CHAMPAIGN - Mike Phair had just settled into his role as defensive coordinator when the news came down. New Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman on March 5, Whitman's first day on the job, dismissed Illini football head coach Bill Cubit, who during the winter had given Phair his first chance to run a defense.
Phair modeled that defense after Lovie Smith, under whom Phair served as a staff member of the Bears and Buccaneers. So when news leaked that Whitman had tabbed Smith as Cubit's replacement, Phair experienced a range of emotions.
“It was crazy when I first heard about it," Phair said. “I was pretty pumped up. ...We didn’t know. I didn’t know what was going on. Believe it or not, it was a blur. Everything was a blur.
“Bill Cubit is a great man. But I think the thing you’ve kind of seen -- and I’ve been here just for a year -- but all the different things that have gone on with this football team, with coach, I think the message we’re always preaching is it’s the 'next play' cliche. You never know what’s going to happen. Nothing surprises you. It really doesn’t. Nothing really surprises you, so as much as you preach that to players, you have to live that yourself.”
Phair is very familiar with Smith. Smith was his linebackers coach in the early 1990s at Arizona State, where Phair went from walk-on to starter. He then reunited with Smith as a staff member of the Bears (2011-13) and Buccaneers (2014) before joining Tim Beckman's Illini staff last year as defensive line coach/co-defensive coordinator. Phair thinks Smith will add steady leadership to what has been an unstable Illini football program.
“Same demeanor, voice tone, everything," Phair said. "He’s been the same way, and that’s even way back then when I knew him as a player. I think it kind of keeps you calm about where you’re at and what’s going on. In the same breath, it allows you to not get too high and not get too low. It keeps us pretty consistent with how we are.
“I think the one thing you’ll see is he’s a great man. When you watch him and the way he lives and everything he does, you really just try to watch and follow what he does. He’s obviously a leader but he lives it, so you kind of watch him on and off the field the way he is. That’s the big thing I’ve known both as a player and coaching for him.”
Technically, Phair took a demotion to stay on the Illini staff. He shared co-defensive coordinator duties last season with Tim Banks, who was the primary play-caller. After Cubit and Banks parted ways, Phair took over the defense -- at least for three months. Now -- though Phair will still make a very similar salary ($440,000) -- he relents the defensive coordinator title to Hardy Nickerson, the former five-time Pro Bowl linebacker.
But Phair, who will coach a talented defensive line that took a big leap last season under Phair's leadership, doesn't seem to mind.
“The one thing that you can see is (the excitement) in the players," Phair said. "From my standpoint being here, seeing some of the guys, they’re just real jacked. That’s the one word I can use. They’re really pumped up and ready to roll."
From a schematic angle, little changes for the Illini defense. Phair modeled his defense -- which he'd been installing this winter -- after Smith's highly-regarded, aggressive defenses.
“Nothing changes," Phair said. "That’s what’s kind of cool about it. The verbage, everything that I’ve been talking about, taking the ball away, scoring on defense, just all those different things. That’s the message that stays consistent with this whole deal.
“Hardy’s played in it, was coached by him, played in this system as a MIKE linebacker. I was with him in 2014 in Tampa, so that’s kind of the really neat, neat part of it.”
When asked about Nickerson -- who served the last two seasons as Smith's linebackers coach in Tampa and was named to the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team -- Phair said: “He’s an absolute stud. Just what a great coach, but what a great person. I was only with him a year coaching, but I felt like I knew him a lot more than that, just what I knew about him and what I heard about him. He’s just a great person. When you see him and meet him, what a nice guy, but wait until you see him on the field.”
Even though Phair arrived at Illinois last February, he is the longest-serving assistant. The only other holdovers, linebackers coach Tim McGarigle and defensive backs coach Paul Williams, were hired by Cubit in January. Phair gives Smith a resource of knowledge on the current roster, especially the defense.
“Coach has been really good about asking when he wants to know something," Phair said. "But I just kind of let that happen. I don’t want to say something that (influences his opinion) and let them kind of figure it out. He’s been great about just seeing it and asking questions when they need to be asked. It’s kind of weird that I’m the vet and I’ve only been here for just over a year.”
The Illini staff currently is catching up on recruiting -- it's currently a quiet period, so they can't visit prospective recruits -- and preparing for a condensed spring practice schedule (15 practices in 26 days starting Friday).
But like most Illini fans and players, with Smith at the helm, Phair has never been more excited to attack Illinois football's challenges.
“I don’t care what challenges there are," Phair said. "We are so pumped up just to get going now. We’re all chomping at the bit.”