The Houston Texans were again determined to make fools of themselves. Only this time, bless their hearts, they were stopped cold. That they did the right thing for the wrong reason can be sorted out later.
What matters—or at least what the team hopes is all anyone will remember—is that Lovie Smith, a 63-year-old born and raised in East Texas, will be the new head coach. His hiring made Monday a good day for a franchise that hasn’t had one in a long time.
Is Smith a great coach? Maybe that’s a stretch, although sorting through the nuances in NFL head coach evaluation can be a dizzying task. Can Smith do a good job in Houston? Absolutely.
In addition, Smith will join the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin as one of only two Black head coaches in the league. Smith has poured his heart and soul into coaching over the last 42 years, having worked sidelines from Big Sandy High School—his alma mater—to Super Bowl XLI, where he led the Chicago Bears.
Throughout his career, Smith has carried a reputation as one of the most decent and honorable men to wear a headset. In Houston, he will bring competence and credibility to a franchise that lacks both. Only thing is, this being the Texans, there’s no telling how much authority he’ll have or how much time he’ll be given to improve the team’s fortunes.
Last season, Smith was the associate head coach for David Culley, whom the Texans fired after one season in the franchise’s latest attempt at a reset. Smith will also take the job knowing that he wasn’t the first choice of the executives who hired him.
In fact, he wasn’t even a serious contender until this past weekend, which says plenty about how the Texans operate. At least he knows what he’s getting into.
Until the last few days, the Texans seemed focused on hiring a spectacularly unqualified former NFL quarterback named Josh McCown, who is white. He has never had a job in coaching other than some work at Rusk High School, about 35 miles west of Nacogdoches.
That’s who the Texans really wanted. To think that a franchise in desperate need of credibility, a franchise that has lost 25 of its last 33 games, a franchise whose stadium has acres of empty seats at home games, would hire someone no other NFL team and few other Division I college teams would consider speaks volumes about the decision makers in Houston.
There are dozens of NFL assistants—both Black and white—who’ve spent years in the trenches hoping for an opportunity. Perhaps the Texans are capable of looking around corners that others can’t, but their record suggests they just don’t know what they’re doing.
This time, they caught a break. Last week, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is Black, sent shock waves through the NFL’s two-week-long, pre–Super Bowl cocktail party with a lawsuit that alleges, among other things, racist hiring practices.
Flores has receipts too; specifically, a damning text message from his old boss, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Thanks to those texts, sent mistakenly to the wrong Brian, Flores discovered he would not be getting a job with the New York Giants, even though he hadn’t even had a chance to sit for a scheduled interview with the team. That gig would go to another former Patriots assistant, Brian Daboll, who is white.
Other Black NFL coaches have whispered similar horror stories over the years, but Flores was the first to go public. That he would say the quiet part out loud about NFL teams’ flouting of the Rooney Rule, which aimed to diversify the league’s coaching ranks by requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for open positions, was stunning. Flores knew that speaking out meant he might never work in the NFL again—yet he did it anyway.
Flores was also a finalist for the Texans job, and they owe him big time for forcing them to do the right thing. Never mind that he didn’t get the job. That’s probably a good thing, since his experience with Miami owner Stephen Ross, who allegedly offered Flores cash bonuses to lose more games for the tanking Dolphins, is said not to suffer fools. If that’s the case, then Flores would have had a tough go dealing with the brain trust on Kirby Drive.
From the moment the Texans fired Culley after one season, the franchise appeared to be focused on McCown, despite his lack of coaching experience. The ex-quarterback had one thing going for him: the endorsement of Texans executive Jack Easterby.
Hardly anyone seems to know precisely what Easterby does for the Texans. At one time both in New England, his previous employer, and in Houston, he was in charge of building a “winning culture”—whatever that means. He also seems to be some combination of spiritual adviser and personnel guru. Like Texans owner Cal McNair, he seldom speaks publicly.
At some point, though, Easterby became convinced that McCown would be a great coach, credentials be damned. The Texans interviewed McCown before hiring Culley after the 2020 season. When Culley was fired, McCown seemed the logical replacement, even though he’d never worked a single day on an NFL coaching staff.
McCown’s immediate future with the Texans—he’s sure to remain on Easterby’s radar—changed with the filing of Flores’s lawsuit. All of a sudden, everything Flores alleged—one standard for white coaches, another for black coaches—would appear to be verified by McCown’s hiring. In the end, even a franchise as tone-deaf and bumbling as the Texans lost its nerve.
Hey, congratulations, Lovie. Having worked for two high schools, seven colleges, and four NFL teams, Smith knows that organizations—and the people that run them—come in all shapes and sizes. He has interviewed for more head coaching jobs than he can remember. In 2004, he finally got his opportunity with the Chicago Bears. Three years later, Smith had them in the Super Bowl.
He spent nine seasons in charge of the Bears and was fired after going—get this—ten and six in 2012. Smith notched four seasons of at least ten wins in Chicago. Head coaching gigs with the Tampa Bay Bucs and the University of Illinois followed, before he returned to the NFL as Houston’s defensive coordinator in 2021.
One of the defining moments of Smith’s career came at Super Bowl XLI. For the first and only time, the big game featured two Black head coaches—the Bears’ Lovie Smith and the Indianapolis Colts’ Tony Dungy.
Until that game in 2007, no Black head coach had ever led a team to the Super Bowl. In the days leading up to that game, I reported on how Black high school coaches around Houston felt about the football milestone. Lydell Wilson, then the head coach at Lamar Consolidated, guessed he was in his twenties before he saw a Black head coach at a high school football game. Now there were two of them in the Super Bowl.
“Sometimes it just takes one person giving someone a chance,” Wilson told me. “Hopefully, those guys will open some doors for others. I hope that any success I’ve had would help in some small way, too.”
The Texans, with four playoff victories in their twenty seasons of existence, are a mess. Their owner, Cal McNair, is seldom seen or heard from and seems to defer to just about everyone. Their general manager, Nick Caserio, fancies himself a coach and jumps into the fray during practices, apparently unaware that his behavior undermines the authority of the real coaches. And then there’s Easterby, whose broad portfolio includes personnel issues and team building, which, NFL observers overwhelmingly agree, he has bungled magnificently in recent years.
This is the football wasteland Smith will knowingly step into next season in Houston, but don’t count the old pro out. “Guy’s been coaching football for longer than I have been alive, so I’m going to listen to that guy,” Texans special teams coordinator Frank Ross told the Houston Chronicle last summer. “You can’t put a price on experience. So if you don’t have your rabbit ears up and listening when a guy like Lovie Smith is talking, you are missing an opportunity to grow.”
To this day, Smith speaks lovingly of his childhood in the small East Texas town of Big Sandy, and the influence his high school head coach, Jim Norman, had on him. “Every day of my life I’ve thought about what Coach Norman meant to me,” Smith told the Waco Tribune in 2017 when he was inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame. “Every part of my career was affected by him in some form or fashion. Guys like him leave an impression, and he had the life I wanted.”
When Big Sandy officials approached him in 2016 about naming a street in his honor, he insisted it be the tiny road on the south side of town where he grew up. “Why would you want any other street?” Smith told the Tampa Bay Times. “There’s nothing on my street now. Our house burned down many years ago, but I can remember every step. I walked every step, many, many a night. It goes without saying how proud I am to be from Big Sandy.”
Smith faces a monumental task in trying to turn around the hapless Texans. Maybe, just maybe, his long journey to this point has prepared him for it.