It's officially official: Illinois has its new football coach in former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman took a major step in elevating Fighting Illini football in the national landscape with the hiring of longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith as head football coach.
"I am extremely excited to be named head coach of the Fighting Illini," Smith said. "Josh approached me about this possibility, and I immediately seized on the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the young men who are part of the program today and in the future. I take this responsibility very seriously and can't wait to get a staff in place to start our move to make Illinois a contender for Big Ten titles. We will play an exciting brand of football that will make our fans, alumni, student body and members of the University community extremely proud."
Smith becomes the 25th head football coach at Illinois. He is the second coach to move directly from head coach in the NFL to Champaign-Urbana after John Mackovic took the Illini head coaching position in 1988 following a career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Naming Lovie Smith as the Illinois head football coach is the first step in taking this program to a place of national prominence," Whitman said. "We will build a program that contends annually for Big Ten and national championships. The timing for this move was extremely tight, and we needed to move quickly. A coach of Lovie's caliber would not have been available to us if we had waited until after the 2016 season. Lovie's reputation as a coach, and even more so as a person, made it clear it was an awesome opportunity for the University of Illinois."
That's a bold statement from Whitman, Illinois' fiery and brand new 37-year-old athletic director, considering Illinois' been the butt end of the Big Ten since 2007. Whitman posted this on his Twitter account Monday.
Will they? Illinois is 6-26 in the Big Ten over the last four seasons. Whitman axed Bill Cubit Saturday, his first official day on the job, after the coach had signed a two-year deal to remain in place of Tim Beckman. Illinois relieved Beckman of his duties in August.
Smith had success in the NFL, leading the Bears (and Rex Grossman!) to Super Bowl XLI before losing to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. According to the release, he is set to earn $2 million in 2016 and 2017, $3 million for 2018, $4 million for 2019 and $5 million annually for both 2020 and 2021.
Smith played for former Ohio State head coach John Cooper at Tulsa and was Ohio State's defensive backs coach in 1995 before heading to the professional ranks. He is the second coach in as many years to take a Big Ten job with a Super Bowl trip on his résumé, following Michigan's Jim Harbaugh.
Ohio State doesn't play Illinois next until Nov. 18, 2017 when the Fighting Illini make a trip to Columbus.
Will this work? Who knows! But at least Illinois is trying!