By Chris Emma–
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (CBS) — Huddled among hundreds of students inside University of Illinois’ union Monday was a girl waiting for her chance. The Marching Illini band played song after song and students pushed and shoved their way, all while this girl attempted to make her move to the man in the middle.
Lovie Smith didn’t foresee anything like this for what he expected would be a routine visit at the union. He expected a few handshakes and pictures as students passed by — nothing more than that. Upon walking in, the band played, the students exploded with cheers and Smith was overwhelmed, if not genuinely emotional.
Such a scene unfolded for nearly an hour before he was ushered out after countless selfies, and that girl missed her moment. She walked away dejected. Damn!
Seemingly overnight, the reserved east Texas native became the kind of rah-rah rock star football coach that Illinois hoped it could unite with. His sudden, stunning dismissal from the Buccaneers led down a two-month path to Monday, in which the 57-year-old NFL veteran was named the Fighting Illini’s new leader, signing a six-year, $21-million deal.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to be the new football coach at the University of Illinois,” Smith said with vivid emotion coming from his face.
As stunning as it may have seemed two days ago, Smith, the man who built his legacy in Chicago as head coach of the Bears from 2004-’12, is now beginning “the third quarter” of his career two and a half hours south in Champaign. Once known for “Rex is our quarterback,” Smith’s now mantra at Illinois is We Will Win.
What began as on a whim as nothing more than a simple idea for athletic director Josh Whitman, then a curious Illinois alum, began to take place. Whitman was named Fighting Illini athletic director not even three weeks ago, and his first order of business during his first official day on the job Saturday was to fire Bill Cubit and enact on his plan two weeks in the works, hiring Smith.
“Let’s not lose sight that Lovie Smith is one of the best football coaches in America,” Whitman said of his hire.
Initially, the sentiments were filled with surprise. Illinois had escaped its Tim Beckman turmoil with a home run hire in Smith, unexpected in its own right. But why did Smith want the Illini? How could the quiet, humble Smith join the likes of Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer in the game within the game of college football?
Really, it makes sense. Smith’s players in the NFL adored him. They viewed him as a father figure, the kind of man you can’t disappoint, and Smith cherished his chance to impact their lives. Now, he can do it during the developmental days of young college athletes.
Countless coaches pay the lip service to academic and social growth at their programs, while cutting every corner along the way. Smith didn’t have to accept the challenge at Illinois, but the opportunity to lead a college program was one he embraced immediately.
“As guys come in, you want to leave with a positive experience and just become better members of society,” Smith said. “There’s nothing like being on a team and having that responsibility to do your job, seeing where people start trusting you.”
Illinois made its own mess following the firing of Beckman in August and athletic director Mike Thomas in November, waiting months to find Whitman. In him, the Illini found an aggressive, decisive leader who wanted to extend Smith his next chance.
Early Monday morning, Whitman introduced Smith to the team. Everybody exploded with great excitement — something rare from college kids at 7 a.m. on a Monday. The Illini players believe in Smith. Senior receiver Justin Hardee said that Illinois would be competing at the national level during Smith’s first season.
Instantly, Smith’s mere presence had won over the team. One former Bears Pro Bowl player predicted that Smith’s reputation would precede him. He was sure right.
“As long as I do this, I’ll never forget the feeling in this room,” Whitman said.
Smith’s greatest challenge in building a program will be to surround himself with a strong coaching staff — a veteran, experienced offensive mind would work to complement his defensive prowess — and establish a recruiting plan. Smith’s coaching work in Chicago, Tampa and St. Louis will provide a solid start. That Texas twang, stronger than ever, will only help in Houston or Dallas, too.
What will sell Smith and Illinois better than anything won’t be Harbaugh’s tree-climbing, over-the-top tactics at Michigan. It will be his honest, genuine approach. He’s the kind of coach who can prove he cares. Smith asks the same from his players.
“I will only recruit guys that I believe in, that share our vision and can be trusted,” Smith said.
So begins Smith’s “third quarter” as a coach, starting a new chapter in Champaign. Many challenges await him, most notably finding a staff, stocking a recruiting board and constructing a depth chart.
Success won’t come easy by any means, but an accomplished coach like Smith would refuse to believe that notion. The hundreds of new season-ticket holders since Saturday and hundreds of students who packed Illinois’ union Monday seem to believe in their new coach too.
Fans are flocking to their new leader with great excitement. What seemed at first like a curious marriage between Smith and Illinois just feels right after all.
Smith is Illinois’ rock star, ready to take the Illini to new heights.