CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith, an NFL head coach for 11 seasons with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will soon be introduced as the new head football coach at the University of Illinois.
Multiple sources confirmed that Smith is the choice to lead the Illini. Ryan Baker of WBBM television in Chicago was the first to confirm.
An announcement is expected, perhaps as early as Monday.
New athletics director Josh Whitman wasted little time in his first day on the job. On Saturday morning he announced he was retaining John Groce as head men’s basketball coach, then dropped a bombshell by dismissing Bill Cubit as the head football coach.
Whitman delivered the news in person Saturday morning during a 20-minute meeting in Cubit’s office. He also told Cubit that his son, offensive coordinator Ryan Cubit, was being let go.
Whitman met with the current Illini players at 2 p.m. and spoke at a news conference at 3 p.m. By the time that news conference was over, during which Whitman threw out no names but said “we have a plan” for finding the next coach, Lovie Smith’s name was ricocheting through social media and internet sources.
Smith, 57, was head coach with the Bears for nine seasons and had an 81-63 record that included three NFL North championships and an appearance in the 2007 Super Bowl.
He lasted just two seasons at Tampa Bay and was fired after an 8-24 record.
He was also the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams when the Rams went to the Super Bowl in 2002.
Smith last coached in college in 1995, when he was a defensive assistant at Ohio State.
Smith is a native of Texas and his former scouting director, Greg Gabriel, Tweeted that he sees Smith as a college head coach who will be able to attract elite talent.
“Having spent eight years with Lovie, don’t underestimate his ability to recruit,” Gabriel said. “He will be able to compete for the top kids.”
Smith is likely to bring his two sons to the coaching staff. Mikal Smith was coaching safeties for his father at Tampa Bay. Miles Smith was an offensive intern. A third son, Matthew Smith, is Lovie Smith’s agent.
Illinois’ current defensive coordinator, Mike Phair, came to the Illini last season after working for Smith with the Buccaneers.
Whitman said the coaching change means the start of spring practice will be delayed, probably two weeks. And the spring game, which had been scheduled for April 16, will be moved to a later date.
Whitman said Cubit’s unusual two-year contract made it difficult to project long-term success. And he didn’t feel strongly enough to consider an extension. Thus the reason to dismiss Cubit and start now on a long-range option.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, long before I knew I’d be selected to this position,” Whitman said. “I didn’t know until recently this was the answer but I knew it was a possible answer.”
Whitman said he involved others in the administration with this plan within the last week.
Cubit was named interim head coach on Aug. 28, when former AD Mike Thomas fired Tim Beckman amid an investigation relating to injury reporting and student-athlete medical treatment. Cubit led Illinois to a 5-7 record in 2015, including 2-6 in the Big Ten. Cubit had the interim tag removed form his title on Nov. 29 when he was given a two-year contract.
The university said Cubit will receive the remaining balance of payment due for the upcoming season, approximately $985,000. He will be paid approximately $361,000 for the remainder of his contract.
Details of Smith’s contract were not available, although Whitman said he has been working with the president, chancellor and board of trustees to let them know they’ll be exploring new financial ground.
“There are always financial restraints and every decision we make has financial implications,” Whitman said. “That said, I’m very grateful to our chancellor, board and president. We’re all prepared to support this new coach in a way we have not in the past.”