CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman took a major step in elevating Fighting Illini football in the national landscape with the hiring of longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith as head football coach.

"I am extremely excited to be named head coach of the Fighting Illini," Smith said. "Josh approached me about this possibility, and I immediately seized on the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the young men who are part of the program today and in the future. 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. We will play an exciting brand of football that will make our fans, alumni, student body and members of the University community extremely proud."

Smith becomes the 25th head football coach at Illinois. He is the second coach to move directly from head coach in the NFL to Champaign-Urbana after John Mackovic took the Illini head coaching position in 1988 following a career with the Kansas City Chiefs.

"Naming Lovie Smith as the Illinois head football coach is the first step in taking this program to a place of national prominence," Whitman said. "We will build a program that contends annually for Big Ten and national championships. 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. Lovie's reputation as a coach, and even more so as a person, made it clear it was an awesome opportunity for the University of Illinois."

Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson added her support to the hire.

"Just as he promised, Josh Whitman is taking bold and decisive action to ensure that Illinois athletics represents the same level of excellence as Illinois academics," Wilson said. "Coach Smith shares our vision for success at the highest level, and I'm delighted to welcome him to the Illinois family."

Smith returns to college football for the first time since 1996 after spending 19 years in the NFL, including 11 years as a head coach. He led the Chicago Bears for nine seasons from 2004-12 and amassed a record of 81-63 (.563 win pct.), including three division titles, two NFC Championship Game appearances (2006 and 2010) and a berth in Super Bowl XLI. The AP Coach of the Year in 2005, Smith's 81 wins with Chicago are the third-most in Bears history. He spent the past two years as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where the Bucs improved from two victories in 2014 to six wins in 2015.

Before taking over as Chicago's head coach, Smith spent three seasons with the St. Louis Rams as the assistant head coach/defensive coordinator (2003) and defensive coordinator (2001-03). He helped the 2001 Rams to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVI. Prior to his time in St. Louis, Smith spent four seasons tutoring linebackers in Tampa Bay as part of Tony Dungy's coaching staff, helping to create one of the league's most dominant defenses of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Smith and Dungy became the first two African-American head coaches to coach in the Super Bowl when they faced each other in XLI.

Smith spent his first 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).

Smith played collegiately at the University of Tulsa and was a two-time All-American and three-time All-Missouri Conference selection.