CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith has been relieved of his duties as Illinois football coach after five seasons.
Illini athletics released a statement late Sunday morning that indicated «Smith will not coach the Illini during (their) final game of the season.»
The news follows Saturday’s 28-10 loss at No. 15 Northwestern that dropped Illinois to 2-5 on the season. It was first reported by Howard Griffith, a Big Ten Network analyst and former Illini, as well as ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg.
“Lovie Smith led the Illinois football program with unquestioned integrity during his nearly five years of service,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in the statement. “I have tremendous respect for Coach Smith and will always be grateful to him for providing a steady, experienced hand at a time when our program required stability. His unshakeable leadership, never more needed than during this pandemic, will be forever remembered.
“Nonetheless, based on extensive evaluation of the program’s current state and future outlook, I have concluded the program is not progressing at the rate we should expect at this advanced stage in Coach Smith’s tenure. To achieve our competitive objectives, I believe new leadership of the football program is required. I will always look fondly on the time Lovie and I have spent together. I wish him and (his wife) MaryAnne nothing but the best.”
Whitman is slated to address media at 3 p.m. Sunday, according to the statement. That press conference will be carried on WDWS 1400-AM.
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith will coach the Illini during its Big Ten Champions Week game, which was revealed Sunday afternoon. Illinois will travel to Penn State (3-5) for a 4:30 p.m. Saturday kickoff on Fox Sports 1.
According to the statement, Illinois athletics «beginning immediately … will launch a national search to identify Coach (Lovie) Smith’s successor.»
Lovie Smith was hired by Whitman prior to the 2016 season and guided the Illini to the 2019 Redbox Bowl, which Illinois lost to California. That was the program’s first bowl appearance since 2014.
However, Smith’s tenure included five overall losing seasons and a cumulative 17-39 record. Illinois never finished better than fourth in the Big Ten West under Smith and won more than two conference games just once (2019).
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman had to make the move
Illini lose sixth straight to Northwestern
Smith in 2016 was given a six-year contract worth $21 million, and he later signed a two-year extension in November 2018. Smith was due $4 million for the 2021, 2022 and 2023 seasons. His contract included a $2 million buyout for the year 2020, a number that would’ve fallen to $1 million in 2021 and 2022.
Illinois football hasn’t posted a winning record since 2011, a season in which Ron Zook was fired and Vic Koenning coached the Illini in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit and now Smith have been unable to turn that tide.
Whitman will be hiring his second football coach since taking over as Illinois’ AD in February 2016. Whitman fired Cubit on March 5 of that year and hired Smith two days later.
Smith’s time with the Illini included a $20 million donation from the H.D. Smith Foundation to the University of Illinois Foundation, with $15 million provided to a performance center that eventually became the $80 million Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center.
Though Whitman routinely threw support behind Smith, both for on-field efforts and off-field recruiting, Smith struggled to see consistently positively results in both areas.
«I believe in Coach Smith,» Whitman said in the summer of 2019. «If I didn’t, we wouldn’t have extended (his contract) this last year.»
According to Rivals.com, Smith’s Illinois recruiting classes ranked 48th, 50th, 73rd and 90th for 2017 through 2020. It rates his 2021 class 72nd. Those stats are equally dire within the Big Ten: 10th, 12th, 14th, 14th and 13th. It’s also worth noting, however, that Wednesday marks this year’s college football early signing period.