Chicago — Since he was hired as the Illinois coach in March, Lovie Smith has been on a campaign to help sell the program to fans and re-engage Illini fans who became disillusioned over years of losing seasons.
“You are an ambassador for the university. And why wouldn’t you want to be?” Smith, the former Bears and Buccaneers coach, said Tuesday at Big Ten media day in Chicago. “It has a lot to offer. ... Every function we’ve been to — and we’ve been through a lot — have been that way. It’s the same message from our players: ‘Coach, what do we need to do?’ For our fans, the message is, ‘Come back.’
“There’s nothing like student excitement in Memorial Stadium. We need their energy in the stadium wearing orange and blue. University of Illinois bumper stickers. Whatever it is, let people know who you believe in. Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. It’s about today.”
Illinois fans are eager to move on from the past. It includes not winning more than four Big Ten games in a season since the 2007 Rose Bowl season, allegations of player mistreatment by coach Tim Beckman that ultimately led to his firing, and trying to rebuild from a 5-7 overall, 2-6 Big Ten season.
Smith praised quarterback Wes Lunt.
Smith noted that Lunt brings stability to the offense. “You want a stable voice,” Smith said. “You want a consistent player, a guy who’s been through it. It’s your last year. It’s like the fourth quarter. You want to do it now.”
So far, that’s how Smith is being viewed around Champaign, Ill.
“This is a new era for our athletic program,” athletic director Josh Whitman said. “We want them to be positive. We want them to be confident. “