Lovie Smith is in the company of Hall of Famers.
Smith was hired to resurrect the proud Chicago Bears franchise once coached by George Halas and Mike Ditka. He did such a strong job in 2005 that he was chosen the NFL Coach of the Year by AP sports writers on Saturday.
Halas and Ditka each won the honor twice. In his second season with the Bears, Smith took them from 5-11 to 11-5, the NFC North title and a first-round bye.
"Each day I'm living a dream to even be talked about with those guys," Smith said. "I'm blessed to be a Bear. Each day I realize that, and it seems like more and more I realize that."
Smith also beat out his mentor, Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, drawing 24 1/2 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL. Dungy was next with 20 1/2.
"I would have voted for Tony for the award," Smith added. "I'm really happy for our assistant coaches, to get that award. Tony did a great job with his program, as a lot of other coaches did."
Chicago had the league's stingiest defense, which figures because Smith made his reputation as a defensive mastermind, first in Tampa Bay under Dungy, then in St. Louis.
Now, he oversees a team that surged to a Super Bowl contender, armed with a defense that allowed only 202 points, just 61 of those at home.
"I definitely get the sense this is the Bears' year," he said. "We have a special group of athletes, a special team with character. We have a great team chemistry. Whatever it is the good teams have that make a run, I just think that this team has it."
Smith, who served as Dungy's linebackers coach from 1996-2000 in Tampa, recently attended the funeral of James Dungy, his close friend's oldest son, who died last month. Their bond remains strong and Smith often has credited Dungy with helping develop his leadership skills.
Smith, who moved from defensive coordinator of the Rams to the Bears, chose Ron Rivera to coordinate the defense, but remains heavily involved with a unit sparked by Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher. Chicago gave up 24 points in a loss to Cincinnati in Week 3, but otherwise never yielded more than nine points at Soldier Field in going 7-1 at home.
Smith is the fourth Bears coach to win the award. Halas, the founder of the franchise, won it in 1963 and 1965. Ditka was honored in 1985 and 1988. Dick Jauron won in 2001.
Chicago won the NFL championship in 1963 and 1985, the first seasons Halas and Ditka, respectively, took the award.