A Tale Of Two Chicago Coaches: Bulls Tom Thibodeau and Bears Lovie Smith

Darrell HorwitzSenior Writer IIFebruary 3, 2011

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls calls a play during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the United Center on December 28, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Bucks 90-77. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Having the fortune of not having to go to work today because of the "Great Chicago Snowstorm of 2011," I got to thinking about two of Chicago's head coaches that do their thing during our cities brutal winter, Tom Thibodeau and Lovie Smith.

There are similarities there, along with some strong differences that in my opinion makes one an excellent coach, and the other, mediocre at best.

Smith is the veteran of the two, taking over as the ChicagoBear's head coach in 2004, while this is Thibodeau's first year with the Chicago Bulls.

That gives me a wide body of work to judge with Smith, while I only have a little over half a season for Thibodeau.  But I think I have seen enough in that period of time to give an opinion of him.

Of course, that opinion could change in the future, but my opinion of Smith has been pretty steady since the get-go, and I think it will be the same with Thibodeau.

Both were first-time head coaches after being long-time assistants.  Smith got his first taste of the National Football League as a linebacker's coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996.  That's where he worked under Tony Dungy and learned his base defense, the Tampa 2, or as it's also known, the Cover 2.

Thibodeau started out as an assistant coach way back in 1989 working under Bill Mussleman with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Both coaches jumped around to other teams and opportunities until finally landing head coaching gigs.

Based on his record as a defensive coach, it's surprising it took so long for Thibodeau to get the chance to run his own team.

As an assistant with the Houston Rockets, they were a top five defense in scoring against and field goal percentage from 2004 -2007.  Previously with the New York Knicks, he helped them to a then National Basketball Association record 33 consecutive games of holding opponents under 100 points.

The magic continued when he came to the Boston Celtics in 2007, molding them into the best defensive team in the league, and helping them win the NBA Championship.

You could say Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen coming to the team had a lot to do with it, but it likely would not have happened without Thibodeau there to put his stamp on the defense.

He finally got his chance to be the head man with the Bulls, and has dramatically changed the team around from one that was defensively challenged to the league leader in fewest points allowed per game and field goal percentage against.  They are also 3rd in the league in rebounding.

His Bulls are currently 33-14, which is the 3rd best record in the Eastern Conference, and 4th best in the entire league.

He has done that with two of his best players, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, both missing several games.  Noah is still out and due to come back after the All-Star Game.

The last two seasons under Vinny Del Negro they were 41-41, so you could say I am impressed.

He was never hired as a head coach before getting the Bulls job because there is no 'Rooney Rule' in the NBA.  While the rule is meant for minority coaches to get an interview, there is no rule to help a Caucasian coach that deserves an opportunity, which brings me back to Lovie Smith.

The rule was enacted in 2003, the year before Smith was hired by the Bears.  He beat out Russ Grimm for the job after the favorite, Nick Saban, turned it down.  If not for the rule, there is a good chance Smith never would have received the interview.

The question is why anyone who interviews Smith would hire him after they wake up.

My own personal opinions aside, looking at his record, it appears he has done a good job as the Bears coach.

Lovie Smith has led the Chicago Bears to a 63-49 record in his seven years with the team and a 3-3 record in the playoffs.  They reached the Super Bowl in 2006, and the National Football conference Championship game this year, while also making the playoffs in 2005. 

That's after coming to the Bears from the St. Louis Rams, where he improved their defense from giving up a league worst 29.4 points a game in 2000 to 17.1 in 2001, a season the Rams went to the Super Bowl before being upset by the New England Patriots.

With Smith at the helm, the Bears defense improved from 22nd in Dick Jauron's last year to 13th in 2004.  In 2005, they were 2nd in terms of yardage and allowed the fewest points in the league.  They were the 5th ranked defense in their Super Bowl season.

Looking at those stats, it would be safe to say that Smith worked the same type of magic with the Bears that Thibodeau has done in the past, and so far with the Bulls.  But let's look a little closer.

Ron Rivera was the defensive coordinator during those years when the Bears had their best defenses under Smith's regime, before being let go after the Super Bowl.

In 2007 and 2008, with Smith's friend Bob Babich as the defensive coordinator, they slid to 16th both years.  They ranked 22nd in 2009 when Smith took over the defensive reins from Babich for one year.

Was it Smith that made the defense, or was it Rivera?

Rivera wanted a more aggressive style of defense, while Smith favored the bend but don't break Cover 2.

The Bears lost to the Carolina Panthers in the 2005 playoffs because Carolina receiver Steve Smith burned them when they refused to double cover him.  Smith ended up with 12 catches for 218 yards and two TD's.

They let the only player that could beat them do it.

In the 2006 Super Bowl, playing against Peyton Manning, who goes against the Cover 2 every day in practice, the Bears changed nothing and showed him a defense he can beat in his sleep.

You could blame Rivera and say that's why he was let go.  I say he wanted to change things up, but the stubborn Smith wouldn't let him.

And that's another trait both coaches have in common—stubbornness.

Smith will not deviate from his principles.  He is slow to change, if ever.

Thibodeau also appears to have a stubborn streak, continuing to start Keith Bogans at the two guard position, even though he couldn't score in an empty gym.  He has a past with him, and it's working so far, but the Bulls will only go so far if he keeps on starting him.

Both coaches are loved by their players.  Brian Urlacher recently came out and said "He hopes he never has to play for another coach."

Smith is very easy on his players.  Training camp is kind of like 'Club Med' for them.  He's also very loyal to them, and never calls them out in the media.  Who wouldn't love a coach like that?

But that does not mean he is a good coach.

Thibodeau, on the other hand, works his players hard.  He expects a lot from them, and he gives them tough love if they don't perform up to his expectations.  He recently benched star power forward Carlos Boozer because he didn't like the way he was playing defense.

He's never satisfied either.  Despite the Bulls lofty record, he thinks they can play better. He's on them constantly, never sitting during the game.  It kind of reminds me of when Doug Collins coached the Bulls, and would be screaming at them with two minutes left in a game that they were winning by 20 points.

Hopefully he will loosen up a bit with that.

Another positive for Thibodeau vs. Smith is with how they handle the offense.  Under Smith, the Bears have constantly been in the middle to the bottom of the league in rankings.

Smith admits he knows nothing about the offense, and leaves it to his offensive coordinators to run it.

Thibodeau on the other hand, while an acknowledged defensive guru, is also a bit of a guru offensively.  He's turned the Bulls offense completely around from Vinny Del Negro's isolation offense, and the Bulls have become one of the best pick-and-roll teams in the league.

He also encourages them to get out on the fast-break when they get the rebound so they can take advantage of their athleticism, and score some easy baskets.

He has his hand in everything.

He has already improved Derrick Rose to where he is getting strong MVP consideration. He has changed Rose from the matador defense, to giving up the lowest points per play of any starting point guard in the league.  He's also No. 1 in blocks for point guards.  He has had a ten game stretch of at least a block a game.

That's something that he never did in the past but is doing because of Thibodeau's teaching and encouragement.

That's a big reason why I think Thibodeau is an excellent coach, and Smith gets by with others sometimes making him look better than he really is.

Thibodeau makes the players he has better.  Smith depends on getting players like Julius Peppers to make him better.

Smith has had very few key players injured during his tenure since he's been the Bears coach, while Thibodeau has been playing with a short deck.

Thibodeau is a student of the game and knows every aspect of it. He's not like Smith where he knows nothing about offense, and does nothing about it.

That's why he doesn't call a timeout at the most inopportune time like Smith does, when he doesn't know what's happening on the field.

Neither coach has a boisterous personality, but Thibodeau answers the media's questions honestly, and not with disdain.  Smith, on the other hand, treats them like they don't know what they're talking about and ignores tough questions.  He also hasn't a clue what the word honest means.

They're both defensive coaches—they've both had success—they're both loved by their players.

So why is one guy an excellent coach in my estimation and the other a scrub?

If you've gotten this far, you already know the answer.