TAMPA — Lovie Smith insists it's a business trip, a chance for his Illinois football team to go 3-0. The Fighting Illini had three wins all of last season, Smith's first as head coach in Champaign.
When Smith takes his team into Raymond James Stadium on Friday night to face No. 22 USF on national TV, it represents his return to Tampa as a head coach after being fired by the Bucs shortly after the 2015 season. And I bet it matters to him, whether he says it or not. He says not.
Smith will be back, just two days before the Bucs open their delayed season against the Bears — two teams Smith head coached. It's bizarre.
Even more bizarre is that Jason Licht, who Smith hired as Bucs GM, is still Bucs GM. And Dirk Koetter, who Smith agreed to hire as Bucs offensive coordinator before last season, replaced Smith as head coach. And Jameis Winston, who Smith drafted, is a rising star. They went national on Hard Knocks.
Here comes Smith, who still has a home here, who is still being paid for this season by the Bucs, but who works at Illinois, a place where coaching careers go to die. He's on Ron Zook Boulevard.
No matter. Smith is back. And not talking about it. No surprise there.
"You know, I'm just not one of those touchy-feely guys," Smith, 59, said during a news conference this week. "I spent a lot of time there. I'm a homeowner still down there, know the area. I remember when USF first started its program. We have some of that. But our football team needs to get a road win. Not a whole lot more than that."
When the Glazers swung the ax on Smith, there were reasons, though not for the way they did it. The Bucs went 8-24 in two seasons under Smith. True, they went from 2-14 to 6-10 in his second season, an improvement, but collapsed down the stretch. And defense, a Smith specialty, was at the root of the problems. There seemed to be no accountability on that side of the ball. Mostly, it seemed like Smith was not going to take the Bucs where they needed to go.
News flash: They're still not there.
There is another side to it. Smith came to Tampa Bay to rebuild this team. It was a lousy product. The Glazers knew it would take more than two years, that it would be mostly rebuilt through the draft, and Smith did their bidding. And how. Remember how Smith rolled over and tanked the final game of the 2014 season to make sure the Bucs could pick Jameis at No. 1. The Glazers owe him for that alone.
But Smith was squeezed out in favor of Koetter — in favor of Licht, too. Guess the G Men decided that since Koetter did such a good job with Jameis, what's Smith got to do with it?
Smith's hiring by the Bucs made sense at the time. He brought stability, at least as much as you can while going 2-14 your first season. In his first draft, he took Mike Evans, now one of the best receivers in the NFL. In his second draft, he took Winston, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet and Kwon Alexander.
Did Smith make bad signings in free agency? Yes. But Licht was in on those, too. Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson come to mind, as does quarterback Josh McCown, though two other teams have hired McCown at quarterback to do exactly what Smith hired him to do.
But 8-24 made it easy to fire Smith. That collapse to end 2015 made it easy. His defense made it easy. He compounded it by hiring Koetter, who was so good he ended up getting Smith's job.
On Friday, Lovie Smith will become only the second former Bucs head coach to return to coach in a game in Tampa. The other is Smith's friend and former boss Tony Dungy, who in 2003 brought the Colts here and stunned the world champion Bucs with an astounding comeback win on a Monday night.
This won't be like that. For one thing, we have other things on our mind. For another, there are probably a lot of you out there who didn't even know Lovie Smith is at Illinois.
Well, he is.
"I think you can understand why this is about Illinois football right now," Smith said. "I don't have a whole lot of time to think about things that happened in the past. Lot of friends down there in that organization helped me get my ideal job here at the University of Illinois. How's that?"
My ideal job.
Sure, why not.
Welcome back, Lovie.