TAMPA — Dinner still hadn't arrived at their table when the Mardi Gras-like parade began rolling past the tiny French Quarter bistro that Super Bowl eve in 2002, so everyone in Chidi Ahanotu's party got up and raced to the restaurant window for a closer look at the procession.
Everyone, that is, except little 3-year old E.J. Ahanotu
Hoping for an even closer look at the colorful spectacle, E.J. slipped right under the restaurant's saloon-style doors and out onto Bourbon Street, where he was immediately swept away by the raucous New Orleans revelry.
“Here I am, living my lifelong dream,'' Ahanotu, a former Buccaneers defensive end playing his first season with St. Louis, said recently in remembering that February evening. “I'm going to play in the Super Bowl tomorrow — against Tom Brady and the Patriots — and we're celebrating that and all of a sudden, it's my worst nightmare.
“My firstborn son, the most precious thing in the world to me, is gone. I've lost him. So, right away, we all burst down Bourbon Street. And it didn't take long, a matter of seconds maybe, before we found him, but it took a lot longer than that for me to get over it.”
When Ahanotu got back to the team hotel a couple of hours later, he was still shaken up. Visibly so, because the first person he saw — his defensive coordinator, Lovie Smith — asked what was wrong.
“I just broke down crying,” Ahanotu said. “I told him what had happened, and he just dropped everything and took me to his room and we sat there for what must have been an hour or more. He just sat with me until I was all right. So, if you really want to know, that's the kind of coach you're getting in Tampa.
“He's a great coach, but he's just as concerned with his players as human beings as he is with anything else. Playing for him is like playing for Tony Dungy. It's like playing for your father or your grandfather. You never want to let him down.''
Smith's appointment last week as the 10th head coach in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history wasn't even official before endorsements similar to Ahanotu's came pouring in from across the NFL — from former players, former bosses, even former rivals.
After missing on their past two head coaches — going from the lenient Raheem Morris to the rigid Greg Schiano — the Buccaneers hired a man who seems to have a knack for connecting with players. In 17 seasons as an NFL coach, including nine as head coach of the Chicago Bears, Smith built a reputation for bringing out the best in players by treating them as more than just players.
“When Lovie first came to Chicago, he identified us as the team to beat in our division, and he definitely beat us a few times,'' former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman said.
“He always had his teams ready to play and they were always well coached and well prepared, and he always seemed to get the most out of his guys. His players really played hard for him.''
That's the goal of every coach, but Smith achieves that objective in a way former players say is unique among NFL coaches — by treating them as equals embroiled in a shared endeavor.
“He treated you with respect,” former Bears linebacker Nick Roach said after Smith was fired by the Bears after the 2010 season. “He respected you as a person, as a man. He wasn't a condescending-type of teacher.
“He just wanted guys to get the job done, and he was able to do that without screaming and yelling and swearing. He communicated what he wanted effectively, which I think is clear by the successes we had, and from that standpoint, it'd be hard not to say you want a coach like that.”
Dungy reached the same conclusion almost immediately while interviewing Smith for a job as the Bucs' linebackers coach at the 1996 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Smith had coached nothing more than college linebackers at a series of stops and defensive backs at Ohio State, but Dungy quickly realized Smith had personal qualities and a coaching philosophy similar to his own.
“He knew the game and understood how to teach it, but he didn't come across as a know-it-all, and there really is a fine line there,'' Dungy said. “After about 10 minutes with him, I knew he was the right guy for us.
“And then when he got here, whether it was with a veteran Pro Bowl guy like Hardy Nickerson or a second-year guy like Derrick Brooks, he just had a way of getting the best out of every guy that played for him.''
Smith got the best anyone had out of the Bears in two decades when he guided them through a 13-3 season and to the 2006 Super Bowl against Dungy's Colts. No one who had played for him prior to that was surprised.
Though a sound teacher of fundamentals, Smith's strongest point might be in teaching old and young players alike the nuances that make average players good and good players great.
“In terms of learning my craft, he taught us the difference between watching film and studying film, between watching yourself and studying yourself, and how to watch your teammates and what they were doing,'' Brooks said. “Those are some of the classroom disciplines you learned from him — the importance of knowing your game plan in and out, that ability to give yourself that added advantage on the field.
“And he had a unique way of communicating with and challenging a veteran leader such as Hardy Nickerson that was different than what he did in communicating with a young up-and-coming player like me, but he got the same results.
“Those are the special kind of things, the special skills that you don't necessarily see coming out on the X's and O's sheet, but you definitely see them when you look at the success he's had and his tenure.''
Smith's tenure with the Bucs lasted five years. He then moved to the Rams, where he worked as defensive coordinator for three years before taking over the Bears. In Chicago, he was 81-63 in nine seasons, the third-winningest coach in Bears history behind George Halas and Mike Ditka.
Smith was 3-3 in the postseason in Chicago, where his Bears reached the playoffs three times (2005, 2006, 2010) as the winner of the NFC North, advancing to the Super Bowl in his second playoff appearance.
In the end, though, the Bears did let Smith down. That's how Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler summed up the team's surprising decision to fire Smith following a 10-6 season in 2012.
There was no other way to put it, Cutler said at the time. The defense, as usual, had been rock solid under Smith, finishing the year ranked fifth overall in the NFL. The offense was another story.
It ranked 28th overall and, instead of allowing Smith to hire what would have been his fifth offensive coordinator in nine years, general manager Phil Emery fired him.
Now, the Buccaneers stand to gain from Emery's decision.
All told, Smith had three losing seasons with the Bears, but never two in a row. He won 10 or more games in four seasons.
“He's a winner,” former Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. “No matter the talent he's given, he finds a way to win. And the other thing is, (NFL players) crave being treated like men, and that's always been Lovie's strongest attribute. He treats you like a pro, and guys play for him as if they don't want to let him down.
“That's why he's the perfect hire for the Bucs.''