As new Illinois football coach Lovie Smith weaved through a thick crowd of supporters after an impressive introductory news conference, a student reached out his hand with hope.
Much to the kid's delight, Smith gripped it firmly.
"Oh, my God, Lovie Smith shook my hand!" freshman Matt Hogan said, flabbergasted.
That's the kind of gusto Smith's rock-star-like arrival generated Monday on a campus suddenly filled with confidence seldom associated with the Illinois football program. The glass isn't just half full, as Smith views everything in life; it's overflowing with enthusiasm.
A new day for Illinois athletics began at Memorial Stadium, where players gave Smith a standing ovation after athletic director Josh Whitman introduced their new coach.
"Everybody's face was like, wow, it's time to start winning," defensive lineman Chunky Clements said. "I'll always remember that."
So will Whitman, whose popularity threatened to peak during a historic first week as AD.
"As long as I do this, I'll never forget the feeling in that room and the smiles on those guys' faces," Whitman said.
The rare mix of adulation and awe carried over to the Illinois Student Union, where an impromptu pep rally put Smith in the middle of hundreds of adoring students taking selfies with him. Lovie's likeness appeared everywhere, from the Illinois Field scoreboard to pictures of the smiling coach in Illini garb all over Twitter — Smith's next frontier.
When Smith finally stepped in front of the Big Ten Network cameras in the afternoon, the Illini backers in the packed room applauded a man at peace making his first public comments since the Bucs fired him Jan. 7.
"As far as what happened down in Tampa, when you coach as long as I've coached, we all end up where we belong," Smith said. "To me, this is where we belong. Me leaving there gave me this great opportunity to really have an impact on young men's lives."
Smith won the news conference by two touchdowns, an outcome not insignificant to recruits paying attention to Illinois football again. Whether getting fired twice in the past three years humbled Smith or returning to the state where his family feels most comfortable relaxed him, this was the best of Lovie.
This was Smith showing the public what so many players see in private, the soft-talking Texan oozing character and accountability. This was the Smith presence nobody should discount working in recruits' living rooms. This was a likable 57-year-old sounding secure in everything he stands for as a football coach yet self-deprecating enough to poke fun at his reputation for not being social-media savvy.
"I think it's a misnomer that I'm some old guy who doesn't know what's going on," Smith cracked.
Flanked by his wife, MaryAnne, and a large family contingent that included three grandchildren, Smith looked fit and rested after two months of reflection in Florida. He dazzled the audience in a sharp blue suit and orange striped tie — which was still in his closet from his Bears days.
"George Halas had a good plan giving the Chicago Bears and the University of Illinois the same colors," Smith kidded.
As for the job, Smith outlined goals as simple as he likes to keep things: Have players graduate and play winning football. Smith needs to lure a talented staff with competitive salaries Whitman promised were available and make recruiting inroads in places his name still resonates, such as Chicago and Florida. He predictably committed to playing defense with his signature four-man front.
He invoked the names of Illini legends Halas, Dick Butkus and Red Grange — who also were Bears icons — and admitted feeling chills upon hearing the Illini marching band. With pride, Smith beamed about becoming the university's first African-American head football coach.
"I didn't have to do anything for two more years, (but) this is something I wanted to do," said Smith, referencing the $10 million remaining on his Buccaneers contract. "We've lived in the state of Illinois as long as any other place. It is special. . . . I feel like my state university was calling."
Answering that call was easy for Smith. Now the hard part begins.
— Chicago Tribune (TNS)