The Illinois Fighting Illini will take on the No. 22 USF Bulls from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. This is a homecoming of sorts for Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith, who was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2014-15, before he was fired after compiling an 8-24 overall record.
Though they showed promise this year with a 6-10 finish — a four-game improvement over 2014. It’s worth noting, though, that they lost their final four games of the season.
Despite the Bucs’ poor finish, the move to dump Smith, 57, just two years into his four-year contract is surprising. Smith’s replacement will be the fourth head coach in Tampa Bay since 2008, a fact that linebacker Lavonte David pointed out on Twitter.
Smith didn’t win many home games at Raymond James, going just 3-13 in two seasons.
That was one of the reasons for his Tampa firing.
GM Jason Licht noted several factors and specifically referenced the team’s poor record over the past two seasons.
"When you have eight wins in two years and three home wins in two years, you’ve been patient enough," he said.
The Bucs ended up elevating offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Smith ended up admitting, after he accepted the Illinois job in March 2016, that he was a bit surprised when the Bucs informed him he was out.
"Disappointed is what I would say," he said while speaking with Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd. "I was surprised. Didn’t see it coming. I thought we had a plan and I was a part of that plan. I felt like I put a lot of things in place for the Buccaneers to be successful in years to come."
As you might expect, he’s not especially excited about coming back to Tampa.
Here’s what he had to say earlier this week about returning to a city he coached in for seven seasons, including his stint as the Bucs’ linebacker coach from 1996-2000:
"I’m just not one of those touchy-feely guys," Smith said Monday via the Chicago Tribune. "This is about Illinois football right now. I don’t have a whole lot of time to think about things that happened in the past. A lot of friends down there in that organization helped me get my ideal job here at the University of Illinois."
The Fighting Illini are currently 14-point underdogs against the Bulls.
He might have Illinois on the right track, despite being a first-time college head coach.
Smith’s rebuilding Illinois went 3-9 last season, but it’s off to a 2-0 start this season, with wins over Ball State and Western Kentucky.
Consider Illinois an experiment for 2017.More efficiency could go a long way for an otherwise explosive roster, but we’ll see if the Illini have the talent — and, it should be said, the coaching.