CHICAGO — One thing hasn’t changed over the years for Lovie Smith.
That sense of excitement and anticipation is still there for the new Illinois football coach.
“I don’t think that is any different whether you are working in the NFL, the college game or preparing to coach at a junior high,” Smith said. “There’s something about a new season and a fresh start that accompany the start of camp that gets any coach going.”
It’s been 22 seasons since the former Chicago Bears coach last worked at the collegiate level, but Smith said Tuesday at the Big Ten Kickoff that his transition to life in the Big Ten is going well.
He welcomes the challenge of resurrecting a rudderless Fighting Illini program unable to compile a winning record in any of the last four seasons under Tim Beckman or Bill Cubit.
And, Illinois fans seemed to welcome a coach with Smith’s pedigree.
The 58-year-old did not attract Jim Harbaugh-like attention at the two-day kickoff event, but Smith signed plenty of autographs both inside and out of the McCormick Place convention halls that hosted the kickoff luncheon.
Most wore Illinois gear, and some were there to let him know they appreciated his work with the Bears between 2004-12.
Smith has caught the rock-star like attention of his players.
“He’s been there, done that,” running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn said. “He’s been to the Super Bowl. He’s worked in the (NFL). He’s got our back and we’ve got his.”
The feeling is mutual.
Smith likes the work and commitment his players have shown since director of athletics Josh Whitman made a momentum-changing coaching decision during his first week on the job in March and lured Smith to Champaign-Urbana.
In the months since, Smith has worked to win over a fan base clamoring for change and as well as a roster full of players who unexpectedly found themselves with a new coach days before the start of spring practice.
“As a new coach, my job is to sell the program,” Smith said. “It’s a new day. I’m getting to know people. They’re getting to know me. And, we’re getting ready to go to work.”
Smith anticipates that as much as anything.
“We’re not there yet, nowhere close,” he said. “But, I’m looking forward to being part of the conversation when that time arrives. I’m excited about the possibilities. It’s a new day.”
Smith said Illinois will build initially around a senior quarterback in Wes Lunt, three returning offensive linemen and a veteran defensive front.
“From day one, they have embraced what we asked of them,” Smith said. “We feel we have a formula for success that works. They have bought into that and, as a coach, that is all you can ask.”