NEW YORK (Jan. 7, 2006) -- Lovie Smith was hired to resurrect a proud franchise in Chicago. He did such a strong job in 2005 that he was chosen The Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year.
And he beat out his mentor, Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, for the honor.
In his second season as Bears coach, Smith guided the team to the NFC North title with an 11-5 record, earning a first-round playoff bye. Chicago had the league's stingiest defense, which figures because Smith made his reputation as a defensive mastermind, first in Tampa Bay under Dungy, then in St. Louis.
Now, he oversees a team that surged from 5-11 in his first year to a Super Bowl contender, armed with a defense that allowed only 202 points, just 61 of those at home.
"There are growing pains in anything worthwhile that I've seen," Smith said. "We definitely learned a lot from that experience last year. We definitely appreciate it right now.
"Our team having that bye week getting ready for this playoff game, I'm really excited about that. I'm also excited about the job our coaches were able to do. Our assistant coaches did a super job. To me, we are the team of the year."
If they aren't, then Dungy's Colts might be. Smith drew 24 1/2 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL. Dungy was next with 20 1/2.
Smith, who served as Dungy's linebackers coach from 1996-2000 in Tampa, recently attended the funeral of James Dungy, his close friend's oldest son, who died last month. Their bond remains strong and Smith often has credited Dungy with helping develop his leadership skills.
Bears general manager Jerry Angelo also worked for the Buccaneers.
"Lovie, when we went out and started our search for a head coach, it starts with leadership," Angelo said. "And (with) Lovie there've never been any doubts about that. I knew that firsthand. I had the benefit of working with him down in Tampa and saw that come to fruition even more so now that he's in charge."
Smith, who moved from defensive coordinator of the Rams to the Bears, chose Ron Rivera to coordinate the defense, but remains heavily involved with a unit sparked by Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher. Chicago gave up 24 points in a loss to Cincinnati in Game 3, but otherwise never yielded more than nine points at Soldier Field in going 7-1 at home.
Rivera has become a prime candidate for some of the head coaching openings this month.
Urlacher, though, thinks Smith deserved the award because of how the offense remained together -- if ordinary -- when quarterback Rex Grossman was hurt in the preseason, then running back Cedric Benson, the fourth overall draft choice, held out, contributed little, and hurt his knee during the season.
"I realize a lot of other teams have had great seasons -- when you look at Tony Dungy and they were 14-2," Urlacher said. "Marvin Lewis did a great job at Cincinnati. But you look at what we had to deal with.
"Our starting quarterback went down. He had to bring along a rookie quarterback (Kyle Orton) who won 10 games for us. It seems like he always made the right moves.
"When we started out bad, 1-3, he never gave up on us, never changed the way he spoke to the media and to the team. I have so much respect for the guy just because of the way he is, the way he treats everyone."
Smith is the fourth Bears coach to win the award. George Halas, the founder of the franchise, won it in 1963 and '65. Mike Ditka was honored in 1985 and '88. Dick Jauron won in 2001.
A good omen, perhaps, for Smith: Chicago won the NFL championship in '63 and '85, the first seasons Halas and Ditka, respectively, took the award. The six total Coach of the Year awards are the most for any franchise.
Also receiving votes were New England's Bill Belichick (2), and one each for Seattle's Mike Holmgren, Cincinnati's Lewis and the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin.
San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer was the 2004 winner.