Revered and feared — Lovie preached ‘D’ and his Bears listened
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One halftime speech wasn’t enough. Some extra words were needed for a defense that was grossly underachieving against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It was Oct. 7, 2012. The score was 3-3. And the Bears were still Lovie Smith’s.
‘‘I remember being right next to [former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers],’’ linebacker Lance Briggs said. ‘‘[Smith] laid into us, and Pepp leans over and was like, ‘But we haven’t given up any points? Why is he yelling at us?’
‘‘That second half, we go on and we return two interceptions for touchdowns. One of the things that I told Pepp was, that’s the level of expectation that he has for us, specifically for us on defense.’’
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Smith could inspire. That was very apparent when the Sun-Times interviewed Briggs, retired linebacker Brian Urlacher and cornerback Charles Tillman — three players who defined the Smith era and who strongly dismiss the perception that Smith was devoid of emotion. The Bears host Smith and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the first time Sunday.
‘‘In the beginning, he was always really, really challenging,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘He would say little things like, ‘Oh, you can’t make that play. Oh, you won’t be able to get over there. They’re going to high-low you again. Watch.’ He’d tell everyone, ‘Brian, watch, they’re going to high-low Lance again.’
‘‘To me, it was always: I want to prove him wrong. I want to prove that to him, so he can’t talk crap to the other guys about me.’’
For Tillman, Smith motivated through positive reinforcement. He referred to Tillman as an All-Pro cornerback in defensive meetings even though he wasn’t at that point in his career. It happened whenever the Bears faced the Detroit Lions and star receiver Calvin Johnson.
‘‘He’d be like, ‘They got their best player. We got our best player. I got all the confidence in the world in Peanut,’ ” Tillman said. ‘‘It was the confidence that he had in his players. You really felt it.
‘‘I believe in speaking words into existence. Part of being a coach is motivating your players, and it definitely got me going. My confidence was that much higher.’’
The dates, players and details of games run together, but a halftime speech during a game against the Lions, filled with Smith’s unique cursing, still resonates with Urlacher. The Bears had fallen behind against a backup quarterback.
‘‘He came in there saying, ‘What the crud? This is bullcrap!’ ’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘Every bad word you could say without cussing. He cussed us up and down in his own words. We went back out there in the second half and they had 30 yards.’’
There were in-game demands for big hits from Briggs and Urlacher and for ‘‘Peanut Punches’’ from Tillman. There were practices and walk-throughs where Smith and his defensive assistants would compete for steak dinners by seeing who could confuse the defense with the scout-team offense.
‘‘They would get excited about making us look bad, and we would be like, ‘[Expletive],’ ” Tillman said. ‘‘He challenged us. He got every drop out of his defensive players.’’
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Patrick Mannelly felt like a son in trouble. It was Dec. 13, 2009, and the longtime Bears long snapper had been thrown over a pile during an extra point against the Green Bay Packers. He responded by kicking his assailant and was flagged for unnecessary roughness.
Upon being told Mannelly was the guilty one, Smith turned and offered his one and only look.
‘‘There wasn’t a word said,’’ Mannelly said. ‘‘There wasn’t anything other than just that look. That to me, summed up Lovie Smith and the respect players had for him.
‘‘The way I felt from that look, I felt like I let my dad down, my grandfather down, somebody extremely important to my life.’’
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Smith commanded respect, and it was expected in return. Ask Tillman, who tried to wave off Smith and not listen after becoming upset about a play.
‘‘Like my dad, he was like, ‘Hey, hey, look at me. Don’t do that to me. Don’t mush me, and don’t put your hand up. Listen when I’m talking to you,’ ’’ Tillman said. ‘‘I was like, ‘Oh, snap. Yes, sir.’ I forgot who I was talking to. He put me in my place.’’
Smith had his famous principal’s office at Halas Hall. Urlacher and Briggs were frequent visitors.
‘‘I’ve been called up there quite a few times,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘You try to explain it a little bit, and he’ll have a story that, ‘You know, I’ve done something like this. I can see where that happened. But you know the rules. I gotta fine ya.’ ’’
Smith was in full control. He kept up with the players’ personal lives and monitored what they said in the media. He kept tabs on those who had TV and radio deals. He made sure his message, the Bears’ message, was their message. He also wasn’t afraid to ream out reporters, and his players knew it and loved it.
‘‘He would remind you what the philosophy was,’’ kicker Robbie Gould said. ‘‘He built a great locker room.’’
In that locker room, Urlacher was Smith’s chief lieutenant. There were never any questions about leadership.
‘‘We knew exactly who our leaders were,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘Everything was definitive.’’
Smith went to Urlacher, who went to the players. In return, players went to Urlacher or center Olin Kreutz, who went to Smith.
‘‘He would come talk to me if he had a question about the team or what’s going on with so-and-so: ‘Have you heard this, have you heard that?’ ’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘I was proud to be one of the guys who he would ask questions and try to get a feel of the team from me.’’
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Smith stayed the night, and one day Tillman will tell his daughter about it. It meant more than any piece of coaching advice.
It was 2008. Tillman’s infant daughter, Tiana, was rushed to the hospital with a serious heart ailment. A transplant would be in her future.
Smith and linebackers coach Bob Babich were among the first to arrive at the hospital.
‘‘It wasn’t the sense of football that did it for me with [Smith],’’ Tillman said. ‘‘It was off the field. When my family was going through something traumatic, he was right there. He stayed the whole night.’’
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Smith was beloved. His principal’s office had an open door. He offered advice as much as he preached about the importance of getting takeaways.
‘‘Me and him related on different things, especially when it came to kids,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘I’ve gone to him for advice on different things, on personal things.’’
Urlacher said Smith always searched for silver linings.
‘‘I went through some [expletive] stuff in my career,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘But in the end it all worked out, and he always told me it would. It was just do the right thing.’’
It led to a deep, unbreakable, father-figure relationship for plenty of players — defense, offense and special teams.
‘‘You felt bad when you let him down,’’ Tillman said. ‘‘That’s a great feeling to have from players. Our entire team had that feeling.’’
It made him irreplaceable.
‘‘I remember sitting in the room with Olin Kreutz and Brian, talking about how good we have it here as players,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘We started talking about all the things that we have, and we’re like, ‘We have to win for this man.’ All of us looked at each other and said we don’t want to play for anybody else. That’s indicative of the man that he is. The man that he is is one we’d run through a brick wall for.’’
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The suit Smith wore on locker room clean-out day said everything. He was gone. Most players knew it. The Minnesota Vikings’ win over the Packers in Week 17 of the 2012 season left them out of the playoffs, despite a 10-6 record.
‘‘Before he even said anything, I looked at Lance and was like, ‘I can’t believe this is about to happen,’ ” Tillman said. ‘‘I felt like I got kicked in the stomach.’’
Devin Hester wasn’t the only player who shed tears.
‘‘Everyone was very emotional,’’ safety Chris Conte said. ‘‘It was like losing a relative.’’
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Smith was a winner. That’s how his players want him to be remembered. He was 81-63 over his nine Bears seasons and 3-3 in the playoffs. His teams went to two NFC Championships and a Super Bowl.
‘‘When you talk about it and say George Halas, Mike Ditka . . . Lovie Smith comes next,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘Lovie should be remembered as one of the great Chicago Bear coaches.’’
He won with a defense that set new standards for producing turnovers.
‘‘I would think people would have great memories of him, especially the fans,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘The way and type of football we played under him, we pretty much won on defense, and that’s allegedly what fans in Chicago like.’’
His players want you to know he loved everything about coaching the Bears.
‘‘That was his dream job,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘He kept the defensive tradition going in Chicago, if not brought it back.’’