HOUSTON -- Houston Texans coach Lovie Smith sat down in a media room chair and imitated how he wakes up in the morning.
Smith closed his eyes and rolled his head back.
“I have alarms,” Smith told ESPN while pretending to be asleep. “This morning, 4:45.”
Smith abruptly snapped his head forward, eyes open and added “wide awake,” in reference to how football, even in his 12th season as a NFL head coach, still injects a jolting rush.
“I'm 64 years old, drug-free, never put drugs in my body in my life,” Smith said. “But this is a natural high on football. There is no medicine you can get me to take [that compares] to this high that I get daily.”
And on Sunday, as Smith roams the sidelines when the Texans (0-1-1) visit the Chicago Bears (1-1), it’ll be a full circle moment. Smith will return to where he had his highest level of success and where his head coaching career started. Smith led the Bears for eight seasons beginning in 2004. He was also the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two seasons starting in 2014.
On the field, success occurred often during Smith’s run in Chicago. Smith had a 81-63 record in Chicago and reached Super Bowl XLI. But the opportunity to reach the height of his profession as a Black head coach surpasses the win-loss record in his eyes.
“I realized how special it was when I got my first job,” Smith said. “What you're always trying to do though is do well enough. You’re hoping that will allow other men that look like me to get a first chance. Doing something to help somebody that's coming after you like the people before you did for you.”
Smith, the Bears’ first Black coach, was the eighth Black head coach hired in the modern history of the league. He was hired the year after the Rooney Rule, the policy that requires league teams to interview minority candidates for heading coach and senior football operation jobs, was established in 2003.
“Lovie had the ‘it’ factor as a leader,” Bears general manager Jerry Angelo told ESPN. “I knew he would be able to manage the demanding tasks, particularly in a major market like Chicago. Personally, I didn’t need the Rooney Rule to open my eyes to coaches of color. I was in football all my life, football taught me as a player, a coach and personnel guy, it’s the quality of a person’s character, that fiber is the catalyst that determines careers.”
Smith praised the McCaskey Family, who owns the Bears, for giving him a chance to lead a franchise.
“My time in Chicago has allowed me to do what I wanted to do with my life in this profession. It started there for the Bears,” Smith said. “You look at opportunities now for people that look like us. Think about the Chicago Bears. I was the first, and I'm [still] the only Black head coach there. For the McCaskey family to say, ‘Hey, this is what we're going to do.' ... That took commitment right there.”
And in Smith's third season with the Bears, he rewarded the franchise as they finished 13-3 and earned a trip to the Super Bowl against the Colts, and his mentor Dungy. It was the first Super Bowl featuring a Black head coach -- it just happened to be one on each sideline.
Smith received his first NFL opportunity, to coach linebackers, from Dungy, who was the Buccaneers coach from 1996 to 2001. Smith held that position from 1996 to 2000 before serving as defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams from 2000 to 2003.
“It was really special because I thought back to 1996,” Dungy told ESPN. "I said, ‘You know what? I'm going to be very intentional. We have to win, and we're gonna put together a good team. But I'm gonna be intentional about looking for some young quality minority coaches.' So Lovie is on that staff, Herm Edwards is on that staff. And to see those guys get the opportunity and to take advantage, show what they could do, to get their teams to the playoffs. And then Lovie got his team all the way to the Super Bowl. It was a proud moment for me.”
So when Dungy faced his disciple in the Super Bowl in 2006, he called it a “watershed moment.”
The Colts won 29-17 in what was the only Super Bowl appearance as head coaches for Smith and Dungy.
As the Texans face Smith’s old team, he will downplay his second return to Chicago as an opposing head coach in the NFL publicly and label it another game as he's 0-2 against the Bears. But Dungy doesn’t buy it for one second.
“I have to go back to the first time that I went back to Tampa as head coach of another team. And I said all week, it's just another game, and we can’t make more of it than it is all of that,” Dungy said. “And I promise you when I got there it wasn't just another game. So I know Lovie is gonna say all those things. But he is going to want to win this one, and his players are going to want to win it for him. And I would expect the Texans to play really well.”
Smith was fired by the Bears in 2012, receiving another shot as a head coach in the same place he began his first NFL coaching stint with the Buccaneers. He lasted two seasons after compiling an 8-24 record. Smith joined the college ranks in 2016 as the head coach at Illinois. He was fired after four seasons with a 17-39 record.
Smith made his return to the NFL in 2021 after former Texans coach David Culley hired him to be his defensive coordinator. Culley was fired after one season, and the Texans replaced him with Smith, making him the first Black head coach of three different teams, excluding interim coaches.
After Smith was fired from the Buccaneers, he had his doubts he would ever become an NFL head coach again. But his career path gave him hope.
“The odds said 'No,'" Smith said. "So it would be easy to say it's not gonna happen again. But, I got one job. And the odds were really against me then. You know what else I got? I got two, and the odds were really against me then. So after a while, you know, you start thinking, 'Well, both of those times the odds said no.' So did I think it would? No, but I didn't think it was impossible because of what has happened in my life before.”
The culture of all Smith-led teams revolves around the defense, and the Texans are allowing 18 points per game, tied for ninth best in the NFL.
Smith sees how his current team compares to his former Bears teams, but from a structural sense.
“The similarities are just that we're kind of starting from [scratch] down here,” Smith said. “It's first about establishing how you do things. They say the culture, it's just about that and once you establish that, stay true to it. It doesn't happen right away though. And that's what experience tells you. Sometimes we all want it to be instant."