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WNIJ's summary of news items around our state.

Lovie Smith Introduced As New Illini Football Coach

Jeff Bossert / Illinois Public Media

Lovie Smith made his first appearance on campus yesterday as the University of Illinois’ next head football coach. 

The former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach is the first African-American to lead the U of I’s football program. And Smith says he won’t lose sight of that fact.

“I realize who I am – and what people see," he said. "And hopefully that will just inspire more young men to kind of dream big.  For me to be in this role, to be the first at anything, is pretty special.  And especially a university like ours. I'm going try to do the best job that I possibly can to open doors for other African-American coaches to follow me."

U of I Athletic Director Josh Whitman calls the hire a ‘bold step forward’ after a challenging past.

Former football coach Tim Beckman was fired before last season after allegations of player abuse. And Bill Cubit, who replaced him, was fired Saturday after compiling a 5-7 record last season.

Smith says he expects to finish his coaching career with the Illini, calling Monday's events 'the start of the third quarter of my career.'  He signed a six-year, $21-million contract Monday morning, before visiting parts of the U of I campus.

"I don’t know what better commitment I can show to everyone – that we’re going to be here – we’re here for the long haul – than that," he said.  "I understand where our football program is right now.  There’s a reason why a change was made.  I embrace that challenge.  And from being in the state of Illinois, I've always looked and said, 'why can't we be one of the better football teams, year in, year out.’ "

Whitman says Smith met with the players Monday morning.

“To be able to walk in that room and put in front of them hope – to be able to put in front of them stability – to be able to put in front of them a championship vision – you can see their eyes light up," he said.

Illini quarterback Wes Lunt says a lot of the players were familiar with Smith's time as Bears head coach.

"Just to have him as a head coach is kind of surreal," he said.  "I just know a lot of people are excited.  We had a lift this morning (meeting Smith), and there was a lot of energy.  I think it gives us a name with Illinois football."

Whitman, whose first day on the job was Saturday, says he first spoke with Smith about the position two weeks ago.  He reached out to him through former Illini coach Ron Turner, who was offensive coordinator for Smith when he coached the Bears.

"We want to get to a place where we're competing for Big Ten championships yearly," Smith said.  "There is nothing like game day on a college campus."

Smith, 57, returns to college football for the first time since 1996, after 19 seasons in the NFL.   He spent 14 years as a collegiate coach, working at Tulsa (1983-86), Wisconsin (1987), Arizona State (1988-91), Kentucky (1992), Tennessee (1993-94) and Ohio State (1995).

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