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Let's hear it for Lovie Smith on Sunday

No hard feelings? You never know with Lovie Smith.

The former Bears head coach seemed to have Chicago on the pay-no-mind list immediately after he was fired in 2012 after nine seasons. He never said good-bye (a notion that isn’t as far-fetched as you think — both Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron spoke at their departing press conferences). He never said thank you to the organization for the opportunity or to the fans who supported him even if he had disdain for those who didn’t.

And even though he lived in Chicago during his NFL hiatus, he was all but invisible. He never spoke publicly about his time in Chicago — the good times and the bad — or his firing or anything about the Bears.

When he was asked at the NFL scouting combine in February if he got a fair shake from the Bears, he couldn’t have sounded more distant. Chicago was just another town, just another job.

“It’s a Bucs life for me now. My focus is on that,” Smith told reporters at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. “ I worked a lot of different places in the past. Would you like to talk about Big Sandy High School? I used to work there, too. Had a great experience there. Excited about Tampa and what we’re doing. My past, I had an opportunity to work in a lot of great places. Chicago was one of them.”

So take it for what it was worth that Lovie was singing a more upbeat tune Wednesday when he was asked the same exact question — “Did you get a fair shake [in Chicago?]” — on a conference call with Chicago-area reporters at Halas Hall.

“To be at a place for nine years in the NFL is pretty good,” Smith said. “I enjoyed every second I had there. A part of life sometimes you move onto other places. The best job I’ve always had has always been my next job. Couldn’t be happier where I am now.”

On Wednesday, the Bears job was “a dream come true,” Smith said. “To come to a storied franchise with a great fan base and help to bring that fan base and what was expected, back. The things you dream about, that’s how it really turned out for me.

“I enjoyed every day I came to work and the people I had a chance to work with. Not only the players, of course, but the staff and the administration too.”

Lovie had an awkward, often tumultuous tenure in Chicago, where even his greatest successes were tempered by disappointment. The Bears made the playoffs in his second season in 2005, but lost their playoff opener at home to the Carolina Panthers — a team the Bears had beaten 13-3 at home in November. The Bears reached the Super Bowl in 2006 but lost a winnable game to the Indianapolis Colts. They made the NFC Championship Game in 2010 but lost at Soldier Field to the Packers — a team they had a chance to knock out of the playoffs in Week 17 at Lambeau Field and failed to do it.

Smith’s three playoff appearances in nine seasons is the most of any Bears coach other than George Halas and Mike Ditka. But 15 teams in the NFL had four or more playoff appearances in that span, so overall, the achievement is in the middle-of-the-pack.

Lovie’s Bears were at their best with the wind at their back — when they were at full strength and the schedule fell just right. Playing the New Orleans Saints in Soldier Field in January in the 2006 postseason was a break they earned, but a break nonetheless. In 2010, they beat the 7-9 Seahawks at Soldier Field to reach the NFC Championship Game and lost to the Packers.

In 2012, the Bears were 8-0 against non-playoff teams. They had eight interceptions returned for touchdowns, but against teams with a combined record of 35-60-1. Against playoff teams that season they were 2-6 — they had the good fortune to face the Colts’ in Andrew Luck’s NFL debut in Week 1 and won 41-21. The Bears finished 10-6 missed the playoffs and Smith was fired.

The Bears’ record of 81-63 (.563) under Smith from 2004-12 was ninth best in the NFL in that span — but six of the eight teams in front of them won the Super Bowl. Lovie’s record of 20-38 (.345) against playoff teams is 11th best in the NFL in that span.

Though his record was one of success, Smith’s tenure ultimately has been defined by disappointment. The Bears made the Super Bowl with 18 starters under 30 — including all 11 on defense, with Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman in their prime — but made the playoffs just once in the next six seasons.

Ditka’s teams failed to max out even more egregiously than Lovie’s teams and Iron Mike is beloved to a comical degree in this town. Then again, Ditka won the Super Bowl. He played for the Bears. He was a fan’s coach. Lovie is the ultimate player’s coach, a guy who couldn’t hide his disdain for criticism and often made the fans feel like the enemy.

Still, Lovie deserves to be cheered when he steps on Soldier Field as the opposing coach on Sunday. He gave the Bears an identity that made them fun to watch. It could have been better. But it could have been worse. A lot worse.

“I know how I’m remembered [in Chicago],” Smith said. “I’m coming in [Sunday] as an opposing coach — that’s how I’m looking at it.

“The year I had off and just being in Chicago for nine years, I don’t need anything validated this week. Fans were great to me and my family while we were there, [the Bears’] administration was. I have lifetime friends on the Chicago Bears football team. I have all those things right now. I’m an opposing coach on the other side of the field coming in this week.”