Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Lovie Smith: the star of Big Sandy

Originally published in 2006.

by Michael Corcoran

BIG SANDY. Nakia Derrick couldn’t believe what he was seeing on his TV one afternoon a couple of months ago. The lifelong resident of this one-stoplight East Texas town 100 miles east of Dallas was watching ESPN when his faded yellow mobile home appeared on the screen.

He leapt out of his chair and called for his brothers to come see. As the camera panned to show his neighbor’s weather-beaten house, the Lyles Street Church of Christ, two more mobile homes and a lot where a house used to be, a voiceover described the small-town upbringing of Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith.

Smith's senior high school pic.
Smith’s senior high school pic.

The camera tilted up to reveal a sparkling new sign for Lovie Smith Drive. Then it showed a slender country road that went only about 100 yards.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and this is where the reigning NFL Coach of the Year, whose 10-2 Bears have already clinched the NFC Central title, first drew plays in the dirt with his finger.

” Lovie Smith put Big Sandy on the map,” said Derrick, a former Dallas Cowboys fan who now roots for “the Burrs,” which is “the Bears” brushed with an East Texas twang. The streets of the predominantly black neighborhood on the north side of the railroad tracks are practically empty when Lovie’s team is on the tube.

Derrick and his friends love to watch Lovie’s swarming, opportunistic defense, which has restored the “Monsters of the Midway” tag to the Bears, who will play Smith’s previous employer, the St. Louis Rams, on Monday night.

A self-proclaimed “country hick from East Texas,” the 48-year-old, third-year head coach has become a big sports story for the results he has gotten without ever raising his voice, except to occasionally blurt “Jiminy Christmas.” The opposite of volcanic-tempered former Bears coach Mike Ditka, Smith is a leader, his players say, who says as much with a glare as other coaches can with a tirade.

Lovie Lee, as he is called back home, has long been a hero in Big Sandy, where he starred on three consecutive Class B state championship football teams from 1973 to 1975. The townsfolk are tickled to see the rest of the country catching up.

“I grew up a Cowboys fan; we all did — Lovie, too,” said Smith’s former neighbor Willie Strickland, 50, who wears a Cowboys T-shirt and a Bears cap on Sundays. “But I gotta go with Lovie in a faceoff. He’s family, man. He’s representin’ Big Sandy!”

Before Lovie, Big Sandy was known as “the needlework capital of the South” because two big suppliers of crochet kits and sewing patterns are based here.

Country blues aficionados know Big Sandy as the hometown of Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, whose 1927 recording “Bull Doze Blues” became a hit for Canned Heat after they changed the words to “Goin’ Up the Country.” This town of 1,288 is also known as the home of Smith’s high school teammate David Overstreet, who scored a remarkable 56 touchdowns for a 1975 Wildcats team that set a national scoring record that stood for 19 years.

The news hit Big Sandy hard when Overstreet, an All-America running back at Oklahoma, died in a car crash in 1984 after his rookie season in the NFL. Just as they did on Friday nights during football season, the entire town turned out for Overstreet’s funeral at the high school auditorium.

“We were a family, that Big Sandy Wildcats team,” Smith said. “When you live in a small town, you somehow feel that you won’t be touched by such an incredible tragedy.”

Smith credits the simple, disciplined, faith-guided country life with helping to make him who he is. They didn’t need fancy weight rooms to stay in shape in Big Sandy; they had watermelon season. They loaded hay onto trucks for 3 cents a bale.

“I didn’t know that being from Big Sandy was supposed to keep me back,” he said. “My parents always told me that I could go anywhere I wanted in life. They taught me to base my life on what I do, not what other people say I can’t.”

Yet Smith’s upbringing was hardly ideal; he has been upfront about his father’s alcoholism. While his mother, Mae Smith, went off to work each morning in a lawn furniture factory, Lovie’s father, Thurman, would pull a folding chair to the corner of Old Water Bluff Road and what is now Lovie Smith Drive, and drink beer.

“He’d sit there all day long getting drunk,” said Mae’s younger brother, Billy Chalk. That’s what motivated Lovie Lee, I believe. He didn’t want to end up like his daddy, so he went all the way in the other direction.”

Smith said he couldn’t have had a better father, even with the drinking, which Thurman gave up in 1977. Smith’s father died in 1996, the year Lovie got his first NFL assistant coaching job.

“Your parents teach you a lot of different things a lot of different ways,” Smith said. “I saw my father struggle. . . . I always want to be in control of my life, and I saw how alcohol can mess with that.”

Strickland said that during the high school years, some of the gang would sneak off into the woods with a bottle of Bacardi or a 12-pack, “but Lovie Lee would just keep walking down the road. We knew he was religious, so we didn’t give him no grief.”

Smith tackled his studies with the same passion he did a scrambling quarterback, Chalk said. “He studied hard, he played hard.”

“And he hit hard, too,” chimed in Billy’s son Ronnie, a quarterback on the junior varsity “Kittens” when Lovie was a Wildcats senior. When scrimmaging the varsity, Ronnie Chalk would always keep an eye out for No. 24. ” Lovie would knock you out of your shoes,” he said.

The Chalks live six miles out of Big Sandy in a neighborhood known as Chalkville, where 10 Chalk families live on the same street. The dilapidated house that Lovie — named for an Aunt Lavana — lived in until age 6 is also on Red Maple Drive. Sometimes Mae will come over from Tyler to listen to Bears games on her brother’s TV. Mae’s been blind for about 25 years from cataracts that she neglected because there was no money for doctors.

“Mae gets so emotional when Lovie’s team is playing,” Billy Chalk said. When the Bears fell behind in a recent game, Mae had to go into another room.

“She cries when the Bears lose because she knows how painful it is to her son,” Chalk said.

It was in his sophomore year at the University of Tulsa that Lovie’s mother called to tell him about a dream she had just awakened from. In it, her son was coaching the Dallas Cowboys.

“Now, if anybody’s got a direct line to God, it’s my mother, but that was highly unlikely,” Smith said. “I didn’t think much about it, but every time I’d get a new job, moving up the coaching ladder, my mother would remind me of her dream.”

A second-team All-American safety during his junior year at Tulsa, Smith played hurt during his senior year and wasn’t picked up in the NFL draft. He tried out for a couple of teams but didn’t make the cut.

“I was devastated,” said Smith.

He had seen the NFL in his future since he was 6, but now he had to think realistically. “I just figured God had something else in store for me,” he said.

After graduating, Smith moved back in with his parents and took a job coaching the Big Sandy junior varsity team.

His salary was $900 a month, and Smith spent almost all of it on phone calls and trips to Tulsa, where his financée, MaryAnne Ford, was a senior. They’d met on a blind date; after just an hour, Smith said, he knew he’d met his soulmate.

Dinky Derrick, Nakia’s older brother, was on Smith’s first JV team.

“Oh, man, he worked us,” Derrick recalled with a laugh.

Once a week, Smith would drive the team members to the county line in a school bus, then have them run the three miles back to the school — which sits on a hill.

“Those last few hundred yards just about killed us,” Derrick said. But the conditioning paid off. After losing their first game, the Kittens won the rest.

Smith married MaryAnne after the 1980 season, then coached at a Tulsa prep school for a couple of years before getting hired as a linebackers coach at his alma mater. Three years at Tulsa led to stints at Wisconsin, Arizona State, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio State.

He broke into the NFL in 1996, when Tony Dungy hired him as linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which had been one of the weakest defensive teams in the league the previous season. Smith and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin turned the Bucs defense into third-best in the NFL in 1997. The Bucs were No. 2 the following year and made the playoffs both years.

In 2001, Smith became defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, and his success there put his name into head coach conversations. “I was thinking back to my mom’s dream,” Smith said. “Hmmm, maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it seemed.”

In 2004, Smith became the first African American coach in the storied Chicago Bears history, signing a four-year deal that pays him $1.35 million a year.

“I sprint to work every day,” he said, basking in the glow of tradition at Halas Hall, the Bears headquarters. “I love it here.” It doesn’t hurt that MaryAnne is a native of the Chicago suburbs.

Lovie’s family — MaryAnne, sons Mikal, Matthew and Miles — plus Smith’s Big Sandy friends and relatives all turned out for the dedication of Lovie Smith Drive in June. Lovie’s older brother Will, a Dallas truck driver, drove his 18-wheeler down the former Church Street, while younger sisters Martha and Shelly brought mother Mae from Tyler.

When town leaders contacted Smith about renaming a street in his honor, a couple of downtown thoroughfares were suggested, but Smith nixed that idea. “I said, ‘It’s gotta be the street I grew up on,” Smith said. The humble two-block street suits the deeply devout “hick,” who still sends a check every month to Brown’s Chapel in Elam Springs, the church he attended growing up.

Smith is the lowest-paid coach in the NFL, where five coaches make more than $5 million a year, but tell the guys back in Big Sandy that he’s underpaid and they’ll laugh. They remember when Lovie Lee couldn’t afford a cheeseburger at the Taylor Drive Inn after a game, but how an “extra” one almost always magically appeared.

“I was just so proud of those Big Sandy kids,” says Smith’s high school football coach, Jim Norman, who was also Big Sandy’s mayor during the championship seasons. “They were a team through and through. You want to know why the Bears are winning? It’s because, I guarantee you, the first thing Lovie did was turn those guys into a team.”

He works them hard and they love him for it, said Nathan Vasher, the former University of Texas safety who’s become a star on a ferocious Bears’ defensive unit tagged “the Strip Club” for its skill at extracting footballs. “You just want to play your heart out for Coach Lovie,” he said.

But not all is joyous in Lovieland. As fans and sports columnists scream for Smith to replace an ineffective Rex Grossman with veteran quarterback Brian Griese, Smith has been under fire and at a recent news conference the coach was uncharacteristically testy.

No one said it would be easy, but if the pride of Big Sandy takes the Bears to the NFL title game, on Feb. 4 he’ll be the Super Bowl’s first African American head coach. He hopes to share that distinction, he said, with Dungy, who is now coaching the 10-2 Indianapolis Colts in the AFC and remains a close friend of Smith’s.

” Lovie’s gonna win the Super Bowl,” said Nakia Derrick, waving to a car full of his brothers coming over to watch the Burrs. “And after he does, they should have the parade right here in Big Sandy.”

EPILOGUE: After beating the New Orleans Saints 39-14 in the NFC title game, Lovie Smith became the frist African-American coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl. His mentor Tony Dungy would follow three hours later, with the Indianapolis Colts, who beat the Bears in the big game 29-17. After nine years coaching the Bears, Lovie Smith was fired at the end of the 2012 season after posting a 10-6 record. A year later he interviewed for the head coaching job with the Houston Texans.

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