Illinois had a roller coaster of a season in 2015, starting with the preseason firing of head coach Tim Beckman. It was a year with high expectations because of their experience, but after a 4-2 start, the team lost six of seven to end the season.
The Illini were under the command of interim coach Bill Cubit who was given a two-year contract extension in November. His tenure as the head coach was short-lived, though, when newly hired athletic director Josh Whitman immediately fired Cubit. It was a head-scratcher until rumors surfaced that the program was in discussions to bring in former NFL head coach Lovie Smith.
Smith was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following the 2015 season which was also a peculiar decision by their front office. They finished 6-10 but made great offensive strides with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. The Bucs seemed to be heading in the right direction but cut ties with Smith when the season concluded.
In addition to experience with Tampa Bay, Smith spent nine seasons as the head coach of the Chicago Bears. He led them to an NFC Championship in the 2006 season and made an appearance in Super Bowl XLI where they lost to the Indianapolis Colts. His coaching abilities shouldn’t be in question.
Before the Smith hire, the Illini were going to have a really difficult time recruiting in the Big Ten. The conference’s elite programs are getting stronger, and Cubit would’ve been competing with Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, Mark Dantonio and James Franklin for top recruits. That’s pretty tough competition. That said, I can think of few better equipped than Smith to compete with upper echelon recruiters.
This will be Smith’s third stint in the Big Ten. He spent one season as the linebackers coach at Wisconsin in 1987 and one season as the defensive backs coach at Ohio State in 1995. The latter was his final collegiate job before making the leap to the NFL.
It’ll be an interesting transition back to college football, though Smith is very well-respected and should be able to bring in one of the top-half recruiting classes in the conference every season. Add that to his coaching success and the fact that they play in the far weaker division of the league, and they should contend for a trip to Indianapolis every year.