Lovie Smith is out as Illinois‘ head football coach after five seasons, the school announced Sunday.
Illinois called a team meeting for noon ET Sunday to inform players of the decision. The Fighting Illini fell 28-10 to No. 14 Northwestern on Saturday to finish their regular season at 2-5. Illinois is slated to play an eighth game this week during Big Ten championship weekend.
Smith, 62, went 17-39 (10-33 in the Big Ten) in five seasons at Illinois, his first stop in college football since 1995, when he coached defensive backs at Ohio State. He had a lengthy NFL career that included head-coaching stops with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Smith guided the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance in 2006 and went 81-63 with the team.
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman hired Smith just weeks after his own hiring in the winter of 2016. Smith led Illinois to a bowl appearance in 2019, and the team had high expectations this fall with many key players returning.
“Lovie Smith led the Illinois football program with unquestioned integrity during his nearly five years of service,” said Whitman in a 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 MaryAnne nothing but the best.”
Potential candidates to replace Smith include Buffalo’s Lance Leipold, Army’s Jeff Monken, Kent State’s Sean Lewis, New York Giants assistant Bret Bielema (a former head coach at Wisconsin and Arkansas), Nevada’s Jay Norvell, Toledo’s Jason Candle, Tulane’s Willie Fritz and several coordinators, including Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.