Rozner: With Lovie Smith, Illini would be relevant

Don't fear, Illini fans, Rex is not your quarterback.

Other than that, all bets are off.

An odd day that began with new athletic director Josh Whitman firing Illinois football coach Bill Cubit, became downright fascinating when CBS' Ryan Baker broke the news Saturday afternoon that Lovie Smith is expected to take over in Champaign.

It would be Smith's first work in the college ranks in 20 years and a huge step down for the 57-year-old coach, who's collected about $50 million coaching in the professional ranks.

How he got talked into taking a job that's been irrelevant for the better part of a decade, and much longer than that if you listen to angry Illinois fans, will be an intriguing story, but you can't argue that Illini football is irrelevant now.

Smith would bring a huge amount of positive attention to a program and athletic department that desperately needs it, but whether he can match recruiting or wits with the likes of Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh is an entirely different story.

For the large segment of Bears fans who hoped never to hear from Smith again so close to home, seeing him in blue and orange might bring back unpleasant memories, but Whitman's concern is not with them.

On his first day on the job, he wanted to make a statement to Illini backers and boosters that there's a new sheriff in town, and he's done that by ensuring a third head football coach in the last eight months.

And while that ends the circus created by Mike Thomas and Tim Beckman - who was fired a week before the 2015 season began - Smith would bring stability, reputation and respect to a program that's been in total free fall.

Considering how difficult it's been to get anyone credible to take the job, this would be a huge hire for Illinois football.

Still, it's stunning that he wants to get back on the recruiting trail or that he wants to deal with regulations presented by the house of cards known as the NCAA, but Smith will also have to show some humility along the way, and that's never been a strong suit of the former Bears boss.

He can't stomp his feet and get immediate satisfaction, like when he fired Ron Rivera in a massive power play just two weeks after his only appearance in the Super Bowl.

"You should trust me as a head football coach to put us in the best position to win football games," Smith said in 2007, dismissing all who wondered why he dumped Rivera. "It's as simple as that."

Smith placed friend Bob Babich in the job, only to demote him a couple years later, and the Bears never returned to the Super Bowl. Smith has since been fired by NFL owners twice and Rivera just took the Panthers to the Super Bowl.

After being fired by the Jags as defensive coordinator in January, Babich went to San Diego as linebackers coach. Hey, maybe he's got a special "Lovie Smith Clause" in his contract, and he can rejoin his pal at Illinois.

At the very least, no one knows more about being a No. 1 wide receiver than Devin Hester, so Smith ought to get Hester on the phone quickly.

In fairness, it takes most college coaches several years to put a system in place and bring in the talent necessary to be successful. If Smith sticks around that long, he might just elevate Illinois football to a place that is something less than a campus humiliation.

In the meantime, Illinois football is no longer irrelevant.

That's something, anyway.

• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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