CHAMPAIGN — It didn’t take long for Lovie Smith to channel his inner Lee Corso.
“There is nothing like game day on a college campus,” Smith said Monday in opening remarks after being introduced as the head coach at Illinois. “I had an opportunity to go to the ‘U’ [the Illinois Student Union]. Had a chance to hang out with some of the students. They’re excited. I got chill bumps up my body listening to our students — ‘What can I do, Lovie, to help our football team win?’
“Had a chance to see the Fighting Illini marching band — put chills up your body listening to them. The Block ‘I’ — seeing them at Memorial Stadium. Having the chance to walk my football team down [Red] Grange Grove, all those things are appealing to me.”
But Smith’s excitement was dwarfed by the collective euphoria of a campus desperate for hope. After a tumultuous episode under Tim Beckman (12-25 from 2012-14) and the awkward firing of Bill Cubit (5-7 in 2015) on Saturday, Smith is a celebrity hire and savior that Illinois football is desperate for. Lovie was mobbed by students at the Union. The news conference at the Bielfeldt Athletics Administration Building was packed with statewide media and adoring, cheering friends of the program. The football team gave Smith a standing ovation — lasting “two or three minutes,” according to one player — when he was introduced at a 7 a.m. meeting.
“Just to have him as a head coach is kind of surreal,” quarterback Wes Lunt said. “It just kind of gives us a name with Illinois football — a big name like Lovie Smith. I was on ‘SportsCenter.’ I haven’t been on ‘SportsCenter’ that much. Just to have that kind of recognition is special.”
“When you see the success he’s had on [the NFL] level and to bring that down to Illinois, that’s beautiful,” defensive lineman Chunky Clements said. “Just happy, excited and optimistic. And ready to be coached again. We had good coaches before, but this is a great coach.”
All that remains to be seen is if all the fuss is worth it. Smith could be a “home-run hire” — a proven football coach with an NFL cachet who gives Illinois instant credibility and integrity and a can parlay connections to Chicago, St. Louis, Texas and Florida into a recruiting boom. Or he could be an ill-fitted retread who doesn’t hire well, hasn’t evaluated and recruited high school athletes in 20 years, has never tweeted and will be crushed by Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio in recruiting.
The hire is a referendum on the intuition of newly hired athletic director Josh Whitman, whose belief in Smith is so great he engineered the awkward and ill-timed firing of Bill Cubit to get his man.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the room,” Whitman said. “I’m not the guy who’s going to come up with the idea. But I’m pretty good at recognizing good ideas when I hear them. When I heard his name, I immediately thought, ‘That could make a lot of sense.’ “
On his first official day on the job, Whitman signed Smith to a six-year, $21 million contract.
“Lovie’s going to be a great recruiter,” Whitman said. “There’s not a living room in America that’s not going to open their doors to Lovie Smith and his coaching staff.”
It’s that kind of faith that is at the root of the hiring. With Smith as his coach, Whitman is planning on the football program staying clean, graduating its players, maintaining the university’s high academic standards, winning with honor, dignity and integrity — and contending for Big Ten and national championships. Nobody does that.
“Football is football,” Smith said. “‘I’ve been recruiting and selling every year I’ve been a football coach — selling the way we’re going to win football games. Asking free agents to come on board. And recruiting is just that. You go into homes. And people will trust you or they won’t. And buy into what you believe. I feel like I can do that. I’m anxious to embrace that.”
But the recruiting game is more than just getting into a player’s home. It’s also about selling your program and yourself through social media. That will be an adjustment for Smith, but he’ll embrace that, too.
“I think it’s a misnomer than I’m an old guy that doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “And I can adjust to social media right now. I’ll be able to make that switch fairly easy. I don’t have a Twitter account currently, but we will get one. And whatever we need to do to get the message out, that the University of Illinois is interested in someone and just to spread our brand, we’ll do that.”
There’s no doubting Smith’s sincerity. He could have sat at home in Tampa, Florida, and collected $5 million a year from the Buccaneers for the next two years or waited for another NFL opportunity or a better college opportunity.
“I didn’t have to do this,” he said. “This is something I wanted to do. I’m from Texas. I pay attention to what’s going on in college football in Texas and Florida.
“But we’ve lived in the state of Illinois as long as any place. And it is special to me. We have a lot of relatives from here. My kids went to school here. I feel like my state university was calling.”