Illini make hiring of Lovie Smith official

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It took Illinois 100-plus days to hire its new athletic director.  Conversely, it took that new athletic director two days to officially find his new head football coach.

Following up on speculation that began almost immediately after Saturday’s surpising development, Illinois announced Monday morning that Lovie Smith has been hired to take over the struggling Illini football program.  The 57-year-old Smith replaces Bill Cubit, who was fired this past Saturday on new AD Josh Whitman‘s first official day on the job.

Smith has never been a head coach at the collegiate level, and this will be his first job at this level in more than two decades.  In fact, Smith never was a coordinator during a college coaching career that spanned just a little more than a decade.

Still, Whitman’s move to hire the long-time NFL coach is being almost universally praised as the right move for a program that’s won just 17 games the last four seasons, and hasn’t had a 10-win season since 2001.

“I am extremely excited to be named head coach of the Fighting Illini,” Smith said in a statement released through the school. “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.”

“Naming Lovie Smith as the Illinois head football coach is the first step in taking this program to a place of national prominence,” said Whitman. “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.”

According to the school’s release, Smith reached an agreement on a six-year contract worth a total of $21 million. Not including incentives, Smith is set to earn $2 million in base salary in 2016 and 2017, $3 million for 2018, $4 million for 2019 and $5 million in both 2020 and 2021. The $2 million figure in 2016 would have put Smith 12th of the 14 teams in the Big Ten on the Illini make hiring of Lovie Smith official. Smith’s predecessor, Cubit, was paid $915,000 for the 2015 season.

No buyout figures for Smith’s deal were included in the school’s release.

The move to the Illini is Smith’s first at the college level since working as the defensive backs coach at Ohio State in 1995. He’s also had collegiate coaching stints at Tennessee (1993-94), Kentucky (1992), Arizona State (1988-91), Wisconsin (1987) and Tulsa (1983-87).  He was a linebackers coach at all five of the stops prior to working with OSU’s secondary.

Smith, though, is more known in the coaching profession for his time in the NFL.

The 57-year-old Texas native was a head coach in the NFL for the last 11 years, with the Chicago Bears from 2004-2012 and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014-15.  He was named the Associate Press Coach of the Year following the 2005 season, and coached the Bears to the Super Bowl the following year.

In an 11-year NFL coaching career, Smith compiled a record of 89-87.  His postseason record was 3-3, with two of those losses coming in the Super Bowl and NFC championship game.