When news of Illinois’ surprise interest in Lovie Smith broke over the weekend, many questioned why Smith would return to the college ranks for a perennial Big Ten bottom feeder.
He certainly doesn't need the money.
Smith’s final two contracts as head coach of the Chicago Bears paid him handsomely, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who fired Smith in January, were still on the hook for over $10 million.
Why not just collect a check and enjoy Florida's warm weather?
Here’s why: Smith is the ultimate example of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture that engulfs sports.
I spent nine years covering Smith on a daily basis for ESPN when he coached the Bears from 2004-12.
Is Smith perfect? No. Did he make mistakes? Yes. Should he have essentially fired Ron Rivera as defensive coordinator after Super Bowl XLI? Of course not. Did he captivate the audience during news conferences? Not really. Should he do a better job hiring offensive assistants? Absolutely.
What Smith did more than anything else, however, is win football games. Lots of them. Smith is third all-time in Bears career wins with 84 (including postseason), behind only George Halas and Mike Ditka, who, last time I checked, are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Bears won three NFC North division titles under Smith. They haven’t been to the playoffs since he left.
But so many Chicago fans want to lampoon the 57-year-old coach.
Well, Smith has another chance to prove Chicago wrong -- something he loves to do. Smith played the underdog card to perfection with the Bears. He thrives on it. Some may find the us-against-the-world mentality tiresome (I know I did), but the results speak for themselves.
What better way for Smith to repair his (unjustly) tarnished image than to guide Illinois back to respectability?
Nobody is expecting national championships in Champaign. But seven or eight wins per year? That’s realistic.
And that’s why Smith to Illinois is the ultimate win-win for both parties.
For Illinois, the attraction to Smith is obvious.
Since the fall of 1995, the Illini football program has played in just six bowl games. Six! That’s it. Rival Northwestern has been to 11 bowl games, beginning with the Cats' trip to the Rose Bowl after the 1995 season.
In Ron Turner’s final two seasons (2003-04) as head coach, the Illini finished 4-19.
Ron Zook went 4-19 in his first two years before leading the program to the Rose Bowl in 2007, the last time Illinois football truly felt relevant.
And there’s really no reason to relive the Tim Beckman/Mike Thomas era: an embarrassing three-plus years for the entire university both on and off the field.
Smith is a proven winner. He has name recognition nationwide, and that matters in the world of recruiting -- an arena Smith will have to master. He previously recruited while a college assistant at Tulsa, Ohio State, Tennessee, Arizona State, Wisconsin and Kentucky, and he'll have to excel in that field if he expects to compete with the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa for the best Midwestern talent.
But Smith is also from Texas. He has ties to Florida. Those are both recruiting hotbeds. Imagine Smith sitting in the living room of some five-star recruit from Houston. Don’t rule out Lovie connecting with those kids and their families, too.
Smith to Illinois? Not so crazy when you really think about it.