Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith leads his team during NFL football practice Tuesday, June 12, 2012, in Lake Forest, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Updated: September 14, 2012 6:17AM
BOURBONNAIS — Lovie Smith enters the 2012 season tied as the fourth-longest-tenured coach in the NFL.
That’s a fact the Bears’ coach doesn’t spend much time dwelling on, except when he’s packing for his drive south to Bourbonnais.
“Times like that let you know it’s my ninth time coming here,” Smith said in a conference room at Olivet Nazarene University. “I’ve spent about as much time in Bourbonnais as I have any other place, besides my home.
“You realize how blessed you are to be able to lead — not just any franchise, but the Chicago Bears — for that long period of time.”
In the NFL, he’s an exception rather than the rule.
With the rise of the league’s popularity comes higher expectations, with owners cycling through coaches at a rapid rate. Since Smith left St. Louis in 2004, the Rams are on their sixth head coach. So are the Oakland Raiders.
The longest-tenured coach is Andy Reid, hired by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, followed by Bill Belichick (2000), Marvin Lewis (2003), then Smith and Tom Coughlin (2004).
Immediately after last season, Bears president Ted Phillips relieved longtime general manager Jerry Angelo of his duties and commenced a search that eventually resulted in the hiring of Phil Emery. During the process, Phillips made clear to candidates that Smith would be the head coach of the Bears for at least the 2012 season.
Asked if that changes his perspective, Smith said, “No, I’m going to go back to that statement you made: ‘Ownership wants you be here at least for this season.’
“I don’t look at it like that at all. Ownership has wanted me to be here from the start. I know I have the full support of the McCaskey family and Ted Phillips, and I’m going to say Phil Emery, also. So, for me, that’s how I’ve worked since I’ve been here. I’ve just felt their backing and total trust in what I’m doing as the leader of their team. So this season is no different than any other.”
That’s why Smith’s unfazed by elevated expectations.
“Yeah, my glass is half full, always,” he said. “But we have a good product here, and we’re doing it the right way. I’m proud of our program and how we do things.
“We’ve gone through a lot of different guys; we’ve had coaches come and go. But the core of what we believe in, I think, is good. Our players represent our organization well. They play hard. And, eventually, if you just stay the course, you’ll get an opportunity to hold the Lombardi Trophy.”
In late February, during his acceptance speech at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame induction, Smith thanked the Bears and team matriarch Virginia McCaskey, then predicted a championship season.
“When I look at Mrs. McCaskey, I never see disappointment,” he said at the time. “I see faith as I lead her football team.
“Going back to that telescope,” Smith said, referring to an earlier point in his speech, “I see the Chicago Bears in New Orleans next year, holding up the Lombardi Trophy and celebrating a world championship.”
As for his contract, which runs through 2013, Smith applies the same mentality that he asks of his players.
“Even if I was in the final year of my contract, what changes? If something changes, it would say, ‘You have to be in the last year of your contract to really do a good job and do your best job of coaching.’ No, you coach the same way,” he said emphatically. “Matt Forte just signed a big contract. We have a lot of guys with big, secure contracts. They’re not playing any different than how they were playing when they were trying to get that contract.
“That’s when you’re putting certain type guys on your roster — character guys — and it doesn’t affect anything. That’s not who we are.”
One of Smith’s strengths is the loyalty he fosters with his players, who appreciate his honesty, consistency, approachability and respect for them as men. Charles Tillman didn’t know anything about Smith’s future (“I don’t think about anyone’s contract status but mine,” he said), but the veteran cornerback can’t imagine playing for anyone else.
“As long as I’m here and playing for the Bears, I want coach Smith to be here,” Tillman said. “It might be selfish to say, ‘When I’m retired, I don’t care what they do.’ But that’s just me.”
Tillman respects the way Smith handles criticism and maintains his cool.
“But that’s his faith carrying him. That’s just how he is, and I admire him for that because he doesn’t change and doesn’t do anything that’s out of his character,” Tillman said. “He’s true to himself and his players, and he treats us like men. That’s what makes him a great coach.”
This isn’t high school or college, so it would be disingenuous to suggest players want to win only for Smith. Still, for several stars, that’s certainly a factor.
“It’s important for him and everybody. There’s a lot expected out of us, based on the new acquisitions. We want to succeed, too,” Forte said. “We struggled last year, and it’s time to get back to that. As a team, we want to succeed. Then also playing for a guy like him makes you want to succeed even more.”
At the start of training camp, during his opening news conference, Emery made clear that there are grand plans for this season, “regardless of the contract situation.” He was speaking about players, but Emery’s comments also can reflect those of Smith.
“We want to win now,” Emery said. “We want to win championships now. We want to make progress toward our goals now.
“That’s where I’m at with a sense of urgency, and I believe that’s where our team is at.”