TAMPA — Linebacker Jonathan Casillas was back on the open market, looking for a new team for the second time in as many years, when he heard that Lovie Smith was coming to Tampa to coach the Buccaneers.
It was at that very moment that Casillas decided where he wanted to play in 2014.
He still had to find out if the Bucs wanted him back after he suffered through an injury-shortened 2013 season, but Casillas was willing to beg if needed for the chance to play for Smith.
It never came to that.
The Bucs were in need of a strongside linebacker and the 6-foot-1, 227-pound sixth-year pro out of Wisconsin fit the bill.
And is he glad he did.
“I always felt like the character we had in this locker room last year was very similar to what we had (in New Orleans when I was with the Super Bowl XLIV champion Saints),’’ Casillas said. “And then once we got Lovie, well, that was it.
“I mean, his track record (of three NFC Central titles and a Super Bowl appearance in nine years with the Bears) speaks for itself. This is a guy who got fired after a 10-6 season (in 2012). Who gets fired after a 10-6 season?’’
A little more than a year later, Bucs players say they are beginning to understand the feelings that were expressed inside the Bears’ locker room after Smith’s dismissal.
Some have said Smith is a coach they want to play hard for and win for, at least in part, because they don’t want to let him down. Others say they appreciate his quiet, controlled demeanor on and off the field.
“He doesn’t have to say much to get the message across,’’ said defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who came to the Bucs after winning a Super Bowl last year for coach Pete Carroll and the Seahawks.
“And he’s not a dictator. He runs the team like a professional and treats the players like professionals. Even better, he seems to really care about all the guys. He wants to know what’s going on, and he listens to us.’’
The Bucs are listening back. In team meetings, for example, when Smith talks, all eyes are focused on Smith, McDonald said. And there are no side conversations going on between players.
“It’s quiet in the room when he talks, which is a sign of how much respect we have for him,’’ McDonald said. “A guy that carries himself the way he does, he’s going to get a lot of respect.’’
The respect factor goes both ways. The players say Smith is very conscientious of their needs on and off the field and sense he won’t be satisfied building a champion if he doesn’t build great relationships with his players along the way.
“That’s one of the great things about Lovie,’’ quarterback Josh McCown said. “He really cares. I mean, you spend five minutes with him and you feel like he cares about you as an individual and a person, and that matters to players.
“As long as I’ve played, if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the relationships matter. Yes, it’s a business, but when issues within a team come up and there are problems, it’s amazing how often it’s because the relationship between the player and the coach is fractured.’’
It’s not just strong relationships with his players that Smith is trying to build. He’s trying to build strong relationships with the team personnel at all levels of the organization.
For example, a year ago, there were a few long-standing staff members who were told they had to stay back and work on the day the Bucs chartered a flight to Canton, Ohio, for Warren Sapp’s Hall of Fame induction.
On Saturday, a day off for Bucs players, those same staffers were all with Smith on a similar flight to Canton, where Derrick Brooks was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“The whole vibe around the facility, around the entire organization really, is just so different,’’ running back Doug Martin said. “It’s a good vibe. Everyone is calm and relaxed but we’re all still doing our jobs.’’
That’s just it, though. With Smith in charge, a lot of players say they no longer feel as if football is a job. For many, it’s back to being a game again, and the appreciation some have for that can hardly be measured.
“He lets us go out and play football and have fun, and I really enjoy that,’’ second-year cornerback Johnthan Banks said. “There’s still a lot of pressure to win, of course, but he lets us go out and compete and have fun.’’
Nothing is more fun than winning and Smith did plenty of that in Chicago. The Bears were 81-63 during the regular season with Smith in charge and were almost always in playoff contention. That’s a big part of what the Bucs like about him.
“He’s all about winning and whatever it takes to do that,’’ defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “We saw it the first day we were out here, when we had the lightning strikes and we had to (cancel the practice).
“He told us that we might have a delay like that when we play Carolina (on opening day) and that we have to be prepared for it. He turned a negative into a positive, and that’s what he does. He’s just a Grade A coach.’’