IT COULD END UP being an expensive weekend for the Chicago Bears.
Three years ago when the Bears brought in Lovie Smith from the St. Louis Rams to be their head coach, they got him for the bargain-basement price of $1.35 million a year.
Smith, who was the defensive coordinator for the Rams, wasn't the lowest-paid NFL head coach at the time, but he was near the bottom.
Since his hiring, NFL head-coaching salaries have continued to spiral up while the Bears stood pat with Smith.
They didn't give Smith a raise after the 2005 season when he was named Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year and led the team to a division title faster than any coach in Bears history.
They didn't feel the need to negotiate with Smith during this season when the Bears were compiling an NFC-best 13-3 record, winning a second straight NFC North Division and securing homefield advantage through the playoffs.
As a result, Smith does indeed enter Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the New Orleans Saints as the lowest-paid head coach in the NFL.
Bears president Ted Phillips is on the record as saying that the team is committed to signing Smith to a long-term contract, but that a deal won't be finalized until after the Bears' playoff run is complete.
That's fine, as long as Phillips understands that the price tag already went up after the Bears beat the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday in the divisional round.
It's likely to go up more if they beat the Saints on Sunday at Soldier Field and escalate even more if the Bears go on to win Super Bowl XLI.
"We're not negotiating," Smith, who has 1 year left on his contract, told reporters last week before the divisional playoff game.
Phillips described a report that Smith's camp had "suspended" contract talks as a "bad choice of words" and said the two sides had mutually agreed to focus on winning the Super Bowl and resume discussions after the season had played out.
Hindsight being 20/20, you figure Phillips is going to regret not having gotten this done earlier because right now, Smith is already holding three aces with a fourth about to be turned over as the river card.
If former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who has never won a single game as an NFL head coach, got nearly $5 million a year to turn around the Atlanta Falcons, how much is Smith, who took the Bears from 5-11 his first season to 11-5 and now 13-3, worth?
If former failed NFL head coach Dom Capers can get $2.67 million a year to be defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins and another failed head coach, Gregg Williams, is getting around $2.5 million to be defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins, how much is Smith - who is 29-19 as a head coach - worth to run the whole show?
If the Bears don't make a credible offer, coaching out the last season of his contract and then testing his value on the free-agent market in 2009 is a viable option for Smith, especially with an NFC Championship Game appearance or better on his recent resume.
The ball has certainly turned since 2004 when Smith basically had no leverage in his negotiations with the Bears.
When you're an African-American assistant coach in the NFL, you don't really ask, "How much?" before signing a contract for a head-coaching opportunity.
I'm not saying the Bears low-balled Smith because he is African-American, but considering how few head-coaching opportunities are offered to African-Americans at the NFL or NCAA Division I levels, there really isn't an even negotiating field as far as first contracts are concerned.
It often becomes, "Thanks for the opportunity to prove myself, and what, you're going to pay me something too?"
Since Art Shell became the first African-American head coach of the modern era of the NFL in 1989, this list still only includes seven others - Smith, Romeo Crennel, Tony Dungy, Herman Edwards, Dennis Green, Marvin Lewis and Ray Rhodes.
Dungy, Green and Shell have brought teams to conference championship games, but no African-American coach has directed a team to a Super Bowl.
That could change on Sunday with Smith coaching the Bears against the Saints, and Dungy coaching Indianapolis against New England in the AFC Championship Game.
"I hope for a day when it is unnoticed, but that day isn't here," Smith told reporters on Monday. "This is the first time that two black men have led their teams to the final four.
"You have to acknowledge that. I realize the responsibility that comes with that.
"But just as much as anything, I realize my responsibility of just being the head coach of the Chicago Bears, and it's been a long time since we've been in this position. I'm just excited for our team to be able to take another step."
Even if Smith stumbles on Sunday, he figures to get a big raise in his wallet simply for bringing the Bears this far. *
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