J. Thomas McNamara
Ends Five-year Run with Lovie Smith as Fighting Illini Leader
Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman announced today that Lovie Smith has been relieved of his duties as head football coach after five seasons at the helm of the Fighting Illini. Smith will not coach the Illini during its final game of the season.
“Lovie Smith led the Illinois football program with unquestioned integrity during his nearly five years of service,” said Whitman. “I have tremendous respect for Coach Smith and will always be grateful to him for providing a steady, experienced hand at a time when our program required stability. His unshakeable leadership, never more needed than during this pandemic, will be forever remembered.
“Nonetheless, based on extensive evaluation of the program’s current state and future outlook, I have concluded the program is not progressing at the rate we should expect at this advanced stage in Coach Smith’s tenure,” Whitman continued. “To achieve our competitive objectives, I believe new leadership of the football program is required. I will always look fondly on the time Lovie and I have spent together. I wish him and MaryAnne nothing but the best.”
Following Saturday’s 28-10 loss to Northwestern, in five seasons Smith compiled a 17-39 overall record and 10-33 record in the Big Ten, including a 2-5 mark in 2020. The Fighting Illini’s best finish under Smith was fourth place in the Big Ten West Division in 2019 after leading Illinois to two of the most historic wins in school history.
Smith took Illinois to the Redbox Bowl in 2019, the Illini’s first bowl in five years, after clinching a berth with a thrilling 37-34 victory at Michigan State. Illinois trailed the Spartans by 25 points in the first half, including a 31-10 deficit in the fourth quarter, before completing the greatest comeback in school history. His ‘signature win’ came three weeks earlier when Illinois defeated sixth-ranked Wisconsin after entering the game as a 30-point underdog.
He came to Illinois in 2016 after 11 seasons as head coach in the NFL, including nine seasons at the helm of the Chicago Bears and his final two years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He compiled an overall record of 89-87 in those 11 seasons, culminating with a Super Bowl XLI appearance following the 2006 season. Smith and Tony Dungy became the first two African-American head coaches to coach in the Super Bowl when they faced each other in Super Bowl XLI.
Beginning immediately, the athletic program will launch a national search to identify Coach Smith’s successor. Whitman will be available to the media today at 3:00 pm CT, and will not speak again publicly until the search process is completed.
Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith will conclude the season as the acting head coach.
Smith’s buyout is $2.6 million.
This does not come as a surprise after the way the Illini played Saturday against Northwestern, especially since Lovie not only is head coach, but also the defensive coordinator and the Wildcats ran all over the Illini.
I will have more on this developing story in a future print edition of the Decatur Tribune.