clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Examining Lovie Smith's coaching career

The new Illinois head coach took a long and winding path to Champaign.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Lovie Smith was named the 25th head football coach in Illinois history yesterday. While he's revered by many, his road to the collegiate game has been a long and sometimes unclear one. Below I'll examine all the stops he's made along the way and how his previous jobs could impact his time in Champaign.

Before transitioning to the coaching game, Smith was a stand-out defensive end in high school. He earned Texas all-state honors three years in a row and helped lead his team to three consecutive state championships from 1973 to 1975, including his senior season when the defense he was apart of gave up only 15 points (!!) all season. Smith was offered a scholarship at the University of Tulsa and became a two-time All-American linebacker. He helped lead the Golden Hurricanes to a 9-2 record in 1978.

Once he graduated college, he immediately entered into the coaching game. Smith was hired as the defensive coordinator for his alma mater, Big Sandy High School in Texas, in 1980. He also coached defensive backs and wide receivers there. Continuing his track back through his alma maters, Smith then moved up to the collegiate level and was the linebacking coach at Tulsa for four years. He then made his way through Wisconsin, Arizona State, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio State over the next decade as a linebackers and/or defensive backs coach.

In 1996, after thirteen years coaching college athletes, Smith was offered the job as the linebacking coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by head coach Tony Dungy. This is where Lovie helped develop the original "Tampa 2 defense" which he is known for today. After five years of coaching in Tampa, the head coach of the Rams, Mike Martz, liked what he saw in Smith and hired him away to St. Louis. The 2001 Rams had a spectacular season defensively and won the NFC Championship before ultimately losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl 36.

Having seen the potential of Lovie's defensive schemes in multiple NFL venues, the Chicago Bears offered him the head coaching job in 2004 following the firing of Dick Jauron. Smith accepted the offer and remained in the Windy City for nine seasons. Some of his most memorable moments at the helm of the Bears include his NFL Coach of the Year Award in 2005, his bold statement that "Rex (Grossman) is our quarterback" after the veteran began to struggle in 2006, and of course the team's Super Bowl appearance in 2007 against the Indianapolis Colts and former-boss Tony Dungy.

His career in Chicago came to an anti-climatic finish, however; in 2011 the Bears lost five straight games to fall out of the playoff picture, and in 2012 they lost five of their last eight games to miss out on the postseason yet again. On New Year's Day of 2013 Smith was fired as the Bears' head coach. He took a year off from football following his dismissal from Chicago, and some questioned whether he'd ever return to the head coaching game. But nearly a calendar year later, Smith agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to become their tenth head coach. He didn't get off to a good start, however. There was a lot of scrutiny surrounding his selection of Jameis Winston at quarterback, and while the young QB did seem to mature under Smith, the team never got off the ground. In his first two seasons at the helm of the Bucs he posted an 8-24 overall record, and it was announced on January 6th of 2016 that he would be released of his duties.

Then, after twenty years away from college football, it was announced yesterday that new Illini AD Josh Whitman was going to hire Lovie as head coach of the Fighting Illini. Some were surprised by this move, claiming that Smith wouldn't be able to successfully recruit and grasp the attention of 18-22 year olds. But the move was met with overwhelming optimism from within the Champaign-Urbana community, so much so that both the ticket website and the I-Fund donations website crashed once the news of Whitman's hire got out.

Lovie Smith's path to the University of Illinois has been a long and sometimes ambiguous one. Having been fired from two NFL jobs in the past decade, many questioned whether or not he would ever return to the head coaching game. But here he is, Illini fans. The first African-American football coach in Illinois history. The calm but astute leader that will help revitalize a college football program that's been dead for decades. Whether you like it or not, Lovie Smith is here to stay. And his past coaching experiences will help him lead the Illini football team to greatness.