CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – In a conference where Jim Harbaugh’s star power and Urban Meyer’s national-title pedigree dominate the news, Illinois has become an afterthought and the headlines lately have been about the coaches who’ve been fired or accused of misbehavior.
Illinois hopes to put an end to all that with a big name of its own: Lovie Smith.
The Illini made a splash of the positive variety Monday by announcing the hiring of Smith, the former coach of the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The move came two days after athletic director Josh Whitman, in his first official day on the job, fired Bill Cubit after a single season in Champaign. He turned to Smith, who took the Bears to the 2007 Super Bowl and was dismissed as coach of the Buccaneers in January.
The low-key Smith said he intends to make the Illini a power in the Big Ten, and not try to match the styles of his new rivals. He also said he hopes that, at 58, he finishes his football career at Illinois.
“It’s pretty simple,” Smith said during a news conference in a room overflowing with reporters, fans and his family. “We just want to play winning football. I want to see the time come when our stadium is full, when people are excited about what we’re doing and leaving the games with a big smile on their face.
“I’m going to do it my way and feel comfortable with that,” he said, though adding that he’ll add a Twitter account and take other steps needed to compete in a social-media world. “In the end, people, they want to be able to look in you in the eye and believe what you’re saying and trust what you’re saying is exactly how it’s going to be.”
This is the first college head-coaching job for Smith and his first job in college football since leaving Ohio State in 1995. He faces a daunting task: Illinois has had six losing seasons in the past eight years and the program also is recovering from allegations of player abuse that led the school to fire coach Tim Beckman a week before last season started.
Smith agreed to a six-year contract worth $21 million, including $2 million per year for the first two seasons.
Whitman said hiring a coach of Smith’s stature was a statement, one he said former Illinois coach and Smith assistant Ron Turner helped set up by reaching out to Smith. Turner, now the coach at Florida International, was fired by Smith when Smith led the Bears.
Whitman said Smith should not have a problem transitioning back to college football.
“Lovie’s going to be a great recruiter,” he said. “There’s not a living room in America that’s not going to open up their doors to Lovie Smith and his coaching staff.”
Smith is the first black head coach in football or men’s basketball at Illinois, which has been criticized by state lawmakers and others for never hiring a black coach for either program. University trustee James Montgomery, an Illinois graduate who is black, called Smith’s contract a bargain.
“It’s an amazing turnaround in the history of the university in terms of hiring an African-American coach for a major sport at the university,” Montgomery said. “It’s a great incentive for kids in our Chicago area to look at the University of Illinois from a recruiting point of view.”
Chicago fired Smith after the 2012 season after he compiled an overall record of 84-66 in front of fans who grew weary of teams that often struggled on offense and missed the playoffs in five of his final six seasons. He ran the Buccaneers for just two years before he was fired with an 8-24 overall record. He also was a college assistant at Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona State, Wisconsin and Tulsa.
Smith said he has not yet settled on schemes, but hopes to run a balanced offense that incorporates the read option. Defensively, he wants a four-man front but beyond that has made no decisions.
The Illini return key players, including starting quarterback Wes Lunt, a group of receivers that could be among the best in the Big Ten and what could also be a deep group of running backs. But Illinois will be thin at a number of positions on defense.
Lunt said players gave Smith a standing ovation when they met with him Monday morning.
“I think a lot of people looked up to him” from his Bears’ tenure, Lunt said. “Just to have him as a head coach is kind of surreal.”
Whitman said Smith will have more money to use to hire assistants than his predecessors but declined to specify how much.
Spring football was due to start Friday but has been postponed until as late as next month, Smith said, depending on when he can hire enough staff. Smith said his assistants could include current Illinois coaches, and he hopes to keep defensive coordinator Mike Phair, who worked for him in both Chicago and Tampa Bay.
The players – and program – will be eager to forget much of last year, including Beckman’s firing in August. That put offensive coordinator Cubit in charge of the team.
A law firm hired by the university to investigate allegations by some players that they had been mistreated found evidence that Beckman interfered with medical decisions and pressured players to play through injuries. Beckman denied he did anything wrong.
Athletic director Mike Thomas was fired in November following those revelations and Cubit was given an unusually short two-year contract. He said over the weekend that he was stunned by his firing.
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