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Illinois’ Lovie Smith has turned page on NFL, is ready to roll

Lovie Smith on Saturday's Illinois debut: “I’m feeling exactly how you should feel. This is my first college head coaching job. It’s a really big deal to me.” (AP/Robin Scholz)

Lovie Smith still remembers the captivating clash of anxiety and excitement that accompanied him into his first game as a seventh-grade football player in Big Sandy, Texas.

It’s a feeling that has never gone away, bubbling back to the late-summer surface ever since.

It was there in 1980 as Smith, Big Sandy High’s new defensive coordinator, neared his first game as a coach. It was there in 1983, the year he ascended to the college ranks, and in 1996, when he made it to the NFL.

It nearly overtook Smith in 2004, when he became a first-time head coach with the Bears.

“That sure was a big jump,” Smith recalled Wednesday in a conversation with the Sun-Times.

There’s nothing like the first game of the season, especially for a first-year head coach. Smith will lead Illinois onto its home field Saturday against Murray State, the opening page of what the 58-year-old hopes will be the finest chapter of his career.

That old late-summer feeling has returned, swimming through Smith’s head and filling his gut.

“I’m feeling exactly how you should feel,” Smith said. “This is my first college head coaching job. It’s really a big deal to me.”

Many have wondered how Smith — 21 years removed from his previous job at the college level — would adjust to life outside the NFL. It was one thing for Smith to say, upon accepting the Illinois job in March, that the transition wouldn’t be a problem. With September here, can he really tune out the omnipresent NFL?

“I can’t even tell you who the Bears open up with,” he said.

“After my time in Chicago, I was out of football the next year [in 2013]. I know what it’s like not to have the NFL in my life. Besides, I live in the moment. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past. It’s about where you are now.”

Smith has immersed himself in the college game. He’s well aware of all the Week 1 matchups — Alabama-USC, Clemson-Auburn, Oklahoma-Houston, Florida State-Ole Miss, LSU-Wisconsin, Notre Dame-Texas — that have led pundits to label this the greatest opening weekend in college football history.

Relatively speaking, Illinois-Murray State isn’t even moving the meter.

“We’re not a marquee game right away, and we’re not ready to be a marquee game whoever we’re playing,” he said. “All the media won’t be coming down to cover our game, OK? That’s fine. It’s part of the process you go through.”

For the record, Smith isn’t conceding anything as far as how good the Illini can be in 2016. You want to overlook them? Fine. Smith has been there before.

Smith recalls seeing Sports Illustrated’s NFL team rankings heading into his first season with the Bears; they were picked 26th out of 32 teams. That turned out to be plenty accurate, especially after four quarterbacks — Rex Grossman, Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel and Chad Hutchinson — started multiple games during a 5-11 struggle.

Yet a year later, entering the 2005 campaign, SI had the Bears at No. 32 — with a projected record of 3-13 — and Smith was offended. He made sure his players were, too.

“How do you really know who’s No. 32?” he said. “You start over from scratch.”

The 2005 team went 11-5 and won the NFC North, a feat for which Smith was named NFL coach of the year.

One season after that: Super Bowl, baby.

“It’s about attitude,” Smith said.

If that’s what it really boils down to, then Illinois football is right where it needs to be. Smith has the attitude — and, should he need a boost, that late-summer anxiety and excitement.

“I’m locked in,” he said.

The chapter begins.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com