Bijani: Was the hatchet ever really buried between Lovie Smith and Ron Rivera?

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When current Texans head coach Lovie Smith was hired to coach the Chicago Bears in 2004, the teams general manager, Jerry Angelo had already hired a defensive coordinator.

Ron Rivera was someone that Angelo and the Bears were very familiar with already.

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The former linebacker, had spent nine seasons with the Bears as a player and after retiring in 1992, Rivera broadcasted games, working with a local Chicago news station as an analyst, covering college football and Bears games.

After deciding to leave TV and pursue a career in coaching in 1997, Rivera began as a defensive quality control coach with the Bears in 1997, before being hired by the Philadelphia Eagles as a linebackers coach in 1999.

After 13 years had come and gone, since he last walked through the tunnels as a player for the Bears, Rivera was hired by the Bears organization to coordinate their defense in 2004.

During Rivera’s three seasons as defensive coordinator, the Bears defense improved quite significantly.

In 2004, they were an average to slightly below average run defense, but over the course of the next two seasons, Rivera’s defense, anchored by all-pro linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs along with edge rusher Adewale Ogunleye, finished with the first and third best defenses respectively. Rivera’s defense games the Bears reach Super Bowl XLI where they fell to the Indianapolis Colts.

Smith decided to not retain Rivera following the Super Bowl loss. Instead, Smith elevated Bob Babich, who he’d been familiar with since their days coaching together at the University of Tulsa in the late 80’s. Babich had coached the linebackers the previous three seasons for the Bears and stepped in after Rivera was let go.

Over the next three seasons under Babich, the Bears defense finished 28th, 21st and 17th in total defense, missing the playoffs each season.

Rivera, had moved on to become the linebackers coach for the San Diego Chargers in 2007, before taking over as their coordinator through the 2010 season. Rivera’s defenses ranked in the top half of the league each year before leaving for the Panthers head coaching position.

Rivera spoke to Joseph Person of the Athletic in 2019, and recounted his exit from the Bears.

“When Lovie decided to let me go, I think a lot of it had to do with just the fact that I wasn’t his guy,” Rivera told the Athletic in 2019. “I was hired by the general manager (Jerry Angelo), and it’s just one of those things. He wanted to put his guy (Bob Babich) there. So I understood that.”

Rivera said Lovie Smith helped him quite a bit as a coach during their time together in Chicago.

“The biggest thing more than anything else really, is I learned a lot of football from (Lovie Smith) him, I really did,” Rivera told the Athletic. “People want to talk about some of the things I learned. A lot of it does start first with Buddy Ryan and then Jim Johnson. But Lovie really helped complete my coordinator education. I was really appreciative of that.”

Now in his third season as head coach of the Washington Commanders, Rivera - who was a part of that storied Chicago Bears Super Bowl team in 1985, went to two other Super Bowls as a coordinator with the Bears and head coach of the Carolina Panthers - is hoping to get back to another Super Bowl one day.

While his team has been able to stay afloat with Taylor Heineke at quarterback for the injured Carson Wentz, River prepares for a showdown against Smith, his former boss, for the seventh time since they worked together in Chicago.

Rivera has won four straight meetings against Lovie Smith coached teams, with Rivera’s Panthers sweeping Smiths Buccaneers squads 2014-2015 when the two coaches in the NFC South.

Wednesday afternoon, Lovie Smith was asked about once firing Rivera and whether or not that decision caused a rift between the two veteran head coaches.

“People don’t live in the past, I don’t some of you don’t either,” Smith said. “Things happen in football, you kind of move on.”

If there ever was a hatchet to be buried between the two, whether it stemmed from philosophical differences at the time or whatnot, it seems as though both men have moved on.

Smith on Wednesday, said that he and Rivera share some similarities in how they approach the game.

“We have a similar philosophy on how to win football games. So, I know how he’s leading his team, you see them playing that way,” Smith said. “We know each other. When you work with someone — a lot of things we know about each other.”

As Rivera told the Athletic in 2019, he understood then what Smith was doing regarding assembling a staff.

“It wasn’t a personal decision. And that’s one of the things that Coach Smith and I have always talked about,” Rivera said. “It wasn’t personal, which I get. At the end of the day, you want to have your guys in place. It made me realize, too, that it is really a business.”

As men, as competitors, is the hatchet ever really buried?

Taking pleasure in beating someone who once thought you weren’t good enough, and having the opportunity to do it again, has to be something Rivera has on his mind every time he lines up across from Smith.

Shaun Bijani has spent the last 16 years covering the Houston sports scene for SportsRadio 610. Follow him on Twitter @ShaunBijani.

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