CHICAGO — Since being hired as Illinois coach in March, Lovie Smith has been on a campaign to help sell the program and re-engage fans who became disillusioned after years of losing.
"You are an ambassador for the university. And why wouldn't you want to be?" Smith, the former Bears and Bucs coach, said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days. "It has a lot to offer. … Every function we've been to — and we've been through a lot — have been that way. It's the same message from our players: 'Coach, what do we need to do?' For our fans, the message is, 'Come back.'
"There's nothing like student excitement in Memorial Stadium. We need their energy in the stadium wearing orange and blue. University of Illinois bumper stickers. Whatever it is, let people know who you believe in. Don't worry about what's happened in the past. It's about today."
Illinois fans are eager to move on from a past that includes four or fewer Big Ten wins every year since the 2007 Rose Bowl season, allegations of player mistreatment by coach Tim Beckman that led to his firing and a 5-7, 2-6 Big Ten mark last season.
Smith passed the test at Media Days by presenting a solid message, unlike Beckman, who notoriously flubbed the event by coming up with unusual analogies and annually giving his mom a birthday shout-out.
Bringing respectability to the program is just one important goal for the Illini. More will come with victories.
"(When) you never lost a game at a place, normally it's pretty positive," Smith said.
Also at Big Ten media day, commissioner Jim Delany said he does not envision the Rose Bowl abandoning its New Year's Day spot in order to accommodate the College Football Playoff semifinals. He said there might be "some movement from the bowls" but not by the Rose Bowl.
"I realize the challenge," Delany said. "There may be changes in the offing, but I wouldn't expect those changes to impact the Rose Bowl."
BASKETBALL: Florida center Gorjok Gak will not be eligible to play as a freshman next season. The Gators announced that the NCAA cleared Gak for enrollment this fall but denied his eligibility for the season. … Former Georgia Tech player Glen Rice Jr. was arrested and taken to the DeKalb County (Ga.) jail Monday, charged with felony robbery and aggravated battery. His father, Glen Rice, is an ex-NBA player.