On his first official day as athletic director at Illinois, Josh Whitman wasted no time making a big move. Head football coach Bill Cubit was fired and a big name was immediately attached to the job. CBS Chicago was first to report that former NFL head coach Lovie Smith is in line to replace Cubit, and Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports has confirmed the report via his own source.
— Ryan Baker (@RyanBakerMedia) March 5, 2016
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) March 5, 2016
Smith most recently served as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he was fired in January after going 8-24 over two seasons. His greatest success came over nine seasons (2004-12) as head coach of the Chicago Bears, where he had a 81-63 regular season with three NFC North titles (2005, 2006 and 2010) and an appearance in Super Bowl XLI. So football fans in the state of Illinois are familiar with Smith’s work, which included a 10-6 record without a playoff berth in his final season with the Bears.
Smith has no experience as a college head coach, but he was a linebackers or defensive backs coach at that level from 1983-95 with six different schools. Among the schools Smith worked at are two Big Ten institutions (Wisconsin-linebackers coach, 1987 and Ohio State-defensive backs coach, 1995) before being hired as defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay by Tony Dungy in 1996 and starting his climb up the NFL coaching ladder.
Skeptics will point to the Illinois job as a way for Smith to keep himself in the conversation for NFL head coaching jobs, and a move back to the pros is certainly possible if he has success quickly. But if Smith proves he’s willing to embrace all the aspects of a college job, including theoretically going toe-to-toe with the likes of Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer in recruiting, the Fighting Illini football program could be back on the Big Ten map very quickly.