TAMPA — It looks like Lovie Smith won't need to take a year off from coaching this time around.
The former Bucs coach, fired in January after an 8-24 record in two seasons at Tampa Bay, is expected to be named the new head coach at Illinois, according to multiple reports.
Smith, 57, hasn't coached in college since 1995 but spent 13 years coaching at six different schools before the Bucs hired him as an assistant 20 years ago.
It's good news for Smith but also for the Bucs — they were due to pay him $10 million over the next two years as part of the firing, but his contract has "offset" language that calls for the team to be reimbursed for any salary he earns from other jobs. It's reasonable to think the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, would get half of that $10 million back, an unexpected bonus this late in the football hiring season.
On his first day on the job, new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman fired new coach Bill Cubit. Whitman said the decision was based on "providing stability," according to a news release.
Within hours of that news, headlines connected Smith to the job.
Smith's name is well-known in the state, having been the Chicago Bears' coach from 2004-12, with an 81-63 record and a Super Bowl appearance in the 2006 season. After the Bears fired him, Smith took a year off from coaching before the Bucs hired him to replace the fired Greg Schiano.
Smith's expected hiring was first reported by WBBM-TV in Chicago, then by foxsports.com. Returning to head coaching should also allow Smith to work with two of his sons, Mikal and Miles, who were on his Bucs staff. Most of Smith's staff in Tampa either stayed on as part of Dirk Koetter's new Bucs staff or found other jobs as assistants around the NFL.
The strongest connection from Whitman to Smith is coach Ron Turner, who coached Whitman at Illinois and later spent five years on Smith's staff in Chicago. Smith might keep Illinois' defensive coordinator, Mike Phair, who was his assistant defensive line coach with the Bucs in 2014.
Winning at Illinois in the talented Big Ten conference won't be easy but relative success there won't take a 10-win season, either. The Fighting Illini has won eight or more games just once in the past 14 seasons and has just three bowl victories since 1994. Cubit was the interim coach last season and was given a two-year contract just months ago. He was 5-7 in his one season.
Smith likely will return to Tampa in his new job as well — Illinois is scheduled to play USF at Raymond James Stadium in September 2017.
Getting some of Smith's salary back isn't the only good news for the Bucs: New offensive coordinator Todd Monken, hired away from Southern Mississippi in late January, is an Illinois native who was initially mentioned as a potential candidate for the job.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.