Lovie Smith comes to Illinois ‘for the long haul’ as he starts to rebuild program

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Lovie Smith holds an Illinois jersey with Athletic Director Josh Whitman at his introductory news conference in Champaign on March 7th.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With an overflowing crowd of reporters, computers and cameras jammed into a room at the Bielfeldt Administration building, you’re bound to get some interesting comments or inquisitions over a half-hour news conference.

That’s even the case for a normally calm Lovie Smith.

Stevie Jay, a longtime broadcaster in Champaign-Urbana, made a statement to lead into his question to the new Illinois football football coach. It’s one that many at the school might have been thinking over the past eight years in East Central Illinois.

“You’re a tall glass of water for our Sahara desert, who are thirsty, hungry and glad that you are here,” said Jay to Smith at the podium, drawing a chuckle from the large gallery.

He’s right. Illinois football has only had two coaches who’ve left Champaign with a winning record since 1960. The Illini last won a Big Ten Championship in 2001 and since then only one year (2007) has the team been in that conversation. Plus the last six months have seen accusations of player mistreatment, the firing of a coach then a 5-7 record and then another firing.

You could see why Illini fans might be in need of a drink-either water or something a little harder.

But one thing that Smith made sure of during his first meeting with the media in his introductory news conference in Champaign quenching the third of Illinois football fans is the No. 1 mission left in his career-no matter how long that might take.

“I signed a six-year contract,” said Smith when asked what he might do if NFL teams come calling for him to return to the pros in the next few years. “I’m not going anywhere. This is the start of my third quarter of my career. This is where I want to finish up my football career. So I don’t know what better commitment I can show to everyone that we’re going to be here and we’re going to be here for the long haul than that.”

That could be a while considering that Smith is already in a time crunch when it comes to recruiting and even Spring Practice. Already the school delayed the start of workouts until Smith can get himself settled in and a staff assembled. But that doesn’t seem to scare the coach as he takes his first ever college head coaching job and his first collegiate position since 1995.

“I understand where our football program is right now. There is a reason why a change was made. I embrace that challenge,” said Smith.

This will be the second for Smith inside the State of Illinois in his football coaching career which he began as the defensive coordinator at Big Sandy High School in Texas back in 1980. Smith was the coach of the Bears for nine seasons, taking the team to the playoffs three teams and Super Bowl XLI in 2007, and he always had his eye on the college program two-and-a-half hours to the south.

“I’ve always looked and said ‘Why can’t we be one of the better football teams year in and year out?'” said Smith. “That will happen.”

During his two stints in the NFL that was proven. He inherited a 7-9 Bears team when he took over in 2004 and had them 11-5 in his second season then an NFC Champion in Year 3. In Tampa, Smith’s Buccaneers improved by four wins from 2014 to 2015 but the coach was fired as the franchise went a different direction with a more defensive-minded head coach in Dirk Koetter.

Those quick builds, however, came in the NFL. This is college where recruiting is added into the mix of the normal coaching duties and requires an individual who is savvy in a number of facets. While not in the college ranks since he was the defensive backs coach for Ohio State in 1995, Smith says his style will easily translate to college.

” I know there is recruiting involved but I’ve been recruiting in selling every year I’ve been a football coach,” said Smith when asked about the transition. “Selling the way we’re going to win football games, asking free agents to come on board and recruiting is just that. You go into homes and people will trust you or they won’t, they’ll buy into what you believe.

“I feel like I can do that, I’m anxious to embrace that.”

Perhaps he’s already done that, at least according to what athletic director Josh Whitman had to say before Smith took the podium. It’s he who pulled the trigger on the firing of Bill Cubit and the hiring of Smith, pondering the move shortly after being named the athletic director.

Whitman said he even consulted his coach at Illinois Ron Turner, who served as offensive coordinator for Smith with the Bears, about making this major hire for the program. At the first team meeting, Whitman was convinced quickly he made the right choice.

“As long as I do this, I will never forget the feeling in that room, the excitement in the air, the smiles on those guy’s faces,” said Whitman as he watched Smith greet the player for the first time at Memorial Stadium on Monday morning. “To be able to walk in that room and put in front of them hope, to be able to put in front of them stability, to be able to put in front of them a championship vision, you could see their eyes light up.”

So did the eyes of many Illini fans who see Smith as they way out of their desert of football despair.