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Firing of Cubit, hiring of Smith show ugly side of Illinois

Can Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman make a basketball hire that goes over as well as his football hiring of Lovie Smith? | Heather coit/AP

Illinois is the flagship university of our state, a proud, usually outstanding school that nevertheless rises and falls with the fate of its leadership, mission, ethics and — yep — finances.

So when the school hires a new athletic director — former Illini football player Josh Whitman  — and the first thing the AD does is fire the football coach, who recently signed a two-year contract with the school for $2.4 million, we Illinois residents should take notice.

We’re reminded that our state is virtually bankrupt, and funds for professors and school amenities are drying up, yet here is the tail of a big-time sports program wagging the dog. Not only must fired coach Bill Cubit be paid (unless he gets another coaching job), but Whitman almost immediately hired former Bears coach Lovie Smith to the tune of six years for a guaranteed $21 million.

That’s NFL money. Of course, Illini boosters and fat cats will pay most of Smith’s salary. That’s the secret money vault.

But what does the mere existence of the Smith deal say about higher education and ethics at the loftiest public educational franchise in Illinois?

I’ll help you out.

It says, This is the way we roll, folks. Winners win, losers take a hike. Screw promises, handshakes, integrity, anything in between.  Nobody stops us but the law.

In a sense, this is behavior we should expect from a conference that calls itself the Big Ten, yet contains 14 teams, many of which have as much in common as chickens and donkeys. Ethics start at the base level. If you can call Rutgers and Nebraska best geographic pals, then why not put the lie to any code of honor?

With Illini fans whooping it up so loudly over the big Lovie signing — Hey, yahoos, anybody wonder how much an NFL coach not named Jim Harbaugh will enjoy recruiting? —there has been almost no thought given to the brief yet promised regime of Cubit or the collateral damage his firing caused.

After all, in a conference with Michigan’s Harbaugh and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer making ultra-millions and changing the mindset from anything resembling amateur sport to that of corporate stock maximization, who but losers even care about, well, losers?

“The school chancellor, the president, they’re supposed to be the ones representing integrity at the university,’’ Cubit said in an interview Friday. “I can’t believe they’re treating people like this. There are no rules. None.’’

The Illinois athletic department was in a scandal-laden mess, and people have been fired and hired willy-nilly in the last half-year. Cubit himself was filling in for former coach Tim Beckman. That Cubit was signed to a contract by clueless fill-ins before Whitman himself was hired was in itself reckless. Or, if we give fools the benefit of the doubt, just shortsighted.

Let’s not even argue the possible football success of Smith at Illinois — though it’s tempting to remind folks he last coached in college two decades ago and was fired from his last two NFL teams. Let’s think about the splatter effect of Illinois’ decision. Let’s think about real people, real cynicism.

“When Whitman told me, ‘I’m letting you go,’ I was so shocked, it didn’t really register,’’ Cubit said. “Then the first thing I thought of was the assistants.’’

Those are the nine coaches Cubit hired, young men with families who, in most cases, moved to Champaign from other cities and took out leases on homes and apartments, wives and children in tow.

“They all had jobs,’’ Cubit said sadly. He then added, “And I feel bad for the kids.’’

Those would be the 24 high school players who agreed to play for Cubit. Though people say athletes always should choose their schools for educational reasons, that’s naive and unfair. The coach who recruited you is the one who wants you. He can make your world live or die. New coaches distrust the players they’ve inherited. Sometimes they despise them.

So if you wonder why coaches become mercenaries, me-firsters, remember this Illini purge.

“There are no jobs available now,’’ Cubit said. “Zero.’’ That’s because the firings happened so late in the coach-hiring cycle.

“Coaching is a roller coaster, and this is the downside,’’ career vet Jeff Hecklinski, a former Illinois QB, said stoically. “It forces out those who don’t really want to coach.’’

Former Missouri center A.J. Ricker, another just-hired assistant who moved to Champaign in February, rented a house for a year and is now unemployed, said, “I jokingly told Lovie, ‘I got cut twice by the Bears when you were there. Now it’s three times.’ ’’

More somberly he added, ‘‘I’ve gotta see everything in writing now. A handshake has lost its luster.’’

Especially in Illinois.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com