To the delight of many fans, the Bears got the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft on Sunday. A defeating, but joyous accomplishment after a brutal year filled with injuries and uncertainty.
Amidst all of Chicago’s happiness around the pick, Bears fans have one man to thank – former Bears head coach Lovie Smith.
Smith, who was the head coach of the Houston Texans on Sunday, had the golden ticket in hand for the league’s top prize for the worst team, but refused to cash it in. To his detriment, he propelled his team with some late-game, clutch plays to a win over the lowly Indianapolis Colts.
"We understand what our win total is. It's not enough. That wasn't part of the plan. That's how it goes sometimes," Smith said after the win. "But now we came down to this game, one game left to go. We wanted to leave the season with a good taste in our mouths.
"To do it that way, where you've got to scratch and claw. It was good to see the guys finish this one."
As a Bear fan, Sunday ended up being the happiest day of my Bear fan life. Achieving the ultimate consolation prize with the No. 1 pick, having the most salary cap space of any team in the NFL and a Packers’ denial to the playoffs.
But, someone’s good fortune can also be someone’s downfall.
It was so for Lovie Smith.
After a disastrous season for the Houston Texans, their win in the season’s final game dropped them to the second-worst team in the NFL, which at its face would get someone relieved of their head coaching duties.
But, in the modern sports age of “tanking” and “rebuilding for the future” that so many sports franchises give to their fans, there should be questions about the merits of Smith’s firing, which was announced hours after the Texans' win.
The story of Lovie Smith’s tenure as the Houston Texans coach was short-lived and will probably be a random fact about his NFL coaching career on Wikipedia. But, in the end, Smith fell victim to one of the biggest issues in the NFL – black coaches being the scapegoat for bad NFL franchises.
The Houston Texans were in a whirlwind of controversy just a year ago, as their then-star quarterback Deshaun Watson demanded to be traded after just four seasons. On top of that, Watson was then alleged to have sexually assaulted multiple women under the guise of massage therapy, seemingly with the help of the organization.
What’s more, they fired David Culley – another Black coach – and they were rumored to be connected to former NFL quarterback Josh McCown – who has zero head coaching experience and simultaneously bypassed the NFL-mandated Rooney Rule of interviewing minority coaching candidates.
It wasn’t until another minority coach – Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins – filed his lawsuit against the NFL for discrimination, the Texans finally looked to Smith, then their defensive coordinator, as the guide to get them to calmer seas.
Smith’s experience as a head coach in three stops at the professional level, a Super Bowl appearance, and – by the accounts of NBCSCH’s Football Aftershow Bears analysts Lance Briggs and Alex Brown – a leader with and calm nature that players respect, moved the national eyes from the Texans who have been mismanaged, mired in scrutiny and built poorly.
What was he given as thanks? A swift firing almost before he could leave the stadium.
This is the life of a black NFL coach. NFL owners, for the most part, use “diversity” as a meaningless buzzword.
When your team is in disarray and needs a stabilizing force for a roster that isn’t built to go anywhere, call the black coach. When you’re starting a rebuilding project and you need a face to take the loss, hire a black coach.
But when it’s time to turn the franchise around with a young quarterback, it’s “Thanks for your service, but we will hire the white man we wanted all along.”
In theory, the Rooney Rule should give Black coaches real opportunities. But, since its initial inception to avoid a major lawsuit in 2003, NFL owners have skirted around this flimsy attempt at diversity.
The hiring of a Black coach to the NFL is nothing but a button to push when there is a potential of tanking and/or an allegation of racism.
Smith was a victim before. When he was rebuilding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he helped improve them by 4 wins with then, young quarterback Jameis Winston. But, he was fired after his second year and replaced with – yep, you guessed it – Dirk Koetter, a white coach.
To all Bears fans who raise a glass to celebrate the team's golden ticket via the No. 1 pick, don’t forget the man who refused to cash his in. Lovie Smith, seemingly out of deviance, refused to coach any different, probably knowing he would be fired either way.
Amidst all of our excitement about the upcoming Bears' future, let’s not be so insular and forget the NFL has a major problem discarding Black head coaches after they’ve cleaned up their messes.
This one should hit close to home.