Lovie Smith Will Make Illinois an Instant Contender in the Big Ten West

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterMarch 7, 2016

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 15: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers watches pregame warmup before the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium on November 15, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff McBride/Getty Images)
Cliff McBride/Getty Images

When Josh Whitman announced the firing of head football coach Bill Cubit less than a day into his reign as Illinois' new athletic director, two theories seemed to prevail when it came to the untimely move.

Theory 1: Whitman had something up his sleeve to justify the sudden shakeup.

Theory 2: By firing his head coach a week away from the start of spring practice, the new Fighting Illini AD was only furthering the mess that had been left for him by his predecessors in Champaign.

"The decision to change football staffs has broader implications than just about anything else," Whitman said in a Saturday press conference. "You make a decision to change football coaches, you throw a lot of things into chaos."

Perhaps Whitman was comfortable in admitting the risk of his decision because he knew that Theory 1 was in play.

Just hours after the announcement of Cubit's firing, news began to trickle out of the Prairie State that Whitman had his replacement in sight. Less than two days later, Illinois made it official by announcing Monday that longtime NFL head coach Lovie Smith would be taking over the Fighting Illini program.

In a press release announcing his new six-year, $21 million contract, Smith said:

I am extremely excited to be named head coach of the Fighting Illini. 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.

With Smith's track record, that goal could become a reality as early as his first season in Champaign.

In Smith, Illinois now has a head coach with instant credibility, one who's spent 11 of the past 12 years as a head coach at football's highest level. In his decade-plus as an NFL head coach, Smith went to one Super Bowl and coached in an additional NFC Championship Game, accumulating a combined 89-87 record during stints with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This isn't merely a retread head coach looking for his next gig but one who many felt was unjustly fired after he improved Tampa Bay's record by four wins in 2015 while developing No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston at quarterback.

Per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, the firing of Smith wasn't about performance as much as it was the fear of losing offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who had become a hot head coaching candidate as a member of Smith's staff.

In essence, Illinois now has a head coach who would likely still be the head coach of an NFL team if not for the off-field politics that often play out in pro football.

"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 in Monday's statement.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

"National prominence" might be a stretch—at least for now—for a program that still plays in the same conference as Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. Smith may possess star power and credibility of his own, but not as much as Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, nor will he enjoy the benefits of continuity that Mark Dantonio has built in his nine years in East Lansing.

But as far as his new league is concerned, Smith finds himself in the right division.

While it may be improved as a whole, the Big Ten West is there for the taking, with reigning champ Iowa unproven as a consistent contender. Wisconsin is solid, and Northwestern and Nebraska both appear to be on the rise, but one could have made a convincing case for the Fighting Illini as a division dark horse even prior to Smith's hiring.

Smith inherits a defensive unit that ranked 30th in the nation in 2015, and his presence should only help improve it, even following the departures of key players Mason Monheim, Jihad Ward and Clayton Fejedelem. In particular, the defensive-minded Smith should be able to get the most out of outside linebacker Dawuane Smoot, who recorded eight sacks in his junior season in 2015.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Fighting Illini's new head coach will have his work cut out for him, taking over a team that ranked 88th in total offense last season. But Illinois does return 74 percent of its production, according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly, and pro-style QB Wes Lunt should receive a boost with the return of wideout Mike Dudek (76 receptions, 1,038 yards and six touchdowns in 2014) from injury.

Divisional crossover games against Michigan and Michigan State could present issues, but the Fighting Illini could potentially remain in conference contention in 2016 with two league losses.

This hiring, however, is more about the long term than it is just the upcoming year, as evidenced by the length of Smith's contract. And while it's been more than 20 years since recruiting was last one of his responsibilities, his NFL experience should give him instant gravitas on the recruiting trail—just as it has for Harbaugh in his 14 months in Ann Arbor.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

When it comes to NFL-to-college transitions, this hiring has more of the feel of Pete Carroll to USC or Jim Mora to UCLA than it does Dave Wannstedt to Pitt. In fact, one could argue the Fighting Illini have been one of college football's biggest sleeping giants, given the fertile recruiting ground of the Midwest, in particular Chicago.

"We will build a program that contends annually for Big Ten and national championships," Whitman said.

For a program that has shown the ability to make major bowl games in the past but hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2011, those are certainly lofty expectations.

The last time he did or said something that raised eyebrows, Whitman proved to have an ace up his sleeve. Now it will be up to Smith to make the seemingly impossible a reality in Champaign.


Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.