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Illinois fires Lovie Smith

The Lovie Era is over.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

As a wise coach once said, divorce is sometimes good.

Josh Whitman promised wins. Lovie didn’t deliver.

And now? He’s gone.

Illinois fired head coach Lovie Smith on Sunday morning after five dismal seasons in Champaign.

“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 said. “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 [Smith’s wife] MaryAnne nothing but the best.”

Offensive coordinator Rod Smith will finish the season as the team’s head coach.

How did this start?

Remember March 5, 2016? Josh Whitman, on his first day on the job, fired Bill Cubit, who had the interim title removed just a few months before when an interim chancellor (Barbara Wilson) and interim athletic director (Paul Kowalczyk) made him the permanent head football coach.

And Whitman knew who he wanted.

By March 7, Smith was in the press box in Memorial Stadium taking photos with Whitman as he was named the Illini’s 27th head coach in team history — and the first African-American to be named head coach of either Illinois Football or Men’s Basketball.

Smith, just months removed from being fired after two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, signed a 6-year, $21 million contract. In Tampa, Smith replaced Greg Schiano, but was canned after a pedestrian 8-24 record.

In the 48 hours following the announcement of the hire, the University sold more than 2,000 new season tickets and more than 400 new student season tickets.

Of course, everyone knew Lovie, 62, as the Bears head coach who led them to the Super Bowl, despite having Rex Grossman serve as his quarterback. The third-longest tenured coach in team history, only Mike Ditka and George Halas coached the Bears for a longer stretch than Smith’s nine years. Some still say he should have never been fired following the 2012 season, where the Bears finished third in the NFC North, despite having a 10-6 record.

Lovie also brought a sense of stability and morality to the program, serving as the first African-American head coach in Super Bowl history — the Bears defeated the Saints in the early Championship Game; Tony Dungy joined him after the Colts won hours later — and being a known figure in the state of Illinois.

Expectations were high.

Here’s some of the reaction from this very site when Smith was hired.

From former Site Manager Jim Vainisi:

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: Lovie Smith is an unquestionably massive upgrade for Illinois. If you’re an Illini fan that seriously thinks Bill Cubit is/was a better option, then I really don’t know what to tell you. I mean, Smith reached a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman as his quarterback -- that’s incredible!

The hiring of Smith is also significant because he’s the first African-American to be named head coach of a revenue sport (basketball or football) at Illinois. This is a huge moment for a campus community that’s often been the target of criticism due to its lack of diversity.

From Eliot Sill:

Somehow we’re already here. Lovie Smith, Illinois football coach. Assuming yesterday was real life, we saw athletic director Josh Whitman, in his first day on the job, fire Bill Cubit and land a needle-moving replacement in former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith. It was an unprecedented, unbelievable first day. Remember March 5, 2016. It was the day Josh Whitman walked into the office for the first time, made a beeline for “the button,” and hit it with a hammer.

Official word can’t come soon enough. Spring football can’t come soon enough. Recruiting season can’t come soon enough. Football season can’t come soon enough. Smith’s arrival will send a surge of energy through Illinois football that hasn’t been felt in years. Illini fans have gotten by with fantasies about what could become of their program. Whitman needed only a few hours to build something real worth thinking about.

Even former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy agreed it was a home-run hire for Whitman and the Illini.

“This is outstanding for the University of Illinois. If anyone asked me to identify someone from the NFL who would be great at coaching college football it would be Lovie Smith. He not only brings football expertise, but will help young men grow and have their best interest at heart. He is the type of coach I would want my sons to play for if they were playing college football. As an alum of the University of Minnesota, I’m not thrilled, but I’m happy for Illinois. This is a sensational hire. He’s going to have moms and dads very excited to have their sons play for him and grow as people.”

How’d it get this bad then?

Stick with The Champaign Room for more coverage of Smith’s fire, why it happened, and where Illinois goes from here, starting with who the 28th head coach will be.