Look for Lovie Smith to be NFL head coach again soon

Reported interest from USC reminds football world how highly regarded ex-Bears coach remains

Lovie Smith never warmed up to anchormen in Chicago so, if you can, picture Smith pretending to laugh at prominent and omnipresent USC fan Will Ferrell's jokes on the sideline during a Trojans practice.

Imagine the straight-laced Smith sidling next to noted USC booster Snoop Dogg, whose ears might perk up only at Smith's mention of a glass being half-full. Envision Smith as the next USC head coach embracing everything about the program's unavoidable Hollywood atmosphere, no man's land for football grinders who don't suffer fools.

Can you see the "Lovie Loves LA" T-shirts and bumper stickers flying out of Troy bookstores?

Me either. Nothing about the image of Smith coaching in the star-crossed culture fits, making Monday's WSCR-AM 670 report that USC representatives reached out to the former Bears coach all the more fascinating.

If Smith indeed was approached about replacing Lane Kiffin — agent and son Matthew Smith denied the contact — it shows the esteem USC athletic director Pat Haden has for a coach offering more substance than style. It suggests somebody associated with USC believes a strong, high-character African-American presence like Smith might help attract elite California recruits opting for Oregon or UCLA. Most importantly for Smith, it reminds the football world how highly regarded he remains.

Like Smith or loathe him, Bears fans, accept it. USC's reported flirtation enhances Smith's stature even as he stays at home in Lake Forest collecting $5 million from the McCaskeys. The denial statement the Smiths released should have ended by thanking USC and WSCR for thrusting Smith's name back in the public consciousness in mid-October.

When the Bears dismissed Smith after a 10-6 season, it reflected how badly the organization recognized the need for change after nine seasons under the same, staid philosophy. But it never meant Smith shouldn't become an NFL head coach again. You can forever support the Bears firing Smith yet still see what he can offer other organizations. You don't have to like Smith to respect him. He was fired, not exiled.

Head coaches routinely get second chances after a year off, so Smith figures to emerge as a hot candidate, a la Jeff Fisher. As the league evolves, Smith faces the immediate challenge of proving the offensive coordinator he will hire possesses enough ingenuity to match wits with the Sean Paytons and Jim Harbaughs. It will take a GM who thinks hiring a defensive-minded head coach like Smith with an uncanny track record for creating turnovers represents a smart alternative to the league's offensive revolution.

Expect Smith's phone to start ringing in December — if it hasn't started already — because of his connections and 84-66 overall record, as well as the failure of the Rooney Rule to produce a minority for eight coaching and seven GM vacancies last offseason. Real or perceived pressure will be on teams to stop that trend, and Smith's legitimate qualifications make him more than a public-relations prop. Experience still matters, especially to organizations veering quickly toward a coaching search.

Start with the Raiders, where the GM is longtime Smith friend Reggie McKenzie. Remember that relationship if the Raiders fire 41-year-old coach Dennis Allen. When the Bears fired Jerry Angelo after the 2011 season, Smith tried luring McKenzie to Halas Hall. If Smith had, both probably would be at 1920 Football Drive today. At 2-4 in Allen's second year, the Raiders appear closer to drafting Jadeveon Clowney than making the playoffs.

Tampa Bay makes even more sense for Smith if the Buccaneers fire embattled Greg Schiano. No team has endured a rougher start on and off the field than the winless Bucs, likely to seek a players' coach like Smith after the militaristic Schiano. A franchise mired in controversy might welcome a calming presence known for his steady demeanor. Having lived in Tampa as linebackers coach under Tony Dungy from 1996-2000, Smith made a favorable impression on the Glazers. The rumors already have started swirling on Florida's west coast.

Don't be surprised if Smith gossip spreads to Houston, where the AFC's most disappointing team dropped to 2-4 Sunday. The pride of Big Sandy, Smith is, above all, a Texan. After eight seasons of Gary Kubiak, a defensive coach might appeal to owner Bob McNair if he can't talk Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher into returning to coaching.

Surely, other good jobs will open. What if the Falcons' 1-4 start turns into a 6-10 disaster? Is Jason Garrett safe with the Cowboys, where Smith's son, Mikal, is on staff alongside buddy Rod Marinelli? If the Giants nudge Tom Coughlin into retirement, would they turn to Coughlin's runner-up for the job in 2004?

Every day it looks more likely some team will hire Smith to ride in on a white horse to save game day. That horse just won't be Traveler, the USC mascot.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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