Illinois hires Lovie Smith as coach

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Lovie Smith is returning to the state of Illinois to join the Fighting Illini as their new coach.

Illinois announced that it has given Smith a six-year, $21 million deal to run its football program. It will be Smith's first head-coaching job at the college level. He will be paid $2 million a year in each of his first two seasons.

"[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's pretty simple," Smith said Monday at his introductory news conference. "We just want to play winning football. I want to see the time come when our stadium is full, when people are excited about what we're doing and leaving the games with a big smile on their face."

Smith is Illinois' first black head football coach. The university has sometimes been criticized by state lawmakers and others for not hiring a black coach to run its football or men's basketball programs.

Illinois is hiring Garrick McGee as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, a source told ESPN. McGee has been Louisville's offensive coordinator since 2014. He previously served as head coach at UAB and had been with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino at Arkansas from 2008 to 2011.

Smith helped recruit McGee to Arizona State as a quarterback when Smith served as an ASU assistant. This will mark McGee's second stint as a Big Ten offensive coordinator after holding the title at Northwestern in 2006 and 2007.

"I know it was a difficult decision for him because he's had such a close relationship with Lovie Smith, and he feels like this is the right move for him," Petrino said in a statement. "I wish him nothing but success and I am grateful for his dedication through the years."

San Francisco 49ers linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson will be the defensive coordinator at Illinois, a source told ESPN's Brett McMurphy.

Nickerson joined the 49ers staff two months ago after serving the previous two seasons as linebackers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Smith. Nickerson had a 16-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Green Bay Packers.

Whitman preceded the Smith hiring announcement by tweeting a pair of photos of him and the new coach.

"Naming Lovie Smith as the Illinois head football coach is the first step in taking this program to a place of national prominence," Whitman said in a statement.

Smith has been the coach of theChicago Bears (2004-12) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014-15). The Buccaneers fired Smith in January after he posted an 8-24 record in two seasons.The defensive-minded Smith took the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006, in Chicago's first appearance since 1985.Smith ranks third on the Bears' wins list, behind George Halas and Mike Ditka.

The 57-year-old Smith most recently coached in college as a defensive assistant with Ohio Statein 1995. He also has worked with Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona State, Wisconsin and Tulsa.

Smith is the fifth active Football Bowl Subdivision coach with previous experience as an NFL coach. He joins Nick Saban (Alabama), Jim Mora (UCLA), Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) and Mike Riley (Nebraska).

"Lovie's going to be a great recruiter," Whitman said. "There's not a living room in America that's not going to open up their doors to Lovie Smith and his coaching staff."

"I think a lot of people looked up to him" from his Bears' tenure, returning starting quarterbackWes Luntsaid. "Just to have him as a head coach is kind of surreal."

On Saturday, Illinois fired coach Bill Cubiton Whitman's first day as athletic director. After coaching the team to a 5-7 record as an interim coach last season, Cubit had been signed to a two-year contract Nov. 29. Whitman made the move to dismiss Cubit and said immediate stability was needed for a program that has not had a winning season since 2011.

"The timing for this move was extremely tight, and we needed to move quickly," Whitman said in the statement. "A coach of Lovie's caliber would not have been available to us if we had waited until after the 2016 season."

Smith's staff is quickly taking shape. Mike Phair, who had been hired by Cubit, is expected to stay on as defensive line coach. Luke Butkus is reportedly returning as offensive line coach.

It is not clear how the firing of Cubit or hiring of Smith will affect the recruiting class Cubit assembled this year. The Illini return key pieces: Lunt, a group of receivers that could be among the best in the Big Ten and what could be a deep group of running backs. However, Illinois will be thin at a number of positions on defense.

The turnaround won't be easy in Champaign, as the Illini have recorded losing seasons in six of the past eight years. What's more, the school is still dealing with the fallout of abuse allegations that led to the dismissal of Cubit's predecessor, Tim Beckman.

ESPN staff writer Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Stats & Information and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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