By Chris Emma–

(CBS) For the first time in recent memory, the University of Illinois football program isn’t a complete, dysfunctional mess.

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Illinois’ hire of 37-year-old Josh Whitman as athletic director was stunningly competent for a university that’s been run by interim everybody, most of whom wasted time and resources arguing and meandering aimlessly without any sense of direction. It took them months to even find Whitman.

Whitman is sharp, polished and just gets it. So, on his first official day of the job, the athletic director made the necessary move and fired football coach Bill Cubit. The firing lasted five minutes and went down with gruesome details, according to Bob Asmussen of the Champaign News-Gazette. Whitman walked into Cubit’s office and offered a surprise.

“I’m going to let you go,” Cubit recalled of Whitman’s words. “I’m going to let (offensive coordinator) Ryan (Cubit) go, too. Here’s the (termination) letters.”

Sources: Lovie Smith is leading candidate for Illini

And that was it. Just like that, Cubit’s bizarre two-year deal as head coach ended after 97 days.

Don’t feel too bad for Cubit. He’s largely a byproduct of such dysfunction, hired as a compromise and now paid $2.4 million to not work a job he hardly started. Our own Dan Bernstein at 670 The Score reports that Whitman’s decision was pressured by boosters who believed Cubit had knowledge of Tim Beckman’s horrendous abuses as head coach.

Even purely from a football perspective, Cubit brought little that makes Illinois better. He was simply a step up from Beckman. Illinois needed a new direction and leader, but there were simply no responsible adults in charge to make this happen.

Upon ripping off Cubit’s interim tag and adding a de facto super-interim tag, Illinois interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk offered a less-than-glowing reflection of a decision that spoke volumes to the administration’s pile of manure.

“It’s not ideal but for now, I don’t think it’ll put a dagger in the heart of the program,” Kowalczyk said in November.

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Ah, how inspiring. You had one job, Paul. Instead, he said that his coaching decision — two more years of Cubit — wasn’t ideal but may not be a dagger in the heart. A dagger … in the heart.

Now, Illinois isn’t a laughingstock. It endured a lot, from puzzling acronyms to many, many losses. Whitman made the right move in salvaging years more of mess and ending something bound to fail. He’s taking charge of his alma mater. Now comes the next step, one that Whitman is ready to take.

The Fighting Illini will make Lovie Smith their next head coach, sources told CBS 2’s Ryan Baker. The former Bears and Buccaneers head coach, Smith has experience as a collegiate assistant but built his name in the NFL.

Smith would transform the Illinois program if he brought in the right mix of experience and recruiters to his staff. A longtime head coach would be ideal as offensive coordinator, balancing out Smith’s offensive deficiencies and defense-oriented mind.

There’s no doubt that Smith’s straightforward approach and trustworthy persona would sell recruits. Smith needs enthusiastic recruiters on staff, but he could work as the closer to win over prospects. While Smith isn’t the type for sleepovers and climbing trees with recruits like Jim Harbaugh, he would win kids over.

In Smith, the Illini would be getting an impactful leader whose message is never lost. His guidance was something appreciated at the NFL level, something that will be cherished by college athletes. Smith’s the kind of man that Illinois needs, one that would unify Whitman’s athletic department.

Illinois could go with a young, up-and-coming coaching name, but Smith’s an inspired choice. He would immediately bring the Illini an identity and gradually build them up.

The dark days for Illinois appear to be over. Whitman has taken charge of this program and given the Illini a clear direction. He sure would hit a home run with Smith as head coach.

At long last, Illinois’ ugly mess is being cleaned up.

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Chris Emma covers the Chicago sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.