Lovie Smith can’t help but feel like life and football are coming full circle for him these days.
Smith, 63, the man from little Big Sandy, returned to reside in his home state last year for the first time in over 40 years when he left as a high school coach and now he is the head coach of the Texans.
It became official earlier this month when after a lot of interviewing and a released list of finalists not named Lovie Smith, general manager Nick Caserio and the McNair family turned to the most experienced and decorated man in the building.
Smith, who is now coaching his third NFL team and has been a head coach on either the professional or college level since 2004, became reflective when talking about the journey that has led him to the helm of the Texans.
“I wanted to be a coach all my life, and a lot of that is based on what I had in a coach growing up,” Smith said. “Think about this also. My seventh-grade basketball coach still coaches football here, high school football coach here in the city of Houston. My first college coach lives here in this great town. So, I’m really pumped up about it.”
One of the most respected defensive minds in coaching, Smith has been a coveted commodity for years. He and Tony Dungy made history during Super Bowl XLI in 2006 when they became the first Black coaches in the biggest championship. What made it even more of a celebration is they were on opposite sidelines which guaranteed that the NFL would have its first Black championship coach.
Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts defeated Smith’s Chicago Bears that night.
That was certainly the pinnacle of Smith’s career as he has had some difficult times in the years after with the Bears and in subsequent stints as head coach of Tampa Bay and the University of Illinois.
It seemed Smith had run out of head coaching options after five seasons at Illinois that ended with his firing. Some might call it out of desperation or a need to bring stability to the organization, but the Texans turned to Smith, who was hired onto David Culley’s staff last year as the associate head coach and defensive coordinator.
Culley was unceremoniously fired last month after just one season, and Caserio’s second coaching search was turning into a mess after his top candidate Brian Flores filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL along with the Miami Dolphins, New York Giants and Denver Broncos.
Seemingly out of nowhere Smith was presented with his third NFL head coaching opportunity, which until then had been unheard of for a Black man.
“It’s not often you get a chance to lead three professional football teams. I don’t know if there’s a guy that looks like me that’s had the opportunity to do that,” Smith said. “So, that’s pretty special, but just what I know about the organization and the potential. You know, as you look at players, you’re always talking about the potential, what you see in an athlete. Just to lead a program like this, I know the potential and what we can do and we can start the process this year.”
While Smith has been mindful of putting the best spin on his appointment, he understands the challenges facing Black coaches in the NFL. Despite the Rooney Rule, which was supposed to help give Black head coaches shots at jobs, the NFL has been slow to move.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been the only Black man to experience longevity and for a while this offseason he was the only one before Smith was hired along with Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who is bi-racial.
“I realize the amount of Black head coaches there are in the National Football League,” said Smith, who promoted Pep Hamilton as the Texans offensive coordinator and play-caller. “There’s Mike Tomlin and then there’s me. I don’t know of many more. So, there’s a problem. It’s obvious for us.”