Monday, January 6, 2014
Smith brings warmth, hope back to Bucs
By Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- There's a bizarre story that sums up the Greg Schiano era with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The short version of the Schiano story goes like this: Retired safety Dexter Jackson, the most valuable player of the team's only Super Bowl, told a Tampa radio station in October that Schiano tried to run him out of practice when he visited the facility.
Nothing like that's ever going to happen now that Lovie Smith is the coach.
"I'm going to reach out to all of our former Buccaneers," Smith said Monday as he formally was introduced as the 10th head coach in franchise history. "They'll always be welcome here. We want them around. We want our current players to feel that pressure of how they're supposed to perform each week. Some places don't have the tradition that we have and we're going to try to draw on that as much as we can."
The Bucs, who haven't been to the playoffs since the 2007 season, haven't won a postseason game since the Super Bowl more than a decade ago and have struggled at the box office, have a tradition?
"The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be a relevant football team," said Lovie Smith, who was part of the coaching staff when the Bucs were contenders.
They really do and that's why the hiring of Smith was the best possible move the Bucs could have made at this point in time. Smith represents a bridge from the proudest era in franchise history to the future.
Smith was the linebackers coach under Tony Dungy from 1996 through 2000 before going on to be the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams and, later, the head coach of the Chicago Bears.
Schiano and predecessor Raheem Morris weren't able to return the Bucs to the level where Dungy and Jon Gruden took them. Morris was too friendly and his players took advantage of him. Schiano wasn't friendly enough and his players didn't embrace him.
Smith is somewhere in the middle and that might be just right for a franchise that needs to get something right. And, in Smith's eyes, it's not just about the players.
"Day to day, [it's] just keeping a positive building where everybody feels good about coming here," Smith said. "And everybody in the building feeling like they were a part of it."
That's another way that Smith will be starkly different from Schiano. As the Bucs were losing so frequently last season, I had numerous staff members asking what I was hearing on the possibility of Schiano being fired. It was wishful thinking on their part and there weren't a lot of people in the building upset when Schiano finally was fired. Schiano was good at cleaning out some of the troubled players that Morris put up with, but there never was much warmth from Schiano.
That chill, from a man who controlled the thermostats at One Buccaneer Place, was felt by players, staff members and the fan base. Happy staff members and happy fans are an important part of the equation. Schiano never understood that.
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Just by walking into his news conference, Smith brought a sudden warmth. He told a funny story about he and his wife having to flee from wild monkeys during a trip to Costa Rica after he was fired by the Bears. But, more than that, the warmth was rooted in nostalgia that brings hope for the future.
"We did lay a foundation for Tampa Bay Buccaneer football," Smith said. "There's a certain brand of football that you expected from us. That would be relentless, you play hard, physical, but there was a brand of football that you did get from us each week at Raymond James Stadium. It was hard for opponents to come in and win. We have gotten away from that a little bit. And it is time, as we go to the future, for us to become a relevant team again."
It's well past the time for the Bucs to be relevant again. Smith's return to Tampa Bay brings a hope that simply wasn't there when Morris and Schiano were coaching. That alone brings higher expectations and pressure than Schiano and Morris had to deal with. But Smith said he's ready for the pressure.
"When I was here, I had a great job as a linebacker coach, coaching a great group of men," Smith said. "But my plan, though, was to advance. And then when you advance and get to that top level where you're a head football coach and I have an opportunity to be a head football coach at the place I started, there is pressure -- pressure that we're putting on ourselves. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be a relevant football team. I am going to take that pressure and it will be what drives all of us, our staff, our players and all."
With Smith driving -- and knowing the right roads so well -- there's no reason the Bucs can't get back to respectability.