Dag Hammarskjöld once said, “It is when we all play safe that we create a world of the utmost insecurity.” I doubt he was thinking of former Bears head coach Lovie Smith when he said it. But Smith certainly seems to fit the expression.
Austin Murphy at SI.com details the history of Carolina head coach Ron Rivera with Smith. Smith let Rivera, his defensive coordinator, leave after the 2010 Super Bowl. Rivera has now climbed his way back to participate in Super Bowl 50. For some, this will be ancient history but I found it to be good reading:
“Dan Hampton puts a finer point on [Rivera’s departure], as is his wont: ‘Lovie stabbed him in the back,’ says the former Bears defensive tackle and Hall of Famer.”
“They were not necessarily aligned, philosophically. Smith, who’d coached linebackers for Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay from 1996 to 2000, was a proponent of his mentor’s Tampa-2. Rivera preferred a more balls-out, attacking style. He’d played for Buddy Ryan, father of the famed 46 defense, then served a second apprenticeship as Eagles linebackers coach from 1999 to ’03, soaking up knowledge from the late, legendary Jim Johnson, a DC known for his ultra-aggressive, blitz-happy schemes.
“That creative tension seemed to be working. Blending elements of those schemes, the Bears limited opponents to 15.9 points per game during their Super Bowl run in ’06. ‘A dissenting voice in the room is a positive thing,’ points out ex-Bears wideout Tom Waddle, a one-time Rivera teammate who is now a prominent media presence in Chicago. ‘And I can guarantee you, Ron Rivera as a dissenting voice is not a negative or destructive voice.'”
Murphy goes on to detail Smith’s tendency to hire coaches out of “loyalty” and how this led to his downfall both in Chicago and, especially, in Tampa Bay.
To some extent, Murphy misses the point, either because he doesn’t see it or he doesn’t want to be too hard on Smith. Smith doesn’t just hire coaches out of loyalty. He hires them because, having worked with them, he knows what they think. You and I and Waddle see creative tension as a good thing. But a very proud and sensitive Smith sees it as insubordination and there would be none of that on a coaching staff littered with his friends.
Given that Smith was replaced in Tampa Bay by hiring his own replacement in Dirk Koetter, one of the few coaches on his staff that he’d never coached with before, I think it unlikely that he’ll be changing his ways if he gets another chance at a head coaching gig. Smith did a lot of good things in Tampa Bay and they were getting better. But you have to wonder if his insecurities will always limit his success.