HOUSTON, TEXAS – AUGUST 25: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans stands on the sidelines during a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers at NRG Stadium on August 25, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
When Lovie Smith was hired last year as the Texans’ associate head coach/defensive coordinator, he knew there was a good chance he wouldn’t get another opportunity to become a head coach in the NFL.
Smith knew the odds were against him becoming the first Black coach to become a head coach with three NFL organizations.
Considering the predicament the Texans were experiencing after back-to-back four-win seasons, they weren’t the ideal team for an assistant with head-coaching aspirations.
Under first-year coach David Culley, Smith returned to the NFL after a five-year absence when he was coach at the University of Illinois. In 2021, the Texans were undergoing a major overhaul orchestrated by first-time general manager Nick Caserio. The playoffs were a pipe dream.
Owners aren’t in the habit of hiring head coaches from losing teams, especially a graybeard approaching his 64thbirthday. The Texans finished 4-12 and 4-13 in their last two seasons and employed three head coaches – Culley, Bill O’Brien and Romeo Crennel — as they spiraled out of control and became bottom-feeders.
But, as fate would have it, Smith got that third opportunity from Caserio and the McNair family. When the Texans kick off against Indianapolis at NRG Stadium on Sunday, he’ll be as enthusiastic as he was in 2004 when he began his head coaching career at Chicago.
“It’s beyond words,” Smith said after practice this week. “When I was at (Chicago and Tampa Bay), I realized how much of a privilege it was to be a head coach in this league. I knew there was a chance it wouldn’t happen again, and now to get this opportunity in such an ideal place, I can’t tell you how excited I am.”
Since the Texans pulled the rug out from under Josh McCown — Jack Easterby’s candidate to replace Culley – and hired Smith, he’s brought a calmness to an organization that had been in turmoil since 2019, the Texans’ last playoff season under O’Brien.
After experiencing the personnel failures generated by O’Brien and the tomfoolery created by Easterby, who’s been emasculated and no longer has the power he wielded in his first three years, the Texans are clearly Smith’s team. He and Caserio have the same vision for the team and a mutual respect that’s helped eliminate the controversy that dogged the organization in recent years.
Smith, a native Texan who grew up in Big Sandy, is eager to reward the faith Caserio and the McNairs have shown in him, beginning Sunday against the Colts.
“The McNairs have been super to work with,” Smith said. “Janice, Hannah and Cal have been so supportive. They always ask, ‘What can we do to help?’ It’s been great.”
Smith has been fired from his three jobs at the NFL and college levels. In nine seasons with the Bears, he fashioned a 92-90 record, including 3-3 in the playoffs. In his last eight seasons, the Bears were 24 games over .500. He was fired after going 10-6 in 2012, his last season.
Phil Emery, who was coming off his first season as general manager, fired Smith and replaced him with Marc Trestman, who was gone after two seasons.
Bob McNair, the Texans’ late owner, almost hired Smith after the 2013 season before settling on O’Brien. Smith returned to Tampa Bay, where he’d been an assistant under Tony Dungy, but was fired after going 2-14 and 6-10. Despite the four-game improvement with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston as the starter, Smith was fired and replaced by offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Smith waited a long time to get a third chance with the Texans.
“When I left Illinois, my plan was to get back into the NFL in the best possible situation and go from there,” Smith said. “I knew my love to coach football was still there.
“This is my third time around, my last NFL job. You can’t write the script any better – Texas guy comes back home with a chance to lead the Texans and getting all the resources we need with an excellent coaching staff. We like where we are, and we can’t wait to start climbing.”
Going into the Indianapolis game, Smith believes he carries an enormous responsibility for Black assistant coaches who aspire to become head coaches in the NFL.
Smith knows if he’s successful helping the Texans continue their rebuild and eventually returning to the playoffs, it’ll benefit other assistants who aspire to do what he’s doing for a third time.
“I absolutely do believe that,” he said about the responsibility. “Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do.
“When you’re the first to do something and not many people who look like you have gotten that opportunity to do something, so how do we get more opportunities for some other people that look like me? Yes, there’s pressure – internal pressure – to bring the Texans back.”
There’s also pressure on Smith, who was 5-6 in openers with the Bears and Bucs, to not let the Texans get humiliated by the Colts as they did last season. Indianapolis won 31-0 and 31-3 – games Smith and his players remember vividly.
“They dominated us at their place and at home,” Smith said. “It’s a motivating (factor) as much as anything. We do remember that, but talk can’t get it done. That’s why we can’t wait to see exactly how far we’ve come since (those games).”
No matter what happens against the Colts, it’s not going to change Smith’s passion about being a head coach again.
“What I do isn’t work,” he said. “Football’s fun. I hope everyone loves their job like I love mine – the blessing to be in this position and the excitement to see our team play. From coaching, players and administration, it’s all set up for us to do well.”
(John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He also can be read on SportsRadio610.com)