By Chris Emma–

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (CBS) — Josh Whitman recalls the night two months to the date of Lovie Smith’s introduction as Illinois head coach that came Monday. The athletic director at Division III Washington University in Missouri then, Whitman saw that the Buccaneers had fired Smith after just two seasons.

A light bulb went into Whitman’s head. He believed that Smith would be an ideal fit for his alma mater, Illinois. That was weeks before Whitman was considered to become the next Fighting Illini athletic director.

Soon enough, Whitman became Illinois’ athletic director, and his plan took form. He was introduced in Champaign on Feb. 18 and stood confident before the media, fans and alums. Four days later, Whitman phoned his former Illinois coach, Ron Turner, and asked for a contact to Smith.

“The reality is, you don’t have the opportunity to hire a Lovie Smith very often,” Whitman said.

Whitman, 37, spoke to Smith, 57, later that Monday and inquired about his interest in the job. The two stayed in steady contact every day since, leading to last Thursday’s meeting in Tampa, their first in-person introduction.

From there, Whitman’s first official day on the job brought him into Bill Cubit’s office for the dismissal of the head coach, just 97 days after the interim tag was removed. Cubit was stunned, as was everybody else, but Whitman’s plan was unfolding.

Whitman conceded that if Smith wasn’t available, Cubit “likely” would’ve remained on the job.

“If there wasn’t a good option in March to hire somebody, we probably would’ve stayed in the situation we had,” Whitman said.

But Smith was available, and he went from a blip on Whitman’s mind to the next coach at Illinois. He arrived in Champaign on Sunday, a day after reports emerged that he was expected to be Illinois’ new coach. Before Saturday’s firing of Cubit and reports on Smith, only a few university employees had any idea of the move Whitman was making.

Two months from Smith’s ouster in Tampa and two weeks from a first phone call, Whitman’s vision for Illinois became a reality.

“We’re going to do things with class, with integrity,” Smith said. “We’re going to trust our program. We’re starting our climb today.”

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

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