CHAMPAIGN (AP) – Former NFL coach Lovie Smith was hired as the Illinois football coach Monday, two days after the firing of Bill Cubit following a 5-7 season.
Smith, who took the Chicago Bears to the 2006 Super Bowl, was dismissed as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January.
Cubit was let go after one season in charge. Smith said he is intent on making the Illini a Big Ten power and was expected to be introduced at a campus news conference Monday afternoon.
Pending approval of university trustees, Smith has a six-year contract worth $21 million in salary. He will be paid $2 million a year in each of his first two seasons.
Smith is Illinois’ first black head coach in football or men’s basketball. The university has sometimes been criticized by state lawmakers and others for never hiring a black coach for either program.
This is the first college head-coaching job for the 58-year-old Smith. He did not hesitate when it was offered by athletic director Josh Whitman.
“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,” Smith said. “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.”
Whitman said hiring a coach of Smith’s stature is first step toward building Illinois football, traditionally one of the weaker Big Ten teams.
“We will build a program that contends annually for Big Ten and national championships,” he said. “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, whose coaching strength is defense, ran the Buccaneers for two years and had an 8-24 overall record. His Bears team made it to the Super Bowl in 2006, losing to the Indianapolis Colts. The Bears fired Smith after the 2012 season.
Smith’s firing in Tampa was a surprise. One of the biggest problems the Buccaneers had this season was on defense, with Smith taking over the play-calling from his defensive coordinator.
“I don’t think any of us would say that we’ve met our expectations. We had high hopes when I took over the franchise. You just can’t build a program overnight,” Smith said days before he was fired.
His time in Chicago was highlighted by the Super Bowl, the Bears’ first appearance since 1985. But fans grew weary of teams that sometimes struggled on offense and missed the playoffs in five of his final six seasons in Chicago. Smith still ranks third on the Bears’ wins list behind George Halas and Mike Ditka.
Smith has not worked in college football since serving as defensive backs coach for Ohio State in 1995. He also was an assistant at Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona State, Wisconsin and Tulsa.
It is not clear yet how the firing of Cubit or the hiring of Smith will affect the recruiting class Cubit assembled this year. The Illini return key pieces: starting quarterback Wes Lunt, a group of receivers that could among the best in the Big Ten and what could also be a deep group of running backs. But Illinois will be thin at a number of positions on defense.
Cubit told The Associated Press he was stunned by his firing. He was Illinois’ offensive coordinator until coach Tim Beckman was fired in August, a week before the 2015 season.
A law firm hired by the university to investigate allegations by some players that they had been mistreated found evidence that Beckman interfered with medical decisions and pressured players to play through injuries. Beckman denied he did anything wrong. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas was fired in November following those revelations and others within the school’s athletic program. That led an interim athletic director to name Cubit the coach in November – a title that came with an unusually short two-year contract.