By Chris Emma–

(CBS) Now, more than anything else, Lovie Smith cherishes the bonds built 10 years ago.

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The triumph of taking the Bears to the Super Bowl on that frigid January day at Soldier Field was something to behold, but it’s not what Smith is sharing as he recruits in his current job at the University of Illinois.

“Lifetime memories,” Smith said Friday by phone. “Right now, as I go out recruiting, I talk about lifetime relationships. That’s what I’ve always had for my coaching career. I’ve always wanted to be respected by my players. But I want a relationship with my players, too. That’s what I was able to have there with that Chicago Bears team.”

Ten years ago Saturday, the Bears beat the Saints, 39-14, to win the NFC Championship and earn a trip to Super Bowl XLI in South Florida. It was a tight game for three quarters that was buried away by the Bears in the end.

Smith still recalls a “picturesque” January day at Soldier Field, just as he remembers the playoff energy throughout Chicago as that Bears team earned its way to the top seed in the NFC and built Super Bowl hopes.

Those Bears were built with plenty of promise and lived up to their billing, finishing 13-3 and making it all the way to the Super Bowl. That team featured stars like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Devin Hester and many more.

“When you have a team like that, it’s about being able to finish,” Smith said. “When you’re the (No.) 1 seed, you need to go to the Super Bowl.

“Just a great group of men. You knew when you were around them that it’s a special group.”

Smith’s defensive identity is what defined that Bears team. His defense wasn’t only dominant that season but was stifling for much of that decade.

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After that victory over the Saints, Smith eagerly returned home to watch the AFC Championship. He wanted to get the Colts in Miami, setting a historic matchup with his friend and mentor, Tony Dungy.

Smith got his wish, marking the first meeting of two black head coaches in the Super Bowl. But mentor prevailed over protégé, with Dungy’s Colts earning a 29-17 win over Smith’s Bears.

Naturally, that loss still sticks with Smith.

“When you get a special group of men, you have to go to the Super Bowl,” Smith said. “When you talk about regrets, that group of men deserved to be Super Bowl champions. That was my only disappointment of that season.”

A decade removed from that playoff run, Smith is now challenged with building Illinois’ football program into a winner. It’s a daunting task considering the struggles the Fighting Illini faced before his arrival, but Smith has a proven track record that included bringing the Bears a winner.

Meanwhile, north of Champaign, the Bears have made the playoffs just once in these past 10 years — a run to the NFC Championship in the 2010 season under Smith, who left after the 2012 season. With John Fox as head coach, the Bears have gone 9-23 in two seasons and just finished their worst mark in a 16-game slate, going 3-13.

While Smith and the Bears travel down separate paths, that victory 10 years ago still remains fresh in mind. The snow began to fall as the Bears had won, and his team had earned the prize that bears its founder’s name.

“For Mrs. McCaskey to get a chance to be presented with that trophy, the George Halas Trophy,” Smith said, “it was a pretty special day.”

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Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.