Go back to spring 2015. University of Illinois athletics was similar to many other collegiate athletic programs, looking for answers to its average-performing revenue teams. Tim Beckman was the head coach of the Fighting Illini football team. And at about this time, Beckman was preparing his team for spring practices as was the rest of the country.
Fast forward to present-day Champaign. An nationally covered investigation, two head football coaches and an athletic director later, Josh Whitman has come in and released the chokehold that has been held tight on the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration building over the past 10 months.
In just a few hours of his first official day as Athletic Director, Whitman retained head basketball coach John Groce and dismissed Bill Cubit as head football coach.
With spring practice set to start in a week, many assumed that Whitman had to have had a plan when making the call to fire Cubit. But with a move like this, Whitman couldn’t just replace Cubit with any coach that might develop into the guy Illinois needs to bring life to campus. Whitman needed someone to make an immediate splash. Two weeks ago, former Illinois head coach Ron Turner introduced Whitman to his guy: Lovie Smith.
A week later, Whitman flew to Tampa, Florida, and spent the day with Smith. Whitman said he was amazed that everything he had heard of Smith was true and “so much more.”
“He’s a man of highest integrity,” Whitman said. “He’s a leader of men.”
The day before Whitman broke the news to Cubit, he met with University Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson and President Thomas Killeen to see “if this is even possible.”
Whitman shared his vision for the future of Illinois football, made his big move Saturday and Smith was in Champaign Sunday to put pen to paper.
The news broke Monday morning and the energy on campus sparked to that of a Friday night on Green Street. On a campus dominated by students from the Chicagoland area, Lovie Smith’s name created a buzz on campus as if he had already signed the top-5 recruits in the nation.
Following a team meeting, Smith spoke to students, signed autographs, and took pictures at the Illini Union. Students packed the relatively large Courtyard Cafe of the Union. The excitement was buzzing. If you hadn’t heard the news before you entered the Union, it took maybe 30 seconds to gain the same level of excitement as other bystanders.
In addition to Smith’s proven ability to coach a football team to success, Whitman said he is looking for the new head coach to bring life to the program.
“Most important, this brings a level of stability and enthusiasm to a football program that needs it,” Whitman said.
An area concern regarding Smith’s return to college football is his recruiting ability. But neither Smith nor Whitman predict that as being an issue.
“There’s not a living room in American that is not going to open their doors to Lovie Smith and his coaching staff,” Whitman said.
Smith said that the recruiting aspect of collegiate football is what made the job so attractive to him. He said he likes the opportunity to work with players who have yet to establish themselves as opposed to the preformed players he is used to working with in the NFL.
As the former Chicago Bears coach, Smith is already a big name amongst high school football players in the midwest.
He has one message for the recruits he will be going after in his new state of residency.
“As soon as I can make contact with you,” Smith said, “I will be asking you to make your university proud.
Lovie Smith is in a position to do great things with a struggling football program. Fast forward a year from now, it could be a much different atmosphere in Champaign. Worst case for Smith is that it stays the same. Regardless, Smith knows what he wants to be doing for the rest of his time on the field.
“This is where I want to finish up my football career.”