Lovie Smith was introduced in March 2016 as the coach who would turn around the Illinois football program after years of mediocrity and embarrassment.
After five seasons, the Illini still are spinning their wheels, and without seeing significant progress under Smith, the university announced Sunday that it has cut ties with him.
Smith never had a winning season in Champaign, going 17-39 overall and 10-33 in the Big Ten. A 28-10 loss to Northwestern on Saturday ensured the Illini (2-5) would finish with another losing season with one more game to be played — a Saturday date with Penn State in a Big Ten crossover game. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith will be the interim head coach for that game.
“Lovie Smith led the Illinois football program with unquestioned integrity during his nearly five years of service,” athletic director Josh Whitman said in a statement. “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 unshakable 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. To achieve our competitive objectives, I believe new leadership of the football program is required.”
Smith’s initial lucrative contract was extended through 2023 after the 2018 season, but his buyout decreased dramatically year by year. When hired, he received a six-year contract that would have required a $12 million buyout in 2018.
His base compensation remained at $4 million this season, but his buyout for 2020 if fired without cause is $2 million.
Because of revenue losses at the university due to COVID-19, Smith — along with men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood and Whitman — took a six-month 10% salary reduction.
Illinois was Smith’s first college head coaching job and his return to college football after a 21-year absence following assistant coaching stints at six schools early in his career.
He coached in the NFL for 20 years, including nine as head coach of the Chicago Bears, whom he led to the Super Bowl after the 2006 season. He went 81-63 with three division titles with the Bears, who fired him after a 10-6 season in 2012. He went on to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014-15, going 8-24.
Smith faced a tough task at Illinois that included rebuilding from a scandal under previous coach Tim Beckman, who was accused of forcing injured players to compete. Smith fielded a roster full of freshmen and sophomores in his first two seasons as he worked to recruit more talented players.
Illinois went 6-7 last season, culminating in the team’s first bowl game appearance since 2014. The Illini staged upsets against Wisconsin and Michigan State last season.
It was Smith’s best season, but Illinois only finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten West.
The Illini couldn’t retain momentum despite Smith having his most experienced and skilled squad in Champaign.
Now, Illinois will be making its third football hire in nine years.