By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist

(CBS) We can debate whether or not Lovie Smith can coach, whether or not somebody two decades removed from the college ranks is ready to recruit or if he can be salesman enough to renew and sustain belief in the University of Illinois football program of which he’s now in charge.

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What we can’t argue is that Smith is the first black head coach for football or men’s basketball in the history of either sport at the school and that it matters both internally and externally. Football has been played there since 1890 and basketball since 1905, so that’s 237 total years of white leadership of the most important programs, even as both teams became increasingly populated by African-American players.

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It has been the subject of open discussion and disagreement at the trustee level as recently as 2012, when the approval of Tim Beckman’s hiring as football coach was voted against in symbolic protest by two board members, who cited the “sad irony” of the university’s efforts at diversity contrasting with its coaching history.

This isn’t to say that new athletic director Josh Whitman moved as an activist or did anything other than hire who he thought was the best man for the job, but only to recognize the significance at a place that’s still riven by a deep and serious cultural divide.

Managing the ongoing conflict between rural downstate Illinois and the city of Chicago has long been a difficult task for the university in general and major athletic programs in particular. The games take place surrounded by a demographic that’s deep red and rock-ribbed, people often openly resentful of city dwellers to the north who are seen as unworthy of any funds from state tax dollars. The racial subtext to this bitterness is barely hidden, if at all.

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Yet these are many of the people who actually attend games, the locals otherwise unaffiliated with the college. They matter in their use of discretionary income, so the school can’t turn its back on their interests.

Meanwhile, the school’s leadership and financing are largely Chicago-based. The money fueling football and basketball comes mostly through well-heeled alums in and around the city, and the area remains the primary source of athletic talent, much of which is African-American.

This uncomfortable dynamic can be seen in how the endless dispute has played out over the school’s brazenly racist mascot, Chief Illiniwek, a cheesy caricature of a native American. It’s not official anymore – technically discontinued for obvious reasons – but independent incarnations are still tolerated due to the weakness of the university’s stance. Officials hid behind the NCAA when they ended the insulting spectacle of a frat-boy in Sioux-style garb mincing around pretending to honor the Peoria tribe, essentially saying they got rid of it because they had to, not because they wanted to.

The down-staters who cling to the Chief do so not due to any real love for the minstrel show itself but for what it represents – something of theirs taken from them by progressive influences that represent a changing world in which they are increasingly uncomfortable. The controversy continues to shine a light on the peculiar makeup of a university community separated by many geographical miles and often different values.

It’s clearly meaningful, then, that Smith got this job at this time, and all the better because of how it’s happening. The fact that he’s the first black head coach at Illinois isn’t the first headline, and that’s just fine: It’s good that the football discussion is instead immediately top of mind. Smith brings an unlikely – perhaps even ideal – combination of assets to a program in need of them, with his experience in both college and the NFL, understanding of Chicago and calm demeanor befitting a leader of young men.

The black man with the east Texas drawl just happens to be the right guy for Illinois football, and that’s no small thing.

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Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s “Boers and Bernstein Show” in afternoon drive. You can follow him on Twitter  @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.