LB Lovie Smith (center) was surrounded by, and helped nurture, significant linebacker talent in Tampa
Over the past five seasons, Tampa Bay Buccaneer linebackers have earned a combined eight Pro Bowl berths, thanks in part to the seasoned instruction of their position coach, Lovie Smith. In turn, Smith can now thank his players for their role in helping him climb even higher in the NFL coaching ranks.
Smith, the Buccaneers' linebackers coach for the five seasons that Head Coach Tony Dungy has been at the helm, will leave Tampa Bay this week to become the new defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams. Smith is just the third member of Dungy's original staff, hired during the 1996 offseason, to leave the Buccaneers.
"We're disappointed that we're losing an excellent coach, but I think it's great for Lovie," said Dungy. "I think he's going to do a great job. He's going to make the Rams a lot tougher to play against and tougher for us to beat. It's really kind of a great story, the way this system works. You come in and do a good job and you get rewarded. We're real happy to see it."
Smith will leave the Buccaneers this week to join the Rams, who made the hiring official with a press release on Monday afternoon.
"It's a nice challenge," said Smith of his new post. "It's what you're in the profession for as a position coach, to move up and lead your own defense. It couldn't have been a better situation for me to break in."
Smith first broke into the NFL with the Buccaneers after 13 years of coaching on the collegiate level, including stops at Ohio State, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona State, Wisconsin and Tulsa, his alma mater. In 1995, the year before his arrival in Tampa Bay, the Bucs ranked 27th in the NFL in defense. Smith was part of the crew hired to work with new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and that group kicked the Bucs' ranking all the way up to 11th in 1996. The Bucs have since finished third, second, third and ninth in defense over the past four seasons, respectively, and the team's linebackers have been considered one of the league's best units.
Smith credits the Bucs' system as well as the hard work of his players with paving the way for this exciting new opportunity.
"Look at who I've worked with here…management from Rich McKay on down and Tony Dungy hiring me on his first staff. That means a lot to me. And then being able to work each day with Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli, Herman Edwards and Kevin O'Dea. In the end, the guys that have as much to do as anything with me getting this promotion are the players that I work with each day.
"You'd like to think that you've done a good job here. I think it's more of what our system has done defensively here and how we've played defense here in the past. Derrick Brooks, Hardy Nickerson…they've put me in a position where I could make this move."
Nickerson has moved on to Jacksonville, but Brooks, who will be making his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl trip this February, remains in Tampa and will have to move on without the mentor that has helped shape his game.
"My linebackers are like family to me," said Smith. "As I talked to all of them, that's what I said. You have to look at it as a family member moving to St. Louis. That's exactly how it is."
In St. Louis, Smith succeeds Peter Giunta, who held the Rams' defensive coordinator position from 1998-2000. The Rams finished 10th in the NFL in defense in '98, their first top 10 finish since 1989, then rose to sixth in '99 before dropping to 23rd this past season. More strikingly, the Rams surrendered 471 points in 2000, or 29.4 points per game, the league's worst total.
That performance helped offset an NFL-best 540 points scored by the Rams and allowed the New Orleans Saints to edge St. Louis for the NFC West championship. The Rams then lost to the Saints in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, ending their bid to repeat as Super Bowl victors.
Smith, however, believes the Rams can immediately recapture their championship form.
"They're the defending Super Bowl champs, so that right there should say enough about them," he said. "They're disappointed in how the season ended, the way we were this past season, but the makings are there. Sometimes you need to take a step back to see the problems that may exist there. Sometimes when you get knocked down a little bit, you have to analyze those (problems) a little bit more. That's what the Rams have done. Sometimes out of something bad, something good can come about."
That is certainly the case for Smith, who will be leaving a tight-knit group in Tampa to join the staff of second-year Head Coach Mike Martz, a former coaching mate at Arizona State. Smith and Martz previously worked together on the ASU staff from 1988-91, when Smith tutored the Sun Devils' linebackers and Martz coordinated the offense.
"I know he worked with Coach Martz before," said Dungy. "I think they like what we do in terms of defense and our system, and I think Coach Martz wanted to implement some of that. But I think he just saw a very good, sound, fundamental coach and a guy that's going to help them out."
After five years of doing just that for Dungy and his staff, Smith will now take on an even larger role in St. Louis. Still, there are aspects of his position in Tampa that will be difficult to leave behind.
"There's always regrets," said Smith of leaving the Bucs. "This is a great place. As a position coach, you don't leave Tampa Bay to go to another place. It's just that you have goals that you set and the next goal is to be a defensive coordinator. That's a normal progression, as I see it. But regrets about leaving Tampa? Yes, there are a lot of regrets. It's a great place, a great working environment."