Bears players packed their belongings and said goodbye to each other in a somber locker room Monday afternoon at Halas Hall.
Moments earlier, they learned officially what had been reported about an hour earlier. Coach Lovie Smith was fired after nine seasons with the franchise.
In a private farewell speech to his team, Smith told his players that he loved them and that he was proud of them. He was one of at least seven head coaches who reportedly were fired Monday after failing to lead their teams to the playoffs.
“[He said] it was a privilege to coach us and be part of this organization,” said center Roberto Garza, who has spent the past eight years with the Bears. “There are a lot of guys that respect coach Lovie Smith. It was a tough room to be in.”
Bears general manager Phil Emery is scheduled to speak to reporters at 10 a.m. Tuesday about the decision to dismiss Smith. He reportedly has sought permission to interview Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy for the vacancy, and other top assistants, college coaches and veteran NFL coaches could be considered.
At least for now, all other Bears’ assistant coaches who are under contract for next season remain with the team. That could change in the coming days and weeks as Emery hires Smith’s replacement and allows him to assemble a staff.
Smith was 81-63 for a .563 winning percentage in nine seasons with the Bears, including three NFC North division titles and four seasons with double-digit wins.
But six seasons have passed since Smith guided the Bears to Super Bowl XLI in South Florida, where they lost by 12 points to the Indianapolis Colts. Since that Super Bowl appearance, the Bears have missed the playoffs five times in six years.
Such playoff droughts also proved costly for previous coaches at Halas Hall and across the NFL. The Bears fired Smith’s predecessor, Dick Jauron, after he missed the playoffs four times in five seasons. Jauron had succeeded Dave Wannstedt, who was dismissed after missing the playoffs five times in six seasons.
It’s a tough reality, but one which every coach accepts as part of his job description.
Still, the news was tough to accept for safety Craig Steltz and many of his teammates.
“I guess it’s part of the game,” Steltz said. “That’s what happens. And we get caught and fall into that routine — if you’re not winning the big trophy, I guess the guy is out. It’s frustrating. It’s a bad day.”
Although Smith designed opportunistic defenses that led the NFL in takeaways since 2004, he was unable to find an assistant who could sustain a reliable offense. Mike Tice replaced Mike Martz as offensive coordinator before the season, but the Bears sputtered again with one of the worst offenses in the league.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler took a not-so-veiled shot at Tice as he discussed the possibility of working with his fourth coordinator in five seasons with the team.
“We’re going to have to make do with it,” Cutler said. “I think we got a lot of good pieces offensively, personnel-wise. Once we get a good coordinator and play-caller, we’ll make it work.”
Other players struggled to contain their emotions.
After hearing the news of Smith’s firing, Bears wide receiver Devin Hester said he might retire or re-join Smith elsewhere. He lashed out at fans and reporters who called for Smith’s firing after another second-half slide in 2012.
“The media, the false fans, you all got what you all wanted,” Hester said. “The majority of you all wanted him out. Players, as players, we wanted him in.
“I guess the fans – the false fans – out-ruled us. I thought he was a great coach, probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. He brought me in.”
Smith acknowledged his high-stakes profession three days ago as he prepared for Detroit. Although his nine-year tenure with the Bears was longer than all but three active coaches, he became familiar with rumors and uncertainty about his job.
“It’s the nature of the game, as I see it,” Smith said. “And for us, it’s about getting into the playoffs. You get into the playoffs, and a new season starts.”
You don’t, and changes happen.
Although Cutler said he would miss Smith, he also said change wasn’t always bad.
“No one really wants to change or think about changing,” Cutler said. “Now that it’s upon us, we’ve got to be positive about it. It is what it is. We’ve just got to keep moving forward, and whoever it is, we’ve got to make the most of it.”