LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) -The plain blue suit coat in Lovie Smith's office looks like thousands hanging in closets across the country, hardly worth a second glance if not for two things: The smile it brings to the coach's face, and the fact it used to belong to George "Papa Bear'' Halas.
"To be able to coach for a team with this type of tradition - George Halas' daughter is next door. There's George Halas' coat back there,'' Smith said. "I don't know if I'm perfect for the job. But I know the job is definitely perfect for me.''
Much like that coat, a gift when he was hired as coach of the Chicago Bears almost four years ago, there's far more to Smith than his modest exterior.
Chicago has always liked its coaches to come with a little character. From Halas to Leo Durocher to Mike Ditka to Phil Jackson to Ozzie Guillen, it's the men with personalities as big as their jobs who have captured a piece of the city's heart.
But Smith's calm demeanor and unwavering positive attitude have been an ideal fit for the Bears, helping restore pride and swagger to one of the NFL's most storied teams.
At 7-0, the Bears are off to their best start since 1985 - as if anyone in the city needed reminding, that season ended with a Super Bowl title - and they join Indianapolis as the only unbeatens in the NFL.
"I've had quite a few coaches throughout my career, from Dom Capers to George Seifert to John Fox, and Lovie, I would say, is probably my favorite,'' said receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who came to Chicago from Carolina two years ago.
"He's a guy who's easy to respect.''
The Bears were reeling 3 1/2 years ago, with only three winning seasons since Ditka was fired in 1992 and two playoff appearances. The once fierce rivalry with the Green Bay Packers had become woefully lopsided, and only the Detroit Lions kept the Bears from being the division laughingstock.
While some of Chicago's defensive players showed star potential, there was a revolving door at quarterback, an anemic offense and more than a few bad decisions on draft day.
Nick Saban, then at LSU, was the favorite for the coaching job, but he wanted more control over personnel issues than general manager Jerry Angelo was willing to give. When Saban walked away, Angelo opted for Smith, the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator.
Although not a household name like Marvin Lewis or Charlie Weis, Smith was well-respected throughout the league after working his way up the coaching ranks. He'd helped Hardy Nickerson and Derrick Brooks develop into Pro Bowl linebackers in Tampa Bay. In his first year in St. Louis, the Rams went from one of the league's worst defenses to the third best.
But it was his personality that sold Angelo.
"There's a persona people have about coaches in general, and usually the fiery coach comes to mind,'' said Angelo, who initially worked with Smith in Tampa Bay. "But there are a lot of great coaches - Paul Brown, Tom Landry - that weren't that way and were highly successful.
"Ultimately, it's somebody's ability to lead when times are tough. To galvanize teams, to create hope when nobody else around you believes there's hope,'' Angelo said. "That's a very difficult thing to do.''
Some coaches rule with an iron fist, motivating their players through fear and uniting them in loathing. Others are more removed, establishing expectations and leaving everyone else to decide how they'll be met. Still others are a combination dictator-mentor.
But the guy with the unique name - his parents, who'd thought they were having a girl, named him after his great-aunt Lavana - has a style all his own. He doesn't swear, and even yelling is a rarity. He's honest with his players, but would never criticize them in public to make a point.
Though warm and personable, he prefers his players get the spotlight. A grand pronouncement for him is the vow he made the day he was hired to beat Green Bay - a promise he's delivered on.
"Most of the perception about coaching is you have to scream and yell at the players to get your point across. That isn't the case,'' Smith said. "Players want you to teach them, to help them with their profession, to get them better.
"I'd say my style of coaching is positive reinforcement. Because that's what I got,'' he added. "What has always motivated me is people saying, `Hey Lovie, you can do it. You have what it takes.' Just saying something positive to get your point across.
While Smith has taken something from just about everyone he's played for, worked for and worked with, much of the coach - and the man - remains rooted in his childhood.
Smith grew up in Big Sandy, Texas, a tiny farming community about halfway between Dallas and Shreveport, La. Money was tight in Smith's family, and he can't remember when he didn't have a job.
"You talk about hard work, what you get out of life is what you put into it, it's all on you - I think you get that in a small town,'' he said. "That's what I think I got down there, the discipline part, the teamwork. It seems like people in a small town are a little bit closer, you get to know each other a little bit better.
"Then you put that with the football team, you see how things can work for the good once you get guys working together.''
When he was in the sixth grade, a teacher asked Smith what he wanted to be. The youngster never hesitated.
"I wanted to coach,'' he said. "At the time, I was thinking high school coaching and teaching. ... And then it just grew.''
After earning second-team All-America honors as a defensive back at Tulsa, Smith spent three years as a high school coach. He also taught special education.
In 1983, Tulsa hired him as its linebackers coach, the start of a 20-year odyssey that would finally bring him to Chicago. He is one of seven black head coaches in the NFL.
"We've had a couple different zip codes, for sure,'' Smith said. "It was a long journey to get here, and that makes you appreciate where you are a little more, too, some of the struggles you've had.''
Those struggles didn't end in Chicago.
Three games into Smith's first season, Rex Grossman, the Bears' latest franchise quarterback, ripped up his knee. Forced to make do with the disastrous patchwork of Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel and Jonathan Quinn, the Bears struggled to a 5-11 finish.
Things weren't looking any better last season. Grossman was out again after breaking an ankle in the preseason, the offense was in the hands of rookie Kyle Orton and they'd lost three of their first four games. Plenty of other teams would have dissolved in a crisis of confidence, but not the Bears.
Smith wouldn't let them.
"He was always saying, `Hey fellas, come on, let's circle the wagons. Don't play for me, play for the guy next to you and the guy next to you. Think about what you've been doing this whole offseason, think about what you've been working for. Don't make all that work for nothing. You worked hard for a reason. Let's just pull together,''' cornerback Charles Tillman said.
"It paid off.''
The Bears won eight straight, finished 11-5 and won the NFC North before losing to Carolina in the playoffs. Their defense led the league in points allowed, was second in total yardage and fifth in passing.
Smith won coach of the year honors.
"You always want to see people get rewarded when they do a good job, particularly when they're good people,'' Angelo said. "I'm very, very happy so far with how things have gone. But we're certainly not done with the story.''
Expected to dominate the weak NFC North this season, the Bears' 37-6 rout of defending NFC champion Seattle in Week 4 stamped them as a Super Bowl contender. Their defense is as nasty as ever, and the offense is more than holding its own with a league-best 31.6 points a game.
Michael Jordan aside, Chicago is a Bears town, and the city is head over heels for this year's team. Smith is equally smitten. He and his family have made Lake Forest their home, and he was a fixture at Bulls games last year.
Though he is the lowest-paid coach at $1.35 million a year - something Angelo promises he'll address - you will never hear it from Smith. He has the job he always wanted in a city he loves.
And he has Papa Bear Halas' coat in his office.
"How could I say it hasn't worked out perfectly?'' Smith said, another smile crossing his face. "I left a small town, met my wife on a blind date at (Tulsa) and now I'm the head coach of the Chicago Bears in a profession that I wanted to be in since I was in the sixth grade.
"So yeah, it's definitely worked out perfectly.''
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
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