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Why Chicago Loves Lovie

4 minute read
Sean Gregory/Lake Forest

Lovie Smith is a football coach. Yes, the name is Lovie, and while that’s not exactly a testosterone-fueled calling card, Smith isn’t cut from the foul-mouthed jock mold anyway. The head coach of the Chicago Bears cusses like, well, a kindergarten teacher. What does he say when he gets upset? “Jiminy!” And when he’s really angry? “Jiminy Christmas,” says MaryAnne, his wife of 26 years. “That’s like us throwing F-bombs.” Or there’s the glare, a sign to the players that they’ve disappointed their coach.

The glares are rarer these days. It’s only October, but the Bears have established themselves as the NFL team to beat. Through the first five weeks, they were not only undefeated but had outscored opponents 156-36, including a 37-6 whipping of the Seattle Seahawks, last year’s NFC champs. “I just don’t see any flaws on this team,” says ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski.

Defense is the hallmark of Chicago football–from Dick Butkus to “Samurai” Mike Singletary–and Smith’s is exemplary, which isn’t surprising, given his history as a defensive coordinator. Led by middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, the Bears had created 15 turnovers–tied for tops in the NFL–entering last weekend. Yet the real news is that the Bears have a potent offense. Smith stuck by quarterback Rex Grossman, an oft-injured, inconsistent fourth-year player, through a rocky preseason. Smith’s reward? Grossman is a top-rated QB in the NFL.

The players have happily boarded Lovie’s boat. “He’s got a quiet confidence about him that demands respect,” Grossman says. “You just follow his every lead.” In the Windy City, where the bluster of legendary coaches George Halas and Mike Ditka helped lead Da Bears to glory, Smith is a cool breeze off Lake Michigan. “He’s not seeking to show he’s General Patton,” says Marv Levy, general manager of the Buffalo Bills, a 40-7 victim of a Bears beating. Smith, who spent 20 years as a college and pro assistant before taking the Bears job in 2004, revered coaches who taught rather than tossed chairs. “Screaming was for guys that didn’t have anything to say,” he says.

Smith, 48, grew up dirt poor in the tiny east Texas town of Big Sandy, where his work ethic spoke volumes. In the summers, Smith, a self-described “hick” who turns words like curfew into care-few, picked berries, and tossed 30-lb. bales of hay onto trucks. “I can smell it now,” he says, perking up in his Lake Forest, Ill., office, loading faux hay over his shoulder. “We didn’t know about lifting weights. Haaaay! That’s what you got.” The name Lovie he got from his great-aunt Lavana, no doubt requiring him to become a very tolerant man. His most stirring performance took place in 1988, when his son Matthew, then 2, fell into the family’s pool. (Smith was an assistant at Arizona State.) Though afraid of water, Smith jumped in and pulled a tiny blue body from the bottom. MaryAnne’s CPR resuscitated the boy. Matthew, now a student at Northwestern, had all but drowned. “I was no hero,” Smith says. “I let my guard down. Luckily, we were able to make a wrong right.”

He’d like to do the same for the NFL’s less than sterling record of hiring minorities for top coaching jobs. “I could be politically correct and say, No, [race] is not a barrier,” Smith says. “But race will always be a part of life.” The Detroit Lions invited Smith to interview for a head coaching job in 2003, when he was defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, but he declined, sensing that Detroit was ready to hire someone else. “I don’t believe in token interviews.”

Becoming the first black head coach in the Super Bowl would notch another groundbreaking victory for Smith. He could face off against fellow aspirant Tony Dungy, coach of the Indianapolis Colts, another 5-0 starter. “I like being a pioneer,” Smith says. Not just for African Americans, but for coaches everywhere who drop J-bombs.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com