Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith is the third-winningest coach in franchise history. His 81-63 regular season record since 2004 is 4th best in the NFC over that timeframe. He brought Chicago to two NFC Championship games, as well as the club's only Super Bowl appearance since 1985.
Yet despite that, he was handed his walking papers yesterday morning.
"It was a tough decision because I have great respect for Lovie and the person he is, the man he is and the coach that he is," GM Phil Emery said today. "He's been a very successful coach here. He's had a good run of nine years of very competitive teams. Teams that presented themselves with class. He's had a lot of defensive excellence during the course of that run. He had a Super Bowl team. He's had playoff teams, three divisional championships. Definitely, we've had defensive excellence."
Emery, who said it was his decision to fire Smith, used two main criteria in deciding to make a change at head coach coming off a 10-6 season.
"As a professional sports team, and as an historic charter member of the greatest sports league in this world, the NFL, our No. 1 goal has to be to win championships. To win championships we must be in contention on a consistent basis," said Emery. "And to be in contention, we have to be in the playoffs on a consistent basis. Five out of the last six years, we have not been there. We have fallen short. We have had defensive excellence. However, during the course of coach Smith's career, we've had one offense that was ranked in the teens, I believe 15th, during the course of that. We haven't had the balance between our defensive excellence."
Emery left no room for interpretation with his comments: Lovie was fired because his offenses routinely ranked at or near the bottom of the league and he didn't make enough trips to the postseason. Plain and simple. It's the same reason so many fans and analysts were calling for his head after two straight seasons where the team collapsed in the second half, falling out of the playoffs.
"We have not had consistency on the offensive side of the ball," Emery said. "We have gone through a number of coordinators. We have searched for answers. The end result is that we did not have enough consistency. That part and not getting to the playoffs on a consistent basis, being able to meet our organizational goals, to be in a consistent spot, to be in the hunt to win championships, I made the change moving forward.
"So since '06, we've only been [to the playoffs] once. Hey, I'm glad that we went. I wasn't here at that time, obviously. It's important that we go. But to get to be a championship team, to win it, we have to be in it more often."
The search now begins for Smith's replacement, a person Emery said could come from either the NFL or collegiate ranks.
"I want somebody that has high energy; somebody that pulls people together in the building," said Emery. "Whatever his personality subset is, or however he approaches it, I want somebody that has some warmth that pulls everybody together and that we have synergy, not only with our players but with everybody in the building to work towards our common goal. Upbeat and positive. Everybody has a different personality. Everybody represents themselves in a different way. But those qualities are paramount. We all want to work together in a positive environment toward winning championships."
The next head coach will also need to be able to work well with the media and be a great representative of the organization.
"I want somebody that's good on their feet. I think working with the media not only in Chicago, but in a national sense is very important. I want this person to stand up and represent us well. It's a very tough job. It's very demanding. Wins and losses weigh heavily week to week."
As of this moment, Emery is considering every potential replacement, including current Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub.
"No one's been excluded. We have some excellent coaches on our staff and I'm not excluding anybody."
Emery said he has interviews lined up for this week and next. He did not offer a concrete timetable for finding a new coach, although he wants to get it done sooner than later.
"I'm going to do everything with a sense of urgency. I think it's important that we be very thorough to get the absolute right person. My druthers would be ideally that I could stand shoulder to shoulder with this person during the All-Star games — the East-West is coming up, the Senior Bowl is coming up. all those things are important. We have to be thorough, though. The playoffs are a consideration. There might be some candidates that we might not be able to interview during that time frame. So far we have them scheduled and we're on course. There may be a candidate that's in the playoffs and may be unavailable to us. We may have to wait out. It depends on how these courses of interviews go."
As far as a budget for the new coach, Emery said money is not an issue.
"Money has never been a discussion. It wasn't a discussion when we had the discussions and I led the analysis in terms of what my final decision was. It never came up. It has not come up in this process of putting together candidates and scheduling. We're in pretty good shape for the next two weeks of getting a number of quality candidates to come up and talk."
Team president Ted Phillips also said money won't be a deciding factor in finding the next head coach.
"We're going to do whatever it takes to hire the right guy," said Phillips.
Three of the candidates scheduled to meet with Emery in the next two weeks are Mike McCoy, offensive coordinator, Denver Broncos; Mike Sullivan, offensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; and Keith Armstrong, special teams coordinator, Atlanta Falcons.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.