OFFICIAL: Illinois hires former Bears coach Lovie Smith as Illini football coach

Former Bears, Buccaneers coach signs on with new Illini AD Josh Whitman to lead Illinois football out of dark era

CHAMPAIGN - A coach who led a team to a Super Bowl will now lead Illinois football.

On his third day on the job, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman officially announced via Twitter on Monday the biggest splash hire in modern Illini history. Former NFL coach Lovie Smith will become the 25th coach in Illinois football history. Smith will be introduced at a press conference 2 p.m. Monday at Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building.

Smith signed a six-year, $21 million deal that includes incentives for academic and athletic performance. He will make $2 million annually in 2016 and 2017, $3 million in 2018, $4 million in 2019 and $5 million annually in 2020 and 2021. The deal will be presented for UI Board of Trustees approval on March 16.

“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.”

Smith -- who surprisingly was fired by the Buccaaneers in January after just two seasons as the head coach in Tampa Bay  -- replaces Bill Cubit, whom Whitman fired after just seven months as the head coach, and comes to Champaign to resuscitate a floundering program mired the last year in scandal and lack of leadership.

Smith, the 2005 NFL Coach of the Year, brings buzz and relevancy to a program that has won just 30 percent of its Big Ten games (36-84 conference record) since Whitman -- a four-year starter at tight end form 1997-2000 under Ron Turner, a former Bears offensive coordinator under Smith -- graduated from Illinois.

“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, 57, went just 8-24 record the past two seasons but is known well in this state for his nine-year tenure as the Chicago Bears head coach. Smith led the Bears to an 81-63 overall record and three playoff appearances, highlighted by a Super Bowl apperance in 2007. Prior to joining the Bears, Smith was the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams from 2001-04 under head coach Mike Martz.

Smith -- a native of Big Sandy, Texas, and graduate of Tulsa -- has not coached in the college game for two decades, last serving as a defensive backs coach at Ohio State in 1995 before jumping to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to coach under Tony Dungy. Prior to Ohio State, Smith also served as an assistant at Tennessee (1993-94), Kentucky (1992), Arizona State (1988-91), Wisconsin (1987) and Tulsa (1983-86).

“Just as he promised, Josh Whitman is taking bold and decisive action to ensure that Illinois athletics represents the same level of excellence as Illinois academics,” interim chancellor Barbara Wilson said. “Coach Smith shares our vision for success at the highest level, and I’m delighted to welcome him to the Illinois family.”

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