CHICAGO (WLS) --Digging out from a scandal and weary of having its football program mired near the bottom of the Big Ten, Illinois made a splash Monday by hiring former NFL coach Lovie Smith to lead the Illini.
The move came two days after athletic director Josh Whitman, in his first official day on the job, fired Bill Cubit after a single season in Champaign. He turned to Smith, who took the Chicago Bears to the 2006 Super Bowl and was dismissed as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January.
Smith was received at a press conference Monday with a round of applause in Champaign.
Whitman said he first reached out to Smith through former U of I coach and ex-Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner two weeks ago. Turner now coaches his own college team at Florida International University, and ironically, was let go from the Bears by Smith.
Smith signed a $21 million, six-year contract with the Illini, with a starting salary of $2 million, which will increase incrementally to $5 million in the sixth year, Whitman said.
"I'm staring the fourth quarter. This is where I want to finish my career," Smith said.
Smith will be Illinois' first African-American head coach.
"I just want to play winning football. I want to see our stadium full, people are excited, they are part of it, leaving with a smile on their face," Smith said in response to a question about his definition of success.
It's been nearly 20 years since the last time Smith coached college football.
"The time when you can have the most impact on young men's lives... I feel like I'm a teacher," he said.
Smith will have to be a lot more than just a teacher. It's clear the university hopes to capitalize on his time in the NFL and with the Bears in particular to turn the team's fortunes around.
"Lovie is going to be a great recruiter. There is not a living room in this country that won't open up their door to him," Whitman said.
Smith said he is intent on making the Illini a power in the Big Ten, home to such big-name coaches as Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh.
"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," Smith said, hours before greeting a couple hundred enthusiastic students in the university union. "We will play an exciting brand of football that will make our fans, alumni, student body and members of the university community extremely proud."
This is the first college head-coaching job for the 58-year-old Smith. When pressed on modern recruiting tactics, Smith admitted he didn't have a Twitter account, but planned to start one.
He faces a daunting task: Illinois has had six losing seasons in the past eight years and the program also is recovering from allegations of player abuse that led the school to fire coach Tim Beckman a week before last season started.
Whitman said hiring a coach of Smith's stature was a first step.
"We will build a program that contends annually for Big Ten and national championships," he said. "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."
Smith is the first black head coach in football or men's basketball at Illinois, which has been criticized by state lawmakers and others for never hiring a black coach for either program. University trustee James Montgomery, an Illinois graduate who is black, called Smith's contract a bargain and his hire both historic and a potential recruiting boost.
"It's an amazing turnaround in the history of the university in terms of hiring an African-American coach for a major sport at the university," Montgomery said. "It's a great incentive for kids in our Chicago area to look at the University of Illinois from a recruiting point of view."
Smith and the Bears made it to the Super Bowl in 2006, losing to the Indianapolis Colts. Chicago fired Smith after the 2012 season after he compiled an overall record of 84-66 in front of fans who grew weary of teams that often struggled on offense and missed the playoffs in five of his final six seasons.
He ran the Buccaneers for just two years before he was fired with an 8-24 overall record.
"We had high hopes when I took over the franchise. You just can't build a program overnight," Smith said not long before he was let go.
Smith has not worked in college football since serving as defensive backs coach for Ohio State in 1995. He also was an assistant at Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona State, Wisconsin and Tulsa.
It is not clear yet how the firing of Cubit or the hiring of Smith will affect the recruiting class Cubit assembled this year. The Illini return key players, including starting quarterback Wes Lunt, a group of receivers that could among the best in the Big Ten and what could also be a deep group of running backs. But Illinois will be thin at a number of positions on defense.
The players - and program - will be eager to forget much of last year, including Beckman's firing in August that put offensive coordinator Cubit in charge of the team.
A law firm hired by the university to investigate allegations by some players that they had been mistreated found evidence that Beckman interfered with medical decisions and pressured players to play through injuries. Beckman denied he did anything wrong.
Athletic director Mike Thomas was fired in November following those revelations and Cubit was given an unusually short two-year contract. He said over the weekend that he was stunned by his firing.
Whitman fired Illinois' interim Bill Cubit on Saturday. Cubit was 5-7 last fall.
The AP contributed to this report.