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Illinois hires Lovie Smith as head coach

Lovie Smith is returning to the head-coaching ranks.

Illinois announced Monday morning that the former Bears and Buccaneers coach will fill its vacancy. Ryan Baker of WBBM-TV first reported the development.

New athletic director Josh Whitman announced the hiring after firing coach Bill Cubit on Saturday.

"I am extremely excited to be named head coach of the Fighting Illini," Smith stated in a release. "Josh approached me about this possibility, and I immediately seized on the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the young men who are part of the program today and in the future.

"I take this responsibility very seriously and can't wait to get a staff in place to start our move to make Illinois a contender for Big Ten titles."

The contract is a six-year agreement that starts with a $2 million base salary for 2016 and 2017. That figure gets bumped up to $3 million for 2018, $4 million for 2019 and then $5 million for both 2020 and 2021.

"Naming Lovie Smith as the Illinois head football coach is the first step in taking this program to a place of national prominence," Whitman stated. "We will build a program that contends annually for Big Ten and national championships. The timing for this move was extremely tight, and we needed to move quickly. A coach of Lovie's caliber would not have been available to us if we had waited until after the 2016 season. Lovie's reputation as a coach, and even more so as a person, made it clear it was an awesome opportunity for the University of Illinois."

Smith was fired by the Buccaneers in January on the heels of an 8-24 record over two seasons with the team. He coached the Bears from 2004-12, leading them to Super Bowl XLI, where Chicago was defeated by Peyton Manning's Colts.

The Bucs owed Smith $10 million over the next two seasons, but that number is trimmed to $6 million since Smith has a base salary of $2 million during that span, per NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport.

There's no denying that hiring Smith gives a moribund program some legitimate star power, but Smith has a lot of work to do before the school can contend for a conference title. Illinois is in the weaker of the Big Ten's two divisions -- the West -- and it finished tied for fifth in the seven-team division last season. The program has finished with a winning record just three times in the last 14 seasons.

Smith last coached in the college ranks in 1995, when he was Ohio State's defensive backs coach. He left the next year to become the Bucs' linebackers coach after 13 seasons as a college assistant.

Cubit's firing was made on the first official day of Whitman's tenure as athletic director.

Cubit was named interim coach last August following the termination of Tim Beckman, by then-athletic director Mike Thomas. Beckman's dismissal was due to an investigation launched by the university relating to injury reporting and student-athlete medical treatment.

During his stint as the interim head coach, Cubit led the Fighting Illini to a 5-7 overall record and a 2-6 conference mark. Cubit's interim tag was removed on Nov. 29, when the university signed him to a two-year deal. Ryan Cubit, who was named offensive coordinator in December, had also been relieved of his duties. 

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