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Love is in the air as Lovie Smith takes over at Illinois

New Illinois football coach Lovie Smith (left) stands with athletic director Josh Whitman.

There’s nothing more torrid than the athletic director-football coach courtship.

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman spoke with Lovie Smith for the first time two weeks ago and finally met him in person Thursday. This is what he said Monday about his new head football coach:

“He is a man of highest integrity. He is a leader of men, someone who will come in here and who will care about our 100, 105 student-athletes. He’ll develop those individual relationships. He’ll be a mentor. He’ll be a teacher. He’ll be a coach.’’

Whitman also called Smith an “incredible person.’’ Can you remember walking away from a first meeting with anyone and thinking such lofty thoughts? That the person had, not just integrity, but the highest integrity? That he was a potential leader of men? Most of us just feel lucky when our newest acquaintance doesn’t have bad breath.

But this is big-time college sports, where everyone involved seems to feel everything to a more intense degree. And don’t forget, Whitman had to sell Lovie to a fan base desperate for some good news. Monday’s press conference wasn’t good news; it was a beatification.

I’ll say this, Lovie was more animated and enthused than I ever saw him in his nine seasons with the Bears.

“At the University of Illinois, I had the chance to see the Fighting Illini marching band,’’ he said Monday. “Puts chills up your body listening to them.’’

As I said, no one falls in love like these college folks.

Smith didn’t let down us long-time Lovie observers. He asked players to trust his plan. He said he was at the start of the third quarter of his coaching career.

Now all he needs to do is get good football players to come to Illinois. And he’ll go from there.