TAMPA, Fla. — Lovie Smith’s introduction brings to mind a better day of Tampa Bay Buccaneers football. Almost 18 years have passed since Tony Dungy shook owner Malcolm Glazer’s hand as the franchise’s new coach. Almost 12 years have passed since Dungy was fired after failing to break through with an NFC title, despite reaching the playoffs in four of his last five seasons.
Smith had a front-row seat to the Bucs’ rise under Dungy as their linebackers coach from 1996-2000. He was part of a renaissance in a place grounded in losing, part of a staff that lifted Tampa Bay from a creamsicle powder puff to a franchise with teeth, one that earned 39 regular-season victories from 1997 to 2000.
So this back-to-the-future news conference Monday at One Buc Place included a sense of urgency. The time is now. The failed recent past is gone. The wasted years of Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano are far from acceptable.
Smith was here from the Bucs’ turn from a punchline to a team delivering punches of its own, and the Glazers, after their recent mistakes, are demanding those days return.
"This is an exciting day as we begin a new chapter in our franchise history," Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer said, "one that will energize our fan base and provide the Tampa Bay community with the winning football it deserves."
This was as important of a day for the Glazers as it was for Smith. It took all of two minutes and one second for the coach, in his first public words to his what-is-old-is-new-again home audience, to mention that he wanted Tampa Bay to become relevant again.
These are what the Glazers have allowed the Bucs to become. Life after they fired Jon Gruden in January 2009 — a stunning and ill-conceived move — has been a study in a sad slide of a once-proud franchise: One winning season since 2009, only one season with more than seven victories, no playoff berths.
"There’s a certain brand of football that you expected from us," Smith said, recalling better days. "You knew we’d be relentless. We would play hard, physical, but there was a brand of football that you did get from us each week. At Raymond James Stadium, it was hard for opponents to come in and win. We have gotten away from that a little bit. And it is time, as we go to the future, for us to become a relevant team again."
The goal can be achieved. These aren’t Dungy’s Bucs from 1996. Smith enters a much more desirable situation that includes a roster with eight Pro Bowlers, including a young, exciting linebacker in Lavonte David who should be one.
The NFL is structured for sad-sack franchises to change course quickly, as shown by recent recoveries in Kansas City and Philadelphia. Smith, in nine seasons with the Chicago Bears, produced 81 regular-season victories, three division titles, two NFC championship game appearances and an NFC crown in 2006. He can succeed here.
The Glazers need it to happen. Their franchise has become the also-ran in the NFC South. The Atlanta Falcons played for the NFC championship last season. The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints are still alive in the playoffs this year.
The Bucs, meanwhile, have stayed in the background since 2009, working through seasons of 3-13, 4-12 (twice), 7-9 and a 10-6 year in which they missed the postseason.
Hiring Smith is the latest show of urgency to change course, because the financial commitment has been present. The Glazers agreed to splashy free-agent signings of Vincent Jackson ($55.56 million), Carl Nicks ($47.5 million) and Dashon Goldson ($41.25 million). They agreed to the trade for Darrelle Revis ($96 million). They fired Schiano with $9 million left on his contract, and they have about $20 million invested in Smith.
"I do know that he has been with the family before, and they know what type of guy and leader he is," said former Bucs cornerback Donnie Abraham, who played for Tampa Bay from 1996-2001. "It was a no-brainer from the time the position became available."
"The community should understand now — understanding what happened 15 years ago, when they hired coach Dungy and that coaching regime and what they did for this organization — (hiring Smith) brings back that hunger, that desire, for the fan base to get back into the stadium and back onto the bandwagon," said former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott, who played for Tampa Bay from 1996-2007.
That’s what Smith’s hire offers: A reason to think the bandwagon can be full again, that Tampa Bay won’t be a training ground for unproven NFL coaches to struggle, and, ultimately, fail. The Glazers are banking on a return to better days.
Will it happen? The path ahead won’t be smooth.
"Believe me, we’re not there," Smith said. "We’re a 4-12 team. You are what your record says you are. We have a long ways to go, but we’re going to start that process."
He’s a symbol of a stronger era. Now Smith, the man who learned about winning in a place that knew losing for so long, will try to make his bosses look good again.