It was summer 2010, and Chicago Bears fan Matthew F. Smith was consumed by the team’s debate du jour — the future of the head coach.
Then 24 years old, he thought his father, Lovie Smith, deserved a extension to his contract, which was set to expire at the end of the 2011 season.
As he entered his second year at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, he was intent on becoming a sports agent. In fact, he was confident he could negotiate the best possible deal for the team’s seventh-year head coach, if only given the chance.
One night, he broached both topics — the deserved contract extension and his ability to negotiate it — with his father.
“Dad, I think I can do this,” he said. “I feel like I can do the job that has been done for you, except I’m your son. I want this opportunity. You know that I know football. Who can do this better for you than I can?”
By Thanksgiving, the head coach agreed.
“I made a decision,” Smith recalled his father telling him. “You are going to be my agent moving forward.”
The coach’s famous laid-back demeanor is the same at home as it is on the sideline. It’s a trait the younger Smith inherited.
“OK,” he told his dad, “let’s do it.”
By Thanksgiving, the Bears were 7-3 and leading the division. A playoff berth seemed likely. So did a contract extension negotiation for the elder Smith.
The Loyola 2L wanted to represent his father to financially help the family.
Now he could.
“All right,” Smith thought, “I’m getting this opportunity. Now what am I going to do with it?”
A football life
Like many American boys, Smith was a sports fan at birth. Unlike many American boys, Smith was the son of a football coach.
Thus, he had an atypical outlet for his sports-fan frustration. And he wasn’t afraid to voice it, even when his frustration had nothing to do with his outlet.
Such was the case in 1996, when Smith’s father earned his first NFL coaching gig, leaving a job at Ohio State to lead the linebackers on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The 9-year-old Smith had developed an eye for NFL talent and the confidence to express himself. He did so to his father after the Bucs didn’t draft Smith’s favorite player and “personal hero,” Ohio State running back Eddie George.
“I was livid at the time,” Smith said.
The elder Smith recalls his young son “chewing me out” because Tampa Bay passed on George.
“Matt,” he told his son as patiently as possible, “I’m the linebackers coach. It wasn’t my decision to not draft Eddie George.”
Smith’s life was shaped by football. From his birth in 1986 until his father took the Bears top job in 2004, he lived in eight cities: Tulsa, Okla.; Madison, Wis.; Tempe, Ariz.; Lexington, Ky.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Columbus, Ohio; Tampa and, finally, St. Louis, where his dad in 2001 became the Rams’ defensive coordinator.
“It was normal to see the boxes,” Smith said. “To pack. To move. I went to so many elementary schools. It’s kind of hard to understand, but ask any coach’s kid, and they’ll say the exact same thing. You don’t know any different than that lifestyle.”
Smith’s sports fandom was augmented by the proximity to his heroes. His career in sports began when his father took the Buccaneers job in 1996.
During games, he held the cords to the headset his father used to communicate with other coaches, gathering the slack so his father could walk the sidelines without tripping.
When the NFL switched to wireless headsets, Smith joined the crew that raised and lowered the net behind the goalposts to stop kicks from entering the stands.
In St. Louis, Smith became a ball boy, handling the special balls used for kickers, known as “K balls.” He nicknamed himself “Special K.”
His father had a special year himself. He helped the Rams defense improve from 31st in the NFL in points allowed to seventh, and from 23rd in yards allowed to third. The Rams went 14-2 and went to the Super Bowl.
After their conference championship win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Smith ran onto the field to celebrate with his father. Rams head coach Mike Martz gave the 15-year-old an NFC Champions T-shirt, but Smith wasn’t done there, heading straight for the locker room celebration.
“Nobody else got in except the players and a small number of staff,” Smith said. “I was able to weasel my way in. The guys tried to stop me and I was like, ‘I gotta go! I’m a ball boy!’”
Two years later, his father suffered a playoff loss as devastating as the Eagles win was uplifting. The Rams went 12-4 and won their division but lost to the Carolina Panthers at home on a 69-yard game-winning touchdown pass in double overtime.
“It was one of the lowest moments in coaching at that time in my life,” Lovie Smith said. “They beat us in overtime on a long touchdown on my defense. I was as down as you could possibly be.”
Greeting him when he exited the locker room after the game were two of his three sons: Miles, his youngest, and Matthew, the middle child. That night, he got a call from the Bears asking him to schedule a second interview for their vacant head coaching position.
“From one of the lowest to the highest,” said Lovie Smith, who the Bears hired soon after. “We talk about that quite often.”
The agent makes a deal
With his father’s Bears contract extension negotiation looming, it was time for Smith to get to work.
Under the guidance of his mentor, Andrew M. Stroth — an attorney and marketing agent who represented Lovie Smith in his endorsement deals — Matthew Smith prepared a 24-page PowerPoint presentation to highlight his father’s case.
“Instead of just meeting with me and talking with me about what’s the best way to do Coach Smith’s extension, he proactively presented to me an analysis of all the coaches in the league,” Stroth said. “It was one example of Matthew Smith doing his homework for his most important client.”
Smith titled the presentation “Coach Lovie Smith and the Chicago Bears: A Winning Tradition.” It included a statistical breakdown of his father’s achievements with the Bears, his financial impact on the team in terms of revenue and media value, his contract compared to the game’s highest-paid coaches and quotes from Bears players about him.
On February 25, 2011, the Chicago Bears and Lovie Smith agreed to a two-year contract extension.
The next year, Matthew Smith graduated and passed the bar. Soon after, Stroth called Sandy Montag, senior corporate vice president of IMG Sports and Entertainment, to recommend Smith for a job.
He described Smith as a “triple threat” — an attorney, an agent and a family man of high integrity.
“Not only did I call him, but I called three executives at IMG,” Stroth said.
IMG hired Smith in October 2012. Two months later, his first client — his father — was fired by the Bears.
“That was a challenging time, not only on a business level but on a personal level,” said Ira Stahlberger, a senior vice president at IMG. “It’s hard to divorce those two, and I think Matt did a nice job of not overreacting and waiting for the next, right opportunity, which they found in Tampa.”
While Lovie Smith took a season off from football, his son advised him throughout his search for a new job on everything from which interviews to take to which media inquiries to grant.
Lovie Smith wanted to “disappear,” but his son asked him to do one ESPN interview before the 2013 draft and then one Sports Illustrated story in October 2013.
“I trusted that they all seemed like sound decisions to make,” Lovie Smith said. “He made them for me, and I went with it.”
In January, Smith finalized a deal for his father to become head coach of the Buccaneers.
Now with the Bucs playing the Bears on Sunday in Chicago, Smith said his father will be treating the reunion as “just a game.”
He will like seeing old colleagues, including Bears owner Virginia McCaskey. Other than that, Smith said, his dad’s focus will be on coaching.
As for Smith, his client roster has expanded to include college coaches and NFL assistants. IMG represents Bears coach Marc Trestman, but Smith has not worked much with him now that he’s coaching his father’s former team.
Smith also represents his older brother, Mikal, a safeties coach for the Buccaneers. That negotiation was quicker than the one Smith had with his father.
“I’m going to be your agent from now on,” Smith recalls telling his brother. “If you have a problem, you can talk to mom about it.”