CHICAGO — He might never say so publicly, but in many ways Chicago is still home for Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith.
His wife, MaryAnne, a native of nearby Des Plaines, grew up here; he raised his children here; shoot, he still owns a house here.
That house is up now for sale, but so much more of what tied Smith to Chicago for 10 years could never be sold.
Smith developed life-long relationships here; he built lasting memories here; he also achieved his greatest success as a coach here, guiding the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006.
But Chicago is also the only place on Smith’s 18-year pro coaching journey that he didn’t leave on his terms, the Bears firing him after a 10-6 season in 2012.
It’s hard to imagine that not lighting a fire in Smith today when he returns to the Soldier Field sideline for the first time since the Bears let him go two years ago.
Smith swears it won’t, though. He said repeatedly this week that he’ll approach today’s game between his new team and his old one the same way he’d approach any game.
“It’s about a football game and us trying to get a win,’’ he said.
If you think that’s a message concocted strictly for the media, or that Smith has delivered a different message to his players behind closed doors, think again.
“There’s something there, obviously, but that hasn’t been the pitch to the team,’’ said Bucs quarterback Josh McCown, a former Bears player making a return to Chicago today, as well.
McCown achieved his greatest success here last year, winning three of five starts for an injured Jay Cutler down the stretch. But his approach to today’s game is the same as Smith’s.
“With us being 2-8 and two games out of first place (in the NFC South race), what matters for us is to get this game,’’ McCown said. “Any of that other stuff, it’s just added value.’’
All of Chicago valued Smith at one point. Shortly after his arrival in 2004, civic leaders began to treasure him and MaryAnne for their generous donations to area charities through their foundation.
Smith’s players, meanwhile, quickly came to adore what was then a rookie head coach for the stern, yet soft-spoken and professional manner in which he led his team.
“He treats everyone like a man, and when coaches do that and stay consistent with what they say, you get a lot out of your men,’’ said Bears 12-year veteran linebacker Lance Briggs.
“He was a man that you would run through a brick wall for and you can’t say that about everyone that you play for. His time here was a time that I never will forget.”
Fans won’t soon forget Smith, either. After all, in his nine years as Bears head coach, he built an 81-63 regular-season record that made him the third winningest coach in franchise history behind George Halas and Mike Ditka.
He also took the Bears to the playoffs twice in his first three years and three times total. Among Bears head coaches, only Halas (eight) and Ditka (seven) reached the playoffs more often.
“When you think of Lovie here, you’ve got to put him in the category of the great coaches of Chicago,’’ said Briggs, a seven-time Pro Bowler. “You have George Halas, you have Mike Ditka and then you have Lovie Smith.
“It was a special time. It was fun. And when you look at all of the coaches that got fired (after the 2012 season), there was one gleaming difference with Lovie. (None) of the other guys, not even some of the (coaches) that were retained, had a 10-6 record.
At 10-6, however, the Bears failed to make the playoffs as seven other teams in the NFC finished 10-6 or better..
“It was unfortunate and it was sad knowing he’d be gone,” Briggs said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a business.’’
It is sometimes a cruel business, but also a bottom-line business. When Smith’s Bears missed the playoffs in 2012, it marked the fifth time in six years that the bottom line read no playoffs.
But it wasn’t just Bears owners who thought the time had come for Smith to move on. By the end of the 2012 season, many Bears fans had tired of Smith’s soft-spoken, homespun approach, as well.
Still, Smith has no regrets. There is nothing he did in Chicago, he said this week, that he wishes he could have done differently, in part, because it led him to where he is now.
“I feel like everything that’s happened to me in my life is what I needed at the time to thrust me further,’’ Smith said. “When something doesn’t go right, it’s like, ‘Ah, man, we could’ve done it a little bit better.’ But as for having true regrets? Very few of those.
“So, with my glass being half-full, I have nothing but fond memories of my time in Chicago. We won a lot of games there. That’s what I remember. That’s my recollection.’’