Lovie Can’t Hide His Love For Troubled Tank

By Mike Mulligan
Updated: March 29, 2007

PHOENIX — Bears coach Lovie Smith sat placidly amid the lush, manicured grounds of the Arizona Biltmore hotel on Wednesday morning enjoying a catered media breakfast with his fellow NFC head coaches.

But Smith’s mind was miles away in a significantly darker and desperate place as he recalled his recent visit to embattled defensive tackle Tank Johnson in Cook County Jail.

Smith testified at Johnson’s sentencing hearing for a probation violation that the player would be devastated by a jail sentence. Nonetheless, that’s just what Johnson received.

And while he serves a 120-day sentence that may be halved for good behavior, his name has been bandied about repeatedly here at the NFL’s annual meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell promising a harsher, stricter personal conduct policy.

Goodell said on Monday that he could rule on a possible league action against Johnson, including a suspension, before the new policy is in place, but that it is unlikely because he wants to have a face-to-face meeting with the player first and that is obviously not likely with Johnson in jail.

The league is expected to suspend Johnson for the first four games of next season, but the rumor mill among media had speculation he could be suspended eight games or perhaps even for the season if he’s deemed a repeat offender who needs to be taught a lesson.

That’s not what Smith meant when he said Johnson would be devastated by a prison term, but the word might well apply. ”When I made that statement I think it is devastating for any young man to go and get locked up for a while,” Smith said. ”You can come back from it. Hey, I have been devastated before and you bounce back from it. That is what Tank will do.”

Weight loss a concern

Smith isn’t the only member of the organization who has visited Johnson in jail. Smith said several people have visited, but declined to name them, although defensive tackle Tommie Harris is known to be one, because he has expressed concern about Johnson’s weight loss. Smith’s jailhouse meeting was designed to send a specific message.

”I told him, ‘Hey Tank, you’re not a victim,”’ Smith recalled. ”’Whether you should have gotten a lighter sentence or whatever, you put yourself in a position where this could happen to you”.

“We have to turn this into a positive. Everything negative that happens in your life you have to turn into a positive, learn something from it and move on from there.”’

Anyone who has visited a jail knows how compelling it can be.

”It’s like you would think — there’s 10,000 criminals down there,” Smith said before catching himself. ”I wouldn’t say criminals, that’s what you would initially think, but there’s 10,000 people down there, probably some like Tank who made a couple of bad decisions.”

Smith talked about a lot of things during the hourlong breakfast. He insisted Lance Briggs was a Bear and would remain one and said he expected Briggs to open the season with the team.

He backed Rex Grossman as his starting quarterback as he always does and reiterated his belief that Grossman has been criticized too much for a first-year starter who went to the Super Bowl.

Smith talked about possibly moving Devin Hester to offense — the player’s heart remains on defense and it’s not a lock he’ll move. He talked about life with a newly minted multimillion dollar contract — he’s got more money but the goal remains the same: win a Super Bowl.

He talked about expectations for Cedric Benson now that Thomas Jones is gone and watching the tape of the Super Bowl and his conviction that the team was going to win right up until the fourth-quarter interception that was returned for a touchdown.

But it was his defense of Johnson that seemed most impassioned. Smith said repeatedly that Johnson is not a bad guy and that he’s made a lot of positive changes in his life.

He points to new attitude

”I wish the judge would have known about the Tank now,” Smith said. ”Tank has moved on. He has grown so much. Little things. Guys with braids. You just don’t say, ‘Hey Tank, a visual sign of you changing would be to cut your braids.’ How many guys would do that? Tank did”.

“I asked Tank to do it. He did. ‘Tank, the dogs. Get rid of the dogs.’ He did. It’s not like he’s been a guy who comes into my office that I have to argue with, but again, he’s in jail for certain things he’s done and they actually happened. So there’s nothing for us to say beyond the next step and that’s what we’re doing.”

Smith said the Bears as an organization are committed to Johnson and they will deal with whatever the league decides to do while also making the case that he’s an individual who should be judged on what he’s actually done, not on perceptions.

”One of the security meetings we had here, we got a chance to view a video of two gang members — it was enlightening,” Smith said. ”Any time you see something like that, it has to help your mind-set because sometimes you live up in Lake Forest, you miss out on the real world, you know … you picture jail as being, OK, a guy murdered someone or is on drugs. Something violent. That’s not the case.

”What this has told me is that good guys can end up in jail. You make a couple mistakes, this is what can happen to a good guy.”