TAMPA, Fla. — Jason Licht connected with Lovie Smith when he interviewed for the job that Phil Emery holds. A 30-minute sit-down with Smith during Bears president Ted Phillips’ search for his team’s next general manager became much, much more.
“The actual thing turned into about an hour,” Licht, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ general manager, told the Sun-Times at Smith’s new home, One Buccaneer Place.
“Lovie and I, I felt we really hit it off up there. . . . I just knew he was the type of coach I wanted to work with.”
It’s a relationship that now includes about 20 chats a day. A strong bond has formed, and the friend that Licht likens to legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne is about to face the team that fired him for the first time on Sunday.
“I get to see a side of him that others don’t,” Licht said. “He’s got emotion. . . . The best way to put this is that he’s very, very competitive.”
Smith, as expected, tried to sell the matchup against the Bears as another need-to-win game in a long season. His introductions at the lectern Wednesday didn’t even include a mention of the Bears.
“Big game ahead of us,” he said. “Another great opportunity to get an NFC win on the road.”
But retired linebacker Brian Urlacher knows better.
“More so his players there — because they probably feel the same way about him that we did here — will tell you that it’s a big game,” said Urlacher, the Bears’ unquestioned leader under Smith. “He’s not going to say it’s a big game, blah, blah, blah. He’ll just say it’s another game; it’s the Bears. But, as players, I would say they would want to win the game for him.”
The Bucs hinted at the importance of the game, while still trying to repeat the messages that Smith preaches on a daily basis. There were plenty of examples:
◆ Linebacker Lavonte David: “We try to keep that on the back end, but we know what’s at stake. Coach Lovie and most of the [Bucs’] coaches have coached there for a long time, and they’re finally going back. It’s the first time going back.”
◆ Quarterback Josh McCown: “To acknowledge it, to understand, you know there’s something there, obviously. But for him, that’s not the pitch to our team.”
◆ Linebacker Danny Lansanah: “You want to get them all. But that he coached there, it kind of puts more emphasis on it.”
Still his home
Smith’s relationships run deep in Chicago. It’s where his wife is from. It’s where his children were raised. It’s where his homes still are.
“Need to buy one?” Smith joked.
Smith even said his “relationship with [quarterback] Jay [Cutler] is just like hopefully it was with all the guys I had a chance to coach there.”
“Jay helped us win a lot of football games,” he said.
Smith, to his credit, knows there will be some extra emotions at Soldier Field. After all, coaching the Bears was “a dream come true,” Smith said during his conference call with Chicago media.
“I’m sure there will be a little of that,” Smith said. “But as far as the game is concerned, once we tee it off, it’s another game that we’re trying to win.”
That said, Smith’s former players, especially the ones who adore him the most, want to beat him, too.
“This is one we all want,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Trust me, I want it as bad or more than he does. Each and every one of us do.”
A ‘D’ to build
It was time for the Bucs to start living up to Smith’s standards. So Smith put on tapes of his old defense for his new one last week. It was time to start playing like his Bears teams.
Takeaways — the defining quality of Smith’s brand of defense — were the focus.
“It was the first time that he actually did it,” Lansanah said. “He was just emphasizing the takeaways. Once we watched that, it was like, ‘Wow, we can get that done.’ ’’
The Bucs responded by coming up with two interceptions and a fumble recovery in a 27-7 victory against the Washington Redskins. It was their best defensive game of the season.
“It just shows what type of defense he wants us to be and how he coaches it to be,” David said. “All it does is just show that he thinks we can be at the elite level, how it was in Chicago.”
The Bucs are 2-8, but the buy-in is evident. The same fatherly effect that Smith had in Chicago still is at work.
Even Licht feels it.
“Even though Lovie isn’t technically my boss, I still don’t ever want to let him down, and the players are the same way,” he said. “He’s like an uncle.”
An uncle they want to win for on Sunday.
“You’d think [guard Logan Mankins would] be a little frustrated, which naturally he would be,” Licht said. “But he pulled me aside and said, ‘This team is good. We’re coming around. We’re in this thing. This team is getting better. And we all want to win for Lovie.’
“Here’s a veteran, a [five]-time All-Pro who played for the [New England] Patriots, and he can feel it and see it. He’s in the locker room. He’s got a better pulse than all of us that this team really wants to play for Lovie.”