CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Digging out from a scandal and weary of having its football program mired near the bottom of the Big Ten, Illinois made a splash Monday by hiring former Bucs coach Lovie Smith to lead the Illini.
The move came two days after athletic director Josh Whitman, in his first official day on the job, fired Bill Cubit after one season. He turned to Smith, who took the Chicago Bears to the 2006 Super Bowl and was fired as Tampa Bay's coach in January.
Smith said he intends to make the Illini a power in the Big Ten, home to such big-name coaches as Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh.
"It's pretty simple," Smith said during a news conference. "We just want to play winning football. I want to see the time come when our stadium is full, when people are excited about what we're doing and leaving the games with a big smile on their face."
Smith went 8-24 in two years with the Bucs and was fired three days after the 2015 regular season.
"Well, a coach is a coach. And as far as what happened down in Tampa, you know, when you've been in this business as long as I have, I think we all end up where we belong," Smith said. "And to me, where we belong by me signing a six-year contract (with Illinois) says where we think we should be.
"As far as Tampa Bay, you just have to kind of take it. You know, there's a coach (Tony Dungy) going in the Hall of Fame this summer that was also fired by the Buccaneers, so you just take it and move on.''
This is the first college head coaching job for Smith, 58, and his first college job since he left Ohio State in 1995. He faces a daunting task: Illinois has had six losing seasons in eight years, and the program is recovering from allegations of player abuse that led to the school to fire coach Tim Beckman a week before last season started.
Smith agreed to a six-year contract worth $21 million, including $2 million per year for the first two seasons.
Whitman said hiring a coach of Smith's stature was a first step, one he said former Illinois coach and Smith assistant Ron Turner helped set up by reaching out to Smith. The Florida International coach was fired by Smith when Smith led the Bears.
Whitman said Smith should not have a problem transitioning back to college football.
"Lovie's going to be a great recruiter," he said. "There's not a living room in America that's not going to open up their doors to Lovie Smith and his coaching staff."
Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.