Lovie Smith is making history again.
In 2007, he became the first black head coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl when he took the Chicago Bears to the promised land just four hours before Tony Dungy accomplished the same feat with the Indianapolis Colts.
(Photo Credit: tampabay.com)
Now Smith is returning to the state of Illinois and joining the Fighting Illini as their new head football coach. The school will introduce him in a news conference at 3 p.m. ET.
Smith has always managed to quietly and effectively shatter racial barriers without rabble-rousing at a podium, or even lifting his voice above a civil whisper.
He will be Illinois' first black head coach in football or men's basketball. Charlie Strong and Shaka Smart finally made it to the SEC dinner table at the school formerly known as The Texas University Plantation. Now Smith has been tabbed to push Illinois into the 21st century -- a university that has been criticized by state lawmakers and other policy observers for never hiring a black coach to run either program.
The former NFL Coach of the Year in 2005 takes over a struggling program that has produced just one 10-win season (Ron Zook 2001) since 1989.
Smith was surprisingly fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two days after Black Monday, just two seasons after joining the Bucs in 2014, and just one season into the Jameis Winston Era. Smith did have a losing record of 8-24, including a 6-10 performance this season, but the team was making strides and he had just gotten his hands on a QB that has star written all over him.
Reports say he was let go because Tampa Bay didn't want to lose Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter, who supposedly had a better relationship with Winston and was attracting enemy interest as a head coaching candidate.
Illinois has padded Smith's pockets with a six-year, $21 million deal and he joins a football conference rich with power names and paychecks. The sidelines of Big Ten games will truly be a clash of the titans. In 2015, the Big Ten had four coaches who were in the top 10 highest paid coaches in all of college football.
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio was No. 2 ($5,636,145). Ohio State’s Urban Meyer was No. 6 ($4,536,640), Penn State’s James Franklin No. 8 ($4,300,000) and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz placed ninth ($4,075,000). Let's not forget the King of Swing, Jim Harbaugh, who raised the bar in the recruiting game this winter.
Usually, it's college coaches with no NFL experience attempting to make that formidable leap to the next level. However, after years of surviving in the NFL’s thankless, pressure-filled and biased coaching carousel, this will be Smith's first head-coaching job at the NCAA level. Some see it as a step down, but Smith sees it as a change of pace.
"[Athletic director] Josh [Whitman] approached me about this possibility, and I immediately seized on the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the young men who are part of the program today and in the future," Smith said in a statement. "I take this responsibility very seriously and can't wait to get a staff in place to start our move to make Illinois a contender for Big Ten titles."
It will also be a refreshing shift from the daily rigors and win-now philosophy of the NFL. Lovie is a proven football guy, who has the chance to leave his imprint on a program and shape it to his liking, rather than having to acquiesce to ownership and high-paid prima donnas.
He can truly utilize his greatest gift, which is character-building and teaching. Recruiting should pick up for Illinois as well as they have a leader who is dignified, pro-proven and disciplined with a reputation beyond reproach.
(Photo Credit: tampabay.com)
While it’s a perplexing and somewhat sad moment for some football fans, because Smith has proved his ability to coach at the NFL level, this move doesn’t close the door to an NFL return. Pete Carroll had it rough in his early years with the Jets and Patriots. Despite winning the AFC East title in '97, he was fired after missing the playoffs in 1999 and retreated to college where he rebuilt the lauded USC program into a national powerhouse.
Carroll's team won a then school-record 34 straight games from 2003 to 2005. Then in 2010, he returned to the NFL, eventually drafted Russell Wilson and has won a Super Bowl while appearing in two straight.
Lovie can do the same thing. Carroll’s time at USC was successful, controversial and did a lot to resuscitate his coaching career. He returned to the NFL with more respect than before he left.
Lovie has never lacked integrity, class or accomplishment. However, building Illinois into a powerhouse in the mighty Big Ten would definitely go along way towards accelerating his return to the NFL, if that's what he truly wants.