SPORTS FBN-BUCCANEERS-COLTS 18 TNS

Former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith has been named head football coach at the University of Illinois. Here he is seeing throwing challenge flag in second half action against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Nov. 29, 2015 in Indianapolis, Ind. The Colts won 25-12. (Sam Riche/TNS)

Lovie is our head football coach.”

OK, I’ll admit that was a sad attempt at rewording Lovie Smith’s famous “Rex is our quarterback” line, when referring to former Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. However, the Illini faithful is rejoicing these days, as a new era has begun for Illinois football.  

On March 4, new Illini Athletic Director Josh Whitman relieved Bill Cubit of his duties as head football coach, citing a need for stability in the program. Cubit had signed a two-year contract after going 5-7 as an interim head coach following Tim Beckman’s dismissal. Whitman praised Cubit’s work as the Illini’s coach, as he certainly rallied the troops following bad publicity and a tough situation being brought upon the players, thanks to Beckman.     

However, a two-year contract is useless, honestly, and such an “Illinois” move. What I mean by an “Illinois” move is: A) making no sense and B) so utterly conservative it’s frustrating.

It makes no sense whatsoever to sign a collegiate head coach for two years. Potential recruits will always have the uncertainty in their minds, whether the coach they committed to will even be their coach for all four years. The extreme conservation shows UI is unwilling to commit to Cubit. If Illinois won’t commit to Cubit, then why should athletes commit to Cubit?    

Whitman saw and understood a change was needed. He understood Cubit was set up to fail and he wanted to bring in his guy. It’s tricky, though, with spring football right around the corner. At this point in the offseason, it’s not ideal to be searching for a leader for your football program. If Whitman were to make this move and cut ties with Cubit, he better act fast. But in all honesty, no Athletic Director fires Cubit if he or she doesn’t have a plan in place. But as we know, Whitman had his plan and he acted fast. Ricky Bobby fast.   

On his first official day on the job, Whitman gave Cubit the unfortunate news and was signing paperwork with Lovie Smith later in the day to finalize Smith as the Illini’s next football coach. Monday afternoon, Smith was officially introduced as head coach in front of a massive amount of media. I’d say it was a pretty busy and successful first day for Whitman, a former Illinois wide receiver himself.

This was a dream hire for the University of Illinois. Without question, Whitman, in his first day, made the biggest hire in Illinois football history. I might even go as far as saying the biggest hire Illinois athletics has ever made. The splash hire changes the direction of the program instantly. It changes a culture, one filled with mediocrity, for so long, into something fresh and optimistic. Lovie fits at Illinois, the hire makes Illinois relevant again and it shows Illinois is committed to winning.

Lovie is a good fit

Lovie Smith is well respected by everyone in the football community. He has experience coaching at the college level as an assistant, and has had success in the NFL as a head coach. He has a great football mind, at least defensively. He can get the best out of his players and Illinois will be competitive in the Big Ten. He is a tremendous leader and players love him.

ESPN’s Mike Golic said Illinois has “struck gold”. As far as recruiting, Chicago-area kids know him from his days with the Bears. Tampa Bay area kids will know him as well from his short time s the Buccaneers head coach. Smith has many connections in his home state, Texas, as well.

“There isn’t a living room in America that wouldn’t welcome Lovie Smith and his staff,” Whitman said in his introductory press conference.

How could parents put their trust in Lovie Smith to take care of and develop their child into the best man and football player he can be? ESPN’s Herm Edwards said on NFL Live, “If your family has a young child, he's a football player and Lovie Smith is recruiting him, send him to Illinois."

Smith is a guy with great integrity and he’s going to thrive in recruiting.

Illinois is relevant

Sure, Illinois football made the headlines in August. But they were the wrong headlines after the university fired Tim Beckman among horrible findings of player mistreatment.

This is a great hire. Most, if not all, of the major Chicago newspapers had their sports page filled with Illini coverage on Tuesday. The last time such a thing happened was probably in 2007, when Juice Williams and crew beat top-ranked Ohio State in the Shoe.

Lovie was a guest on many of the Chicago sports radio shows. In fact, he made an appearance on “Mike and Mike in the Morning,” a nationally broadcast radio show. This is a big deal. People are talking about Illinois. Newsflash: That never happens.

Until now.

Smith and Illinois were a topic on ESPN shows “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption.” IT has been brought up in broadcasts of Big Ten Tournament games.

Everyone is talking about Illinois football. I never thought I would say such a statement in my life.

The exposure UI has received from this is priceless. Lovie is instantly one of the most popular and well-respected coaches in the Big Ten. The Big Ten conference has great football coaches. Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and now…Lovie Smith. It’s exciting when you have a coach who can go toe-to-toe with names such as Meyer or Harbaugh and not get absolutely embarrassed. It’s an exciting time to be an Illini fan. Illinois is officially relevant (again?).

Illinois is committed

Josh Whitman has done something no other Illinois Athletic Director has ever done: opened the checkbook. Whitman was able to get everyone on board and commit to having successful big-time athletics. To be successful in football, you have to invest. Illinois has never done so. They have never opened the purse to go after a high-level coach. Whitman is changing the culture at Illinois. He wants to win and he’s willing to pay what no Illini AD has ever been willing to pay before.

Smith signed for six years and $21 million. Quite frankly, I think it was a bargain and well worth the investment. Whitman’s dedication to the university shows when he is willing to spend big time money to reel in the big fish. Not only is Whitman committed to the man in charge, but also he is giving him the opportunity to succeed. Whitman offered Lovie a remarkable $4 million pool for his assistant coaches. The $4 million pool trails only Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten and also was more than what Texas offered its assistants a year ago. If paying more money than Texas doesn’t scream “all in,” I’m not sure what does.

Bottom Line

Lovie Smith is an excellent football coach and there is no reason he can’t be successful at Illinois. Josh Whitman is a game-changing Athletic Director and he isn’t going to hesitate when he feels a change is needed. Whitman single-handedly changed the trajectory of Illinois athletics in a matter of hours. A new era in Illinois athletics has begun. Illinois is committed to winning. Illinois is relevant.

Joe Rodewald is a sophomore math major and a sports reporter for The Vidette. Any questions or comments regarding his article can be directed to vidette_jrodewa@ilstu.edu. Follow him on Twitter @​joerodewald7.

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