Think about the last three times before Monday that Illinois had hired a head football coach.
In 2005, the Illini hired Ron Zook, who'd already become something of a punchline after a failed tenure at Florida. In late 2011, the school brought in Tim Beckman from Toledo, and from early on it appeared that Beckman lacked a certain, shall we say, stature for the position. In November, of course, Bill Cubit was elevated from interim to full-time head coach, though the two-year contract he was given underlined the program's dubious commitment to his future.
That's the main difference between those moves and Monday's introduction of Lovie Smith as the next Illini coach. This is a bold choice, made bolder by new athletic director Josh Whitman's decision to fire Cubit in his first official day on the job Saturday. Smith brings instant name recognition, instant credibility to a program that badly needs some. You could argue that he's already the biggest star among coaches in the Big Ten West Division.
In other words, this is a serious football hire at a school that hasn't been serious enough about the sport in some time.
In Smith, Illinois gets someone who has coached in a Super Bowl, someone who has earned respect for his professionalism and demeanor, someone who can turn heads in Chicago and St. Louis. It will pay him like a big-time coach, with a six-year, $21 million contract that rises in value to $5 million annually at the end.
"This brings a level of stability and enthusiasm to a program that needs it," Whitman said during Monday's press conference.
Some have described Illinois as a sleeping giant in football. It is a large, state school with a strong history in the sport, with hallowed alumni like Dick Butkus and Red Grange. Yet Illinois has long been more of a basketball school, easily overshadowed by its Big Ten counterparts and boxed out in recruiting the Midwest. Then again, we haven't seen the program's full capability behind a big-time head coach and full commitment to supporting him.
It might be time to find out whether this is a giant that can be awakened or just a drowsy relic of a bygone era.
"I understand where our football program is right now," Smith said. "From being in the state of Illinois, I always looked and said, 'Why can't we be one of the better football teams, year in and year out?'"
Is Smith the guy to make it work? There are no guarantees with just about any coaching hire, unless you're lucky enough to land Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh. And certainly Smith, who had an 89-87 NFL record and was fired from his last two jobs, doesn't have the kind of cachet that those men carry as program builders.
Smith hasn't coached on a campus in 20 years and has never had to deal with all the ancillary duties that come with being a college head coach. Recruiting is wildly different now than it was five years ago, much less 1995. While Whitman said Smith will be welcome in any home in America, the recruiting groundwork now starts way before the head coach ever visits a living room.
Smith will need a large, plugged-in recruiting staff to keep pace with the burgeoning army of personnel other top schools are employing. And he'll need to become familiar with social media; Smith said Monday that he will join Twitter in the coming days.
"It's a misnomer that I'm some old guy that doesn't know what's going on," the 57-year-old said.
Smith is known as a great defensive mind, but his teams in the NFL were never particularly known for their offensive explosiveness or ingenuity. Much more of that is happening at the college level, and Illinois will need to use interesting wrinkles since it won't usually line up with equal talent against teams like Ohio State and Michigan. Promisingly, Smith said Monday that he's a believer in elements like the read option, though even that terminology sounds a few years old.
Facilities in Champaign and fan interest still lag far behind the Big Ten's upper-tier programs. Academic entrance requirements have frustrated previous coaches and have been one hurdle to gaining a foothold in Chicago.
But a lot of those challenges come down to commitment. After a wild few days, Illinois appears to be going all-in on trying to win in football. At long last.
"Today, we take a bold step forward," Whitman said, "and turn the page on what has been a challenging past."