LAKE FOREST, Ill. â€” The Chicago Bears reached the Super Bowl under coach Lovie Smith and consistently boasted a formidable defense.
However, they missed the playoffs too many times, never solved their problems on offense and even after a 10-win season they are moving on without him.
The Bears fired the Big Sandy native on Monday after the team missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons. General manager Phil Emery delivered the news to Smith on the day after the Bears beat Detroit to finish 10-6 but still didnâ€™t make the playoffs.
Hired in 2004, Smith led the 2006 team to the Super Bowl, but he also saw his team collapse in the second half of the past two seasons. He was let go with a year left on his contract, ending a nine-year run that produced an 81-63 record, three division titles and two appearances in the NFC championship game. The Bears scheduled a news conference with Emery for Tuesday to discuss the move. Smith was not available for comment, but talked to the team after he was fired.
â€śHe earned even more respect from me, if it was possible,â€ť quarterback Jay Cutler said. â€śHe handled it the right way. A lot of character in that man, and it showed up.â€ť
Even though Chicago closed with a win, the Bears needed a loss by Minnesota to get into the playoffs. The Vikings, though, beat Green Bay to clinch a postseason spot, leaving Chicago as the second team since the postseason expanded to 12 teams to miss out after a 7-1 start. The other was Washington in 1996.
Smith ranks third on the Bearsâ€™ wins list behind George Halas and Mike Ditka.
Smith, NFLâ€™s coach of the year in 2005, led the Bears to Super Bowl XLI in Miami. As defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, the squad also made the Super Bowl XXXVI following the 2001 season.
The highlight of his tenure was the run to the title game that ended with a loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Miami. It was the first time two black coaches met for the championship, with Smith going against his mentor Tony Dungy.
The 2010 team lost to Green Bay in the NFC title game, but the Bears made the playoffs just three times and won three postseason games under Smith.
There was speculation he would be let go following the 2011 teamâ€™s collapse, but he got one more year while general manager Jerry Angelo was fired. Now, heâ€™s out.
Smith led Big Sandy High School to three state football championships and is a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
Smith, who returns to Big Sandy and East Texas as often as he can, was a three-time all-state selection on the record-setting Big Sandy High School state championship teams of the 1970s (1973-75). He was a two-time All-America defensive back at the University of Tulsa.
The news was not taken well by the Bears players.
Return star Devin Hester was so upset he said he was considering retirement, adding, â€śIâ€™ve got my workersâ€™ comp papers in my pocket.â€ť
Is he hurt?
â€śNot physically, but mentally,â€ť Hester said.
He wasnâ€™t ruling out playing next year, either.
While Smith was dismissed, there was no official word on the status of assistant coaches.
â€śI think weâ€™re going to get the best available coordinator, head coach, assistant coaches,â€ť Cutler said. â€ś(Iâ€™m not going) to speculate where theyâ€™re going to go. I have no idea. But I trust Phil and everyone involved in the search, and theyâ€™re going to make the best decisions they can make.â€ť
Known for solid defenses, Smith oversaw a unit that was consistently effective and at times ranked among the leagueâ€™s best with stars such as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and later Julius Peppers. Smith emphasized taking the ball away from the opposition, and no team did it more than the Bears with 310 during his tenure.
But on the other side, it was a different story.
Smith went through four offensive coordinators in Terry Shea, Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice. He never could find the right formula, even as the Bears acquired stars such as quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall over the years.
Smith had no bigger supporter than team matriarch Virginia McCaskey, but the fans seemed split on him.
â€śThe media, the false fans, you all got what you all wanted,â€ť Hester said. â€śThe majority of you all wanted him out. As players we wanted him in. I guess the fans â€” the false fans â€” out-ruled us. I thought he was a great coach, probably one of the best coaches Iâ€™ve ever been around. He brought me in.â€ť
History suggests fans hoping for a high-profile replacement such as Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden might be disappointed. The last time the Bears went with an experienced NFL head coach was when Halas returned to the sideline in 1958.
They might, however, go with an offensive-minded coach for the first time since Mike Ditka was fired after the 1992 season, given the issues in that area.
A person familiar with the situation said Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will interview for the Bears and Arizona Cardinals jobs this week. The person, who spoke to The Associated Press on Monday on condition of anonymity because he wasnâ€™t authorized to publicly speak about the interviews, said the talks would take place in Denver.
That the Bears would be in this spot seemed unthinkable after they won seven of their first eight games, but the schedule took a tougher turn. Injuries mounted and so did the losses. It was similar to last season when they finished 8-8 after a 7-3 start, a collapse sparked by a season-ending injury to Cutler.
Dismissing Smith was the first move in what looks like a busy offseason. Urlacher has an expiring contract and was limited by knee and hamstring injuries this year.
The Bears might have a decision to make on Cutler, who has one more year left on his contract.
â€śI think, first and foremost, their concern is going to be with finding coaches, and weâ€™ll address it from there,â€ť he said.