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Lovie Smith discusses becoming new coach of Illini

Lovie Smith (addressing the media at his first Bears training camp in 2004) was named the 25th head coach of the University of Illinois on Monday. He is the second coach with previous NFL experience — former Chiefs coach John Mackovic was hired in 1988.

CHAMPAIGN — Boldly and confidently calling it “the first step in taking this program to a place of national prominence,” newly hired Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman introduced former Bears coach Lovie Smith as the school’s head football coach Monday. It was officially Whitman’s first day on the job.

“We’ve taken a bold step forward,” Whitman said at a news conference at the Hall of Fame room of the Bielfeldt Athletics Administration Building. “Turned the page on a challenging past, walking the walk to a stand of excellence and a culture of championships.”

Smith, who signed a six-year, $21-million contract, said the timing was right to move to the college game after being fired suddenly by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after his second season in 2015.

“When I was in Tampa, I had a chance to reflect on a lot of things,” Smith said. “What I like about my life and what I’ve been able to do. One of them is being a teacher of young men and trying to mentor them and make them better people along the way.”

With spring practice about to begin, Smith has a lot of work to do. He has started putting together a staff. “There has been a great response.  A lot of people want to be on board and do whatever they can to help us win football games around here.”

Not only is he unconcerned about transitioning to college football after 19 years in the NFL, but he’s excited about it.

“Football is football,” he 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.”

In fact, he started recruiting already in his opening remarks.

“To the high school coaches out there, we need your guys  — in Champaign, in Chicago, throughout he state of Illinois — staying and playing for the flagship university. And to the high school prospects in Illinois: As soon as I can make contact with you, I will be asking you to make your university proud.”

Illinois was 5-7 last season and a 17-32 over the past five seasons under Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit. The Illini have not won 10 games since going 10-2 in 2001.

How long will the rebuild take? Smith wouldn’t even call it a rebuilding.

“As far as how long, it would be hard to say.  We started the process this morning on becoming a better football team. We were a 5-7 football team last year. But if we recruit the way I know we will, there is no rebuilding as far as I’m concerned. We’re going to try to put the best football team we can as quickly as we can. And in time, whatever time that might be, we will be competing for Big Ten championships.”

Smith still figures to be mentioned for NFL jobs in the future. But he said he was committed to Illinois for the duration of his contract.

“I signed a six-year contract. I’m not going anywhere,” Smith said. “This is the start of the third quarter of my career. This is where I want to finish up my football career. i don’t know what better commitment I can show to everyone that we’re going to be here. We’re here for the long haul.”

After a tumultuous period since Ron Zook was fired in 2011, the Illinois program is thirsting for change. Smith was treated like a savior on campus Monday. He received a standing ovation when he met the team in the morning and reportedly mobbed by students at the student union.

The players, who have endured a lot over their entire tenure at Illinois, were thrilled with the announcement.

“Excitement,” said defensive lineman Chunky Clements. “We’re excited and optimistic. We just want to see what’s going to happen. We’re ready to be coached again. We had good coaches before. But this is a great coach.”

The hiring of Smith capped a whirlwind period for Illinois. Cubit was stunningly fired on  Saturday. But he clearly has his man in mind. And he got him.

“It’s been a crazy 48 hours with everything,” quarterback Wes Lunt said. “As a team we had an idea he [Whitman] had a plan. And he delivered. We’re really excited. I remember watching Lovie with the Chicago Bears. The whole team is extremely excited about it.”