HOUSTON – Houston Texans coach Luffy Smith sat in the media room chair and imitated how he gets up in the morning.
Smith closed his eyes and turned his head back.
“I have alarms,” Smith told ESPN while pretending to be asleep. “This morning, 4:45.”
Smith suddenly cocked his head forward with his eyes wide open and added “widely attentive,” a reference to how football, even in his twelfth season as an NFL coach, still delivers a wild lunge.
“I am 64 years old, drug free, and never put drugs in my body in my life,” Smith said. “But that’s high in football. There is no medicine you can make me take [that compares] That’s how high I get every day.”
And on Sunday, when Smith roams the sidelines when he visits the Texans (0-1-1) and the Chicago Bears (1-1), it will be a complete moment. Smith will return to where he achieved the highest level of success and where his coaching career began. Smith led the Bears for eight seasons starting in 2004. He was also the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two seasons starting in 2014.
On the field, success happened a lot during Smith’s run in Chicago. Smith had an 81-63 record in Chicago and reached Super Bowl XLI. But the chance of reaching the pinnacle of his career as a black coach trumped the win-and-loss record in his eyes.
“I realized how special it was when I got my first job,” Smith said. “What you always try to do is do a good enough job. You hope that allows other men who are like me to get a first chance. Do something to help someone who comes after you like people before you do it for you.”
Smith, the Bears’ first black coach, was the eighth black coach to be hired in the league’s recent history. He was appointed the year following the Rooney Rule, a policy that requires league teams to interview minority candidates for head coach and senior football operations jobs, which was established in 2003.
“Luffy was the ‘it’ factor as a leader,” Jerry Angelo, general manager of Bears, told ESPN. “I knew he was going to be able to handle tough missions, especially in a major market like Chicago. Personally, I didn’t need a base rune to open my eyes to my color coaches. I’ve been playing football all my life, football has taught me as a player, coach and employee, it’s the quality of a person’s personality, those fibers are the catalyst that defines careers.”
Other black coaches in the league in 2004 included Dennis Green of the Arizona Cardinals, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals, Herm Edwards of the New York Jets, and Tony Dungey of the Indianapolis Colts.
Smith praised the McCasky family, who owns the Beers family, for giving him a chance to lead a franchise.
“My time in Chicago allowed me to do what I wanted to do with my life in this profession. It started there for the bears,” Smith said. “Now you look at the opportunities for people like us. Think Chicago Bears. I was the first and I [still] The only black coach there. For the McCasky family to say, “Hey, that’s what we’re going to do.” …that commitment took there.”
And in Smith’s third season with the Bears, he rewarded the franchise as they finished 13-3 and earned a trip to the Super Bowl against the Colts, and mentor Dungy. It was the first Super Bowl game to feature a black coach — one that happened to be on each sideline.
Smith got his first NFL chance, as a quarterback coach, from Dungey, who was the Buccaneers coach from 1996 to 2001. Smith held this position from 1996 to 2000 before serving as defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams from 2000 to 2003.
“It was really special because I thought about 1996,” Dungey told ESPN. I said, ‘You know what? I would be very intentional. We have to win, and we’ll make a good team. But I will be intent on looking for some competent young minority coaches. “So Luffy is a cast member, and Pyramid Edwards is on that team. And to see these guys get the opportunity and the benefit, and show what they can do, to get their teams to the playoffs. To the Super Bowl. It was a proud moment for me.”
So when Dungy faced his student in the Super Bowl in 2006, he called it a “watershed moment.”
The Colts won 29-17 in what was their only Super Bowl appearance as Smith and Dungy’s head coaches.
With the Texans facing old Smith, he would publicly downplay his second return to Chicago as an opposition head coach in the NFL and call it another game as he’s 0-2 against the Bears. But dingy don’t buy it for a second.
“I have to go back to the first time I came back to Tampa as a coach for another team. And I said all week, it’s just another game, and we can’t make more of it than all of that,” Dungey said. “And I promise you when I got there it wasn’t just another game. So I know Luffy is going to say all these things. But he’s going to want to win this game, and his players will want to win it for him. And I expect the Texans to play well.”
Smith was fired by the Bears in 2012, taking another shot as head coach in the same spot where he began his first coaching stint in the NFL with the Buccaneers. It ran for two seasons after accumulating 8-24 records. Smith joined the college ranks in 2016 as a head coach at Illinois. He was fired after four seasons with a record 17-39.
Smith returned to the NFL in 2021 after being hired by former Texas coach David Cooley to be his defensive coordinator. Cooley was fired after one season, and was replaced by Texas Smith, making him the first black coach for three different teams, excluding the temporary coaches.
After Smith was fired from the Buccaneers, he had his doubts that he would become the head coach of the NFL again. But his career gave him hope.
“The odds were saying no,” Smith said. “So it would be easy to say it won’t happen again. But I did get one. And the odds were really against me at the time. Do you know what I got? I got two, and the odds were really against me in that.” So after a while, you know, you start thinking, “Well, either way the odds said no. So did I think that? No, but I didn’t think that was impossible because of what happened in my life before.”
The culture of all Smith-led teams revolves around defense, and the Texans allow 18 points per game, and are ninth in the NFL.
Smith sees how his current team compares to previous Bears teams, but structurally.
“The similarities are just what we kind of start with [scratch] Smith said. “It’s first about determining how you do things. They say culture, it’s about that and once you prove it, stay true to it. However, it doesn’t happen right away. That’s what experience tells you. Sometimes we all want it to be instant.”