again found himself as a linebacker coach working for Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Once Lovie stepped in things began to turn around dramatically for the Bucs. In 1996 the Bucs defense ranked 11th. In 1997 they had moved up to third. They managed to get into second place defensively in 1998 and then in third again in 1999. Lovie was with the Bucs for five seasons and the team allowed less than 300 points each year. They permitted an average of 16.9 points and 258.8 yards per game. During Lovie’s first two years the Bucs managed to accumulate two defensive touchdowns but improved to a franchise-record six in 2000.
During his tenure in Tampa Bay Lovie began to develop his reputation for nurturing talent and bringing out the best in his players. For example, Derrick Brooks started as a rookie linebacker with Tampa Bay in 1995 and managed to accumulate only 79 tackles. This was hardly note-worthy statistics. Under Lovie’s tutelage Brooks improved in 1996 to over 100 tackles and was named to the Pro Bowl. Lovie also helped Tampa Bay’s Hardy Nickerson back to the Pro Bowl after two seasons of sub-par performances.
In 2001 the St. Louis Rams came calling for Lovie. While the Rams had amassed some very impressive offensive numbers over the years their defense left a lot to be desired. They wanted to change that and the record of Lovie Smith seemed like the key to doing just that.
In 2001 Lovie helped guide the Rams back to the Super Bowl. The defense, under Lovie, improved by 12 points and 68 total yards per game from the previous year. During the three years Lovie headed the defense of the Rams he turned a mediocre defense into a defense that put up some impressive numbers. During his three years with the team the Rams ranked third in the NFL in takeaways and fumble recoveries. They tied for sixth in sacks. They tied for eighth in interceptions. Lovie even helped the Rams achieve total shutouts in 2001 and 2003 which were the first for the Rams since 1994.
When Lovie came on-board with the Rams their defense was ranked 23rd in the entire NFL. They defense for the Rams was routinely allowing over 29 points per game. Lovie improved their defensive standing to third place in the NFL while permitting only 19 points per game. This turnaround happened the very first year that Lovie was defensive coordinator.
The defensive numbers over subsequent seasons under Lovie read like a list of things any defensive coordinator wishes they could accomplish. Leading the conference in fewest first downs allowed, fewest plays against, and fewest first-down yards per play allowed. In 2001 the Rams suddenly ranked second in first downs allowed and seventh in points allowed per game while managing to also scratch out five defensive touchdowns. Lovie managed to accomplish all of those stats with seven brand new starters in 2001 and that included two rookies.
Meanwhile, up north, the Chicago Bears were mired I misery. The days of Ditka were long, long gone. While the city was still in a strange kind of eternal afterglow after the Super Bowl win, the fact was the Bears were bad and there weren’t getting any better. After the dismal tenure of Dave Wanstedt they had not found any relief under Dick Jauron.
During the time of Ditka the Bears finished first in their division 19184, 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988. The Bears fell in 1989 but then came back to win their division again in 1989 after Ditka came back from a heart attack. Ditka was finally let go in 1992 after finishing that season a disappointing 5-11. What came next was the stuff of nightmares for Bears fans.
Wanstedt seemed incapable of doing anything right. His first season as head coach ended with a record of 7-9. in 1994 the Bears managed to enter the playoffs as a Wild Card only to lose to the eventual Super Bowl Champion 49ers in 1994. That was the high point of the Wanstedt era.
Dick Jauron entered the picture as Chicago Bears Head Coach in 1998. They struggled through the 1999 season, finishing 6-10. In 2000 they ended the season 5-11. The only highpoint of that season was the appearance of linebacker Brian Urlacher who was suddenly the second coming of Dick Butkus. In 2001, the year before the Soldier Field Renovation, the Bears surprised everyone and ended the season with a 13-3 record, won their division and Dick Jauron was rewarded with coach of the year honors. This turned out to be the high-point of the Jauron era. They limped to season ends in 2002 and 2003 and Jauron was shown the door after 2003.
The “Monsters of the Midway” were long gone. There were the embarrassing experiments at quarterback of Cade McNown in those years as well. The entire team and organization seemed to be falling apart. When Jauron left it was time to go searching. The names that were talked about and people that were interviewed were impressive.
Louisiana State’s head coach, Nick Saban was interviewed a number of times. There was a time when it seemed like Saban would be the next coach. It didn’t happen. California’s Jeff Tedford was also considered but reportedly turned the team down. When the smoke cleared it was Lovie left holding the reigns.
The team Lovie inherited was a mess. The once dominant defense was not nearly so dominant. People were wondering if Urlacher was really all he was cracked up to be. There were still serious problems at quarterback. The 2004 season started out with little promise and quickly lived up to its billing. The season started off badly with a horrific loss to the Detroit Lions, at home, 20-16. Rex Grossman suffered a season-ending injury against the Vikings and the revolving door at quarterback haunted the Bears the rest of the season. Craig Krenzle, Jonathan Quinn and Chad Hutchinson all took turns and all of them were equally horrible. The Bears finished the season 5-11.
Lovie knuckled down. Moves were made in the post-season. 2005 started and the city of Chicago wondered if there would be anything worth cheering about. It did not start out promising. Things began to turn around under, surprisingly enough, a rookie quarterback. Kyle Orton stepped in with a job of keeping the team afloat while Grossman recovered from yet another injury. To everyone’s surprise the Bears started to win.
Orton eventually showed his rookie stripes and began to falter. No sooner did that happen and Rex Grossman returned and he played remarkably well for what was, essentially, his rookie season. All the time the defense returned racking up remarkable stats and constant comparisons to the “Monsters of the Midway” and the team that won the Super Bowl in 1986.
The Bears made it to the playoffs in only Lovie’s second year. Hopes were high that the Bears would manage to defeat the Carolina Panthers. The Bears defense had managed to hole the Panthers at bay during a regular season game only a couple of weeks before. It was hoped that the defense could do it again and that a revitalized Rex Grossman would be the key to success. It was not to be.
Despite the loss the city of Chicago remains high on Lovie. The good news for Bears fans is that Lovie is still the head coach and still shows no signs of changing. He fits in well with a city that likes the idea of a football team whose defense is so strong it puts fear in the hears of opponents. While the quarterback situation still seems to be a bit of a concern and everyone wonders if Grossman can manage to complete a season without an injury the fact is that the defense looks to remain intact. In fact, much of the team from 2005 will return this season and some key acquisition during the post-season seem, on paper, to bolster the Bears this year.
The fact is that the Bears are also in a weak division. With Lovie behind the wheel, inspiring and coaxing more out of players than anyone has a right and a division filled with Vikings and ailing Packers it looks to be another exciting year for Chicago.
No one around here makes fun of the man’s name anymore, that’s for sure.