I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie Ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. —Ralph Ellison, from “Invisible Man”
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LAKE FOREST, ILL. — It would be rude to turn up on Lovie Smith’s doorstep without bringing something, even if that something is little more than a preconceived notion. Smith’s enduring image while coach of the Chicago Bears was that of an arms-folded, thousand-yard staring, robotic-speaking sphinx—John Amos without the Good Times. And even though it’s been 10 months since the Bears fired Smith and effectively killed off a character that never meshed with the Windy City’s cast of mythically outsized coaching personalities, surely some version of that sideline sphinx waited inside this stately brick house in this northern Chicago suburb on this unseasonably bright and warm October Sunday.
But another figure, as tall and bald and beefy as the coach of lore, rises from an overstuffed living room couch dressed in a black T-shirt and dark jeans. His arms are spread out in welcome. His eyes glisten with excitement. He laughs sheepishly. There is an English Premier League game on a big screen TV. This must be the wrong address.
“I’m sorry—I know this looks bad, but I swear I didn’t put this on,” says Smith, assigning blame for the footie faux pas to Matt, the middle of his three kids—all boys, all grown up. The youngest, Miles, in his final semester of college, was supposed to be here too, “but he’s a single guy,” Smith says. “A young, single guy that lives in Chicago. He’s trying to have a good time.” Smith apologizes again for not answering the door sooner, but he was blasting Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be” too loud to hear the doorbell.
Hold up—Lovie Smith … rocks out? “Oh, come on now,” he says, rolling his eyes. He darts into the kitchen, digs out a stereo remote and hits the play button.
Hugging and squeezing and kissing and pleasing
Together forever throughever whatever
Yeah yeah yeah yeah
You and me
The funk is casting its spell anew. Smith’s eyes are closed, his head bobbing. He’s in a groove now. He dashes through the garage—“Look at Matt leaving the garage door open,” he says, in that way fathers do—past his sky-blue ’67 Mustang and a Bears golf bag to the backyard to show off his garden, a row of gray box planters on the edge of a driveway basketball court and a putting green. One box has cantaloupe. Another has cucumbers. Most of this harvest will wind up paired with store-bought spinach and kale and crammed inside a NutriBullet for breakfast smoothies. As for those blackberries growing in clusters on the backyard fence, a bunch met their end inside a giant mason jar on the kitchen table labeled BLACKBERRY BRANDY. Smith considers his purple potion and smiles wryly. “You gotta find a way to use ’em all up,” he says.
There’s more produce in a giant bowl in the living room, an outgrowth of Smith’s farmland upbringing and a legacy of diabetes that chased his sister and mother to the grave and holds two other siblings in its grip. Make yourself at home. The early games are about to start. Matt flips from soccer (thank god) to the DirecTV game-mix channel. Chief among the eight tiles of NFL games, all playing simultaneously, is Saints-Bears.
A Sunday veg-out session with a real, live NFL coach would qualify as a Make-A-Wish moment for most football fans. At best it’s a window into the logic that informs modern game plans; at worst it’s a reminder that a peripheral grasp on the game, no matter how tight, is no match for the knowledge that comes from a lifetime on the inside.
And yet it is impossible to fully enjoy this afternoon, knowing that Smith, 55, is simply too young and too good to be on this side of the TV. It’s not that the Bears weren’t within their right to terminate their relationship with him after nine years; they’re a business, not a charity. It’s that they fired him with a winning record, after a 10-6 season, one of a handful of such seasons since the expansion to 16 games that didn’t culminate in a playoff berth for the team in question. Even stranger, none of the seven other teams seeking to fill head coaching positions before the 2013 season moved to scoop up Smith, a former NFL coach of the year who won the NFC North division three times, led Chicago to two NFC championship games and came within a few Rex Grossman turnovers of stealing Super Bowl XLI.
Shortly after his dismissal, Smith interviewed with the Bills, Chargers and Eagles about their head coaching vacancies but was passed over. He wasn’t the right fit, they more or less told him. Just a few days ago he was reported to have interviewed for the vacant USC job, but he insists there’s no truth to that. He has no interest in going back to school. “I’m a Pro coach,” he says by way of a Tuesday morning text message—the capital P, his. Rather than take a step down and try to catch on with another pro staff as a defensive coordinator (the side of the ball where Smith built a reputation as a Cover 2 guru), or become a TV pundit, or lose himself down a mental rabbit hole trying to deconstruct the reasoning behind the cryptic job rejections he received, the coach disappeared. He took his 81 wins and the $5 million balance owed to him on a Bears contract that runs through the end of this season and went home. Getting here was a trip.