Brooks’ first head coach, Sam Wyche, was fired at the end of that season and in late January the Bucs brought in his replacement, former Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy. Shortly after that, Dungy added the coach who would be working directly with Brooks: Lovie Smith, coming off a one-year stint at the defensive backs coach at Ohio State. Like many of the coaches who would join Dungy’s first staff, Smith was relatively unknown in NFL circles.
On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought Smith back to his NFL roots, naming him the 10th head coach in franchise history. The reaction to the hiring of Smith was universally positive, and that extended beyond the news media and to many of the former Buccaneer players with whom Smith worked during his 1996-2000 tenure with the team. Brooks, in fact, was one of the first to speak up, and he thought back to those early days to explain why he believes the 2014 Buccaneers have found the right man for the job.
“He was able to see how this franchise was built, how we maintained success, and is very familiar with the structure of our organization,” said Brooks. “I think that’s going to be a benefit in terms of his coaching tenure here and a lot of personal attributes of him as a man, I think he’ll being able to make his own footprints in this organization along with that. Again Coach Dungy gave Lovie his start here and he understands those principles and values and he was able to take those with him in his leadership position with St. Louis as well as Chicago. I think it’s great fit.”
It didn’t take long for Smith to prove his mettle as an NFL coach. That was reflected not only in the new era of success he helped Dungy create in Tampa almost immediately, but in his own ascendancy in the league. In 2001, the St. Louis Rams came calling, looking for someone to build a powerful defense to pair with their high-flying offense. Smith took over as the Rams’ defensive coordinator, taking a crew that had allowed 29.4 points per game in 2000 and remaking it into one that surrendered just 17.1 points per game in 2001. One of the new figures in that defense was another potential member of the 2014 Hall of Fame class, defensive back Aeneas Williams, the long-time Arizona Cardinal. Williams helped the Rams make it back to the Super Bowl that season, but he gives a lot of the credit to Smith.
“I can say, without reservation, Lovie is one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around,” said Williams. “He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for. I was brought in [to St. Louis] via trade from Arizona and there were eight new starters on defense. He was coming to get the defense up to the level that The Greatest Show on Turf had already gotten to. The first thing he did was establish, when he brought me in, who I was and what the expectations were that I was to add to the defense and how I fit in the structure. That was done immediately as soon as my wife and I got off the tarmac. Then from there, it was a high degree of respect and motivation, from a player’s standpoint, but the other thing was the high level of accountability – guys being held accountable for their responsibilities on and off the field.”
Three years later, Smith took the next step, taking over as head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2004. He would stay in that position for nine successful years, leading the Bears to four double-digit win seasons, three division titles, two conference title games and a Super Bowl berth. His Bears defense was often dominant, and a whole new group of NFL stars were born, a la Derrick Brooks. Cornerback Charles Tillman told Sports Illustrated that Smith helped him reach a new level in his career, and as a person.
“The effect he had on me as a player was that he challenged me to be better than everybody else at my position,” Tillman told SI. “He told me to be bold and brave, and I just thank him for that. Whatever I did well, he challenged me to do it again, and again, and again. His standards for me were extremely high, and things he asked me to do … sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I failed. But in the end, I think he was pleased with how I responded overall. As a person, he was a guy I would call for advice. When my daughter was in the hospital, he was the first one there. Him and our defensive coordinator, Bob Babich. He wasn’t just a coach; he is a great man and a great person, and there was a friendship involved as well.”
Lovie Smith has spent his professional career getting the most out of players at every stop. Now that he’s returned to Tampa, a new crop of Buccaneers is eager to discover what heights Smith can help them reach.
“I’ve just heard nothing but good things from all the players, former coaches and the fans from Chicago,” said defensive end
Many others spoke up when the Buccaneers tabbed Smith as their new head coach on Thursday. Below is a sampling of what people are saying about Smith, from former Buccaneers to current players to others Smith has crossed paths with during his career.
Ronde Barber, Former Buccaneers All-Pro Defensive Back:
“I was very pleased to hear the news that the Buccaneers are hiring Lovie Smith to lead the team. Having worked with him early in my career, I speak from experience when I say that I believe he is the right man for the job. His input played a large role in shaping me into the player I became, as he helped me develop my skills as an inside corner. Lovie has been successful at every turn and I have no doubt that his calm and deliberate leadership will help mold the Bucs from simply a team with talent into a team capable of bringing another championship to Tampa Bay.”
Tony Dungy, former Buccaneers Head Coach:
“I think the fit is going to be tremendous. Number one he knows the area, he knows how the team got built into a Super Bowl winner, he knows how to win in the NFL, but more than that, I think he is going to build just a chemistry and camaraderie in that locker room and in the whole organization that’s going to resemble what we had before. I’m really excited and I know the players are going to be ecstatic playing for Coach Smith.
“The first thing you want as a player is you want a coach that can help you win and I think that credibility factor is going to be there right from the beginning. He’s not going to have to sell them on his ways. He’s not going to have to convince them that this is a winning formula, they’re saying that and so you’re over that hurdle right away. Number two just come to work every day and be energized, be a part of a group that is so tight and so together. There’s teams – regardless of what you want to say about them – they were a unit that would fight together and for us as a group I think this is going to be the same way. I just think these guys are going to be thrilled to play for Lovie and to see that type of coaching style come [to Tampa Bay] I think is tremendous.
“He creates a team atmosphere where everybody is in it together and guys end up playing their best football. It’s going to be the type of thing where guys I think will play their best and when you get that a lot of good things can happen.
“I know the team is going to win, but they’re also going to be coached in the right way. The team is going to represent the community the right way and these young men that come in the door are going to see a role model of how you do things, not only on the field, but in life. To me that’s important. I think they’ve got a real winner on and off the field and it’s going to reflect, not only with their record, but it’s going to reflect in how they do things. I think our community is very, very fortunate.”
Herm Edwards, Former Buccaneers Assistant Coach and Current ESPN Analyst:
“Our philosophy was real simple: It’s a player’s game and it’s about respecting the game and creating an environment where these guys can have some success. It’s about building team chemistry, and Lovie will do that.” (Courtesy 620 WDAE)
“I’m excited about getting to meet Coach Smith and I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. Obviously, he has a great track record in the NFL, so I think it’s a great hire. He knows how to win, has a great mind for defenses, and I’ve also heard he’s just a great person. I’m looking forward to meeting him and the rest of the coaches; hopefully, we can get started as soon as possible.”
Jay Hilgenberg, Chicago Bears Radio Network Analyst (Courtesy 620 WDAE):
“I think Lovie Smith is an excellent football coach. The thing I like about Lovie is the players respect him, the players loved to come to work and win for Lovie which is an amazing thing how he can create an atmosphere like that. I think Lovie Smith is an unbelievably great choice for the Buccaneers.”
“To go out there and get a big-name coach that’s been able to have a lot of success in this league and get his talents to come to Tampa, it’s just tremendous for the organization, for the community and for the NFL.
“I’ve met a lot of guys who have played for Lovie and everybody talks so highly of him. He seems like a great human being. You can learn something from every coach, every player, but it seems like Lovie has this relationship with his players and coaches that leaves a big impact on people. I’m looking forward to meeting him and getting to know him.
“It’s just really a certain amount of leadership that a Super Bowl-caliber coach brings to an organization. I feel, with his experience, his great leadership, I see a route that he could take this Tampa Bay team and he can put something out on the field that could be very exciting for everybody.”
“I’m sure this organization will have a lot of confidence in what Coach Smith can do and what he can bring to this team. I’m excited to get back on the field. It’s been a long time since the injury in Atlanta and it’s given me a lot of time to get better with my game, both physically and mentally, so it’s going to be a good year.”
“I don’t think they could’ve chosen a better guy – not just him as a coach, but as a person. How he treats his players, and just being a player’s coach and his whole philosophy, he’s changed a lot of people’s lives. I’ve talked to a bunch of people who’ve said I’m going to love playing for this guy, so I’m really excited to see what he brings to the table. I think it’s going to be great.
“This past season didn’t end the way we wanted, but I’m a competitor so it’s really exciting to get back to it. He’s a defensive-minded coach and he’s got a history with the Bucs. The Bears’ defense, when he was there, was top in the league. A defensive-minded coach, I’m a defensive player – I think it’s going to be awesome. Can’t wait.”
“He’s the first guy that I wanted to get and I’m excited that it came true. I’ve heard a lot of great things from guys throughout the league – I even had some guys that have played for him text me after they found out, telling me how good of a coach he is and how much he will help our team, how much he’ll improve our team. I think it’s going to help us a lot, especially having a young team, an experienced coach like that coming in who’s been there. As a coach, I don’t think you can ask for a better situation with the talented players we have on our team. From what I’m hearing, he’s the right man for the job and he’s going to take us in the right direction. That really makes me excited.”
Mike Tannenbaum, Former New York Jets General Manager (Courtesy of 620 WDAE):
“It really makes a lot of sense. Lovie’s really well thought of around the league, he’s been highly successful, knows the organization very well, and I always think it speaks so highly of people when they come back because you know that he treated everybody with respect while he was there. Obviously his track record at Chicago speaks for itself, to get a team to the Super Bowl and three different playoffs.”
Aeneas Williams, Former Rams Pro Bowl Defensive Back:
“I’ve never seen Lovie display anger from a standpoint of if something bad is happening on the field or we have negative plays happen, he was always the stabilizing force to get us to be able to move past what happened and then take us to how we’re going to be successful going forward. That’s one of the greatest characteristics I’ve ever seen in a coach. The respect you have for him because of his character and how he treated us as players, it commanded us to want to play with excellence so that we could have success and also not want to disappoint him. He had a way of allowing that without it being demeaning – respecting his players, holding them accountable, but also there was a sense that, yes, we wanted to do it to be the best we could be, individually, but also, I never wanted to disappoint him and his expectations of me as a player.”