Illinois gets risks and rewards with hiring of Lovie Smith

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Illinois has hired former Bears coach Lovie Smith. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Hiring a name like Lovie Smith is a coup for Illinois.

Hiring a coach like Lovie Smith is a risk for Illinois.

Those two statements might seem at odds with one another, but they’re not. Illinois gained credibility by getting someone who has been an NFL head coach in Chicago and Tampa Bay. But it rolled the dice by hiring a man with mixed results as a coach, with in-game-adjustment difficulties, with an outdated defensive scheme and with huge questions about his ability to recruit.

Monday was a big day for the Illini. New athletic director Josh Whitman announced the hiring via Twitter, which is what all the cool kids do these days. Illinois fans should be excited about the development. For too long, Illini football has been devoid of excitement. Even if you believe Whitman did Bill Cubit wrong by firing him mere months after the school had given the then-head coach a two-year contract, you can’t argue with the wow factor of hiring Lovie.

I can’t believe I just wrote “wow factor’’ and “Lovie’’ in the same sentence.

Illinois’ recent default approach for football and basketball has been to hire an up-and-coming coach, which is to say a coach no one has heard of. Same goes for the athletic-director position. At a minimum, Illini fans can say that they know Lovie and that they know he took the Bears to a Super Bowl.

The problem, of course, is that they might know him too well after his nine-year stay in Chicago. The poor decisions during games. The outdated Cover-2 defense that too often couldn’t seem to cover anybody. The loyalty to talented players who couldn’t stay out of trouble off the field. The condescension to media members and, thus, to fans. The perpetual blank look.

Just know what you’re getting, the good and the bad. In Tampa Bay, he made some poor personnel decisions that hurt the Buccaneers. That’s a cousin of college recruiting.

But Smith could be the one to turn this tractor around. Kids might flock to a former NFL coach. There’s only one guy named “Lovie.’’

In 2007, Smith famously told people to trust him after he made the very unpopular decision to let defensive coordinator Ron Rivera go, then elevated his buddy to the job.

Illinois fans will have to trust him this time. It’s all they have.

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