The University of Illinois hasn’t had a good go of things in football for awhile now. After the fiasco with former head coach Tim Beckman, Illinois hired in former interim HC Bill Cubit to a two-year extension. It, unfortunately, seemed like the days of the 2007 Rose Bowl team were long past for folks in Champaign.
This is what once was Illinois football.
However, during the past weekend, there had been inklings of something bigger developing out of Illinois’ AD office. Cubit had been fired by newly hired Athletic Director Josh Whitman and rumors swirled that former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith was set to be hired in his stead. My initial reaction was that the Fighting Illini weren’t bold enough to make such a strong move. This is a school that has slowly been swept under the Big Ten rug as in-state rival Northwestern has taken the spotlight in the Prairie State.
On Moday, Whitman announced the hire of Smith to a six-year, $21 million deal. This move strikes strong into the weak fabric of the Big Ten West and I really dig the power play of Whitman.
Hiring Smith does two things for the Illinois football program: 1) It immediately brings them recruiting power in the state of Illinois, and 2) brings in a guy who knows success at the highest level who can change the losing culture in Champaign. Smith will immediately make a difference in the local recruiting scene, especially in Chicago where the Illini can really harvest some great talent. His savvy at the NFL level also will bring in top-tier guys that want to get to the NFL and want to play for a guy who knows what it takes.
This hire in turn also changes the dynamic for the Big Ten West division, a division mind you that has had many schools going through upheaval with Iowa as the only real stable player at the moment.
With the raw nature of Wisconsin and Nebraska under new regimes, Illinois could easily sneak into top three contention if Smith is able to recruit the way that I expect. There is a sleeping giant in a man that has been slighted by two different NFL teams now and the rest of the Big Ten had better watch out.
This move is great for the conference and is building the foundation for the new wave of coaches in the Big Ten West to make a national impact and bring the Big Ten closer to the SEC’s power.
I fully expect that this move will do wonders for all involved, especially Smith himself. Great move by the Fighting Illini, now just don’t let your foot off the gas.