CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When discussing his football program he said that he didn’t expect any kind of “lightning in a bottle” solution to their problems.
Well Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman sure made a strike with his first hire for the Illini football program in his short tenure and it’s caused a lot of rumbles across the nation.
Rumored since the firing of Bill Cubit on Saturday, Illinois made official the hiring of former Bears head coach Lovie Smith as the new leader of their football program. He’ll be the 25th head coach in the school’s history and will take on his first collegiate head coaching position.
He takes over for Cubit, who signed a two-year contract serving as interim head coach during the 2015 season following the firing of Tim Beckman. On Whitman’s first official day as athletic director, he fired Cubit which opened the door for Smith.
He comes to the Illini with an extensive professional coaching resume that includes two stops as an NFL head coach. He spent nine seasons with the Bears from 2004-2012 and in that span he led the Bears to three NFC North Titles, a NFC Championship in 2006 and a conference title game appearance in 2010.
This is not the first time the Illini have looked to the Bears for a head coaching hire. Back in 1997 Illinois hired then Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner to be it’s head coach. After being fired in Champaign in 2004, Turner returned to the Bears under Smith’s staff and helped the Bears to Super Bowl XLI in the 2006 season.
After the Bears fired Smith after two seasons without a playoff appearance, Smith took a year off and became the coach of the Buccaneers in 2014. He was there for just two seasons, improving the team’s record by four games in his second season but the franchise decided to fire him at the end of the 2015 campaign and replace him with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
He’ll return to college coaching for the first time in 21 years when he served as the defensive backs coach Ohio State. Smith would take the the linebackers coach job with the Buccaneers that began nearly two decades in the NFL. After five seasons in Tampa, Smith took the defensive coordinator job with the Rams in 2001. He held that job till 2004 when he took the Bears job.
Before that era of his career Smith was strictly a position coach in college, starting his career at his Alma Mater Tulsa in 1983 as a linebackers coach. Smith held that position at the school till 1986 then was a linebackers coach at Wisconsin (1987), Arizona State (1988-1991) and Kentucky (1992).
Things change up a bit for Smith when he joined Philip Fulmer’s first staff at Tennessee as a defensive backs coach. He stayed there for two season before joining the Buckeyes in the same position for the 1995 season.
At Illinois Smith takes over a program which has struggled with consistency through most of it’s recent history. In seven of the last ten season the Illini have finished under the .500 mark and only in 2007 were a threat for a Big Ten Championship.
The last five coaches at the school have all finished with below .500 mark. In fact since 1960 only Mike White (1980-1987) and John Mackovic (1988-1991) have left Champaign with a winning record.
That’s Smith’s challenge now. While he might not fix things lightning quick, his hire has certainly brought a jolt to a football program in desperate need of a charge.