TAMPA, Fla. — The Buccaneers say Lovie Smith is the ideal man to coach Tampa Bay.
The team made it official Thursday, announcing the one-time Tony Dungy protege who led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl seven years ago finalized a five-year contract that he had reportedly agreed to on Wednesday. He will be formally introduced at a news conference next Monday.
The 55-year-old Smith replaces Greg Schiano, who was fired Monday following a 4-12 finish. The Bucs also dismissed general manager Mark Dominik, and the search for his successor continues.
Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer called it an “exciting day” for the organization.
“We knew from the start of our search that he was the ideal man to lead our team into a new era. … Lovie is an accomplished and very well-respected head coach who has enjoyed success at every level of his 30-year career,” Glazer said.
In hiring someone with a proven track record as a NFL head coach, ownership departed from the route taken for two other coaching changes over the past five years.
The Glazer family promoted Raheem Morris from defensive coordinator to replace Jon Gruden after the Bucs missed the playoffs in 2008. They opted for another candidate with no previous NFL head coaching experience when they lured Schiano from Rutgers, where he had turned a struggling college program into a winner.
Schiano was fired after going 11-21 in two seasons. The Bucs lost the first eight games of this season and played played poorly in the four losses during the 4-4 stretch the team put together to close out the Schiano era.
Smith is a defensive-minded coach who could bring back a version of the Tampa 2 system that the Bucs popularized during a successful run under Dungy in the late 1990’s and Gruden in the early 2000’s, when Tampa Bay won its only Super Bowl title.
The 55-year-old Smith was Dungy’s linebackers coach with the Bucs from 1996-2000, then spent three seasons as the St. Louis Rams’ defensive coordinator on Mike Martz’s staff.
“I think the fit is going to be tremendous,” Dungy said. “Number one he knows the area, he knows how the team got built into a Super Bowl winner, he knows how to win in the NFL. But more than that, I think he is going to build just a chemistry and camaraderie in that locker room and in the whole organization that’s going to resemble what we had before.”
Smith was 81-63 in nine seasons with Chicago, earning three playoff berths and leading the 2006 team to the Super Bowl, where the Bears lost to the Dungy- and Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts.
The coach’s tenure in Chicago came to an abrupt halt a year ago, when Smith was fired after finishing 10-6 but missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
Smith has a 3-3 post-season record, including a loss to Green Bay in the NFC championship game during the 2010 season.
“I don’t think they could’ve chosen a better guy — not just him as a coach, but as a person,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.
“How he treats his players, and just being a player’s coach and his whole philosophy, he’s changed a lot of people’s lives,” McCoy added. “I’ve talked to a bunch of people who’ve said I’m going to love playing for this guy.”
The Bucs, going through their third coaching change in five years, haven’t made the playoffs since 2007. They haven’t won a playoff game since their 2002 Super Bowl run under Gruden.
Smith inherits a better situation than either of his two predecessors, Raheem Morris and Schiano, who took over a team that dropped its final 10 games under Morris in 2011.
Tampa Bay was 17th in the NFL in total defense this season, making significant strides following the acquisition of cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson last spring.
But the offense was a major disappointment, sinking to the bottom of the league ranking after finishing in the top 10 in 2012, when Josh Freeman became Tampa Bay’s first 4,000-yard passer.
Schiano’s grip on his job began to slip away with the messy benching and subsequent release of Freeman. In addition to not receiving any compensation for the former first-round draft pick, the Bucs suffered a public relations hit amid allegations that Schiano or someone else in the organization leaked confidential information about Freeman’s voluntary involvement in the NFL drug testing program.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was among those reaching out to congratulate Smith. He served a stint as Chicago’s defensive coordinator, while Smith was with the Bears.
He exchanged text messages with his former boss, who in turn wished the Panthers good luck in the playoffs. As members of the NFC South, their teams will face each other twice a year.
“They are a good football team and I always felt like they are a good football team,” Rivera said. “He has been to the big stage and knows what it takes. I think he makes their football team better already.”