Despite four Big Ten wins in his first three seasons in charge of Illinois football, Lovie Smith and his Santa Clause beard got a contract extension on Sunday.
The Illini re-upped Lovie Smith for two more years, which keeps him under contract through 2023. The move is a bit of a surprise considering the former Bears coach is 9-27 since taking over the Illini. This season the Illini went 4-8, which was his best record.
Given Smith's record, Illinois AD Josh Whitman explained that continuity and a young roster are reasons to keep Smith in charge.
"This extension demonstrates my belief in Lovie Smith, his staff, and the plan they have for the future success of Illinois Football," Whitman said in Illinois' press release on the extension. "I have studied our program extensively, and I see steady progress, both in the development of our current players and the talent we are adding to our roster. To date, we have remained one of the youngest teams in college football, with only nine seniors and nearly 80 freshmen and sophomores. As our players grow in strength, skill, and experience, more wins will follow.
"We recognize that our work is far from finished, with improvement needed in every phase of our program's development, but our plan is sound and our resolve is stronger than ever," Whitman continued. "As I have said on many occasions, stability and continuity are key to building a foundation that will yield long-term success."
Illinois hasn't made a bowl game since 2014 and hasn't had a winning record in the Big Ten since 2007. Smith went 3-9 in his first year in 2016 (2-7 in the Big Ten) before going winless in the Big Ten last season with a 2-10 overall record.
Given the state the program was in when Smith took over, no one expected a quick turnaround for the Illini. The extension allows Smith to show potential recruits that the program has stability and he isn't on the hot seat. As Chris Vannini of The Athletic tweeted, if it doesn't change Lovie Smith's buyout, it doesn't change anything about Illinois' ability to fire him if there isn't improvement in 2019.
The thing about the Lovie Smith extension is that we don't know if it changes the buyout (currently $12 million). If it doesn't, then it's no big deal and is just for recruiting.— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) November 25, 2018
Though he will get a $1 million retention bonus on Jan. 1. https://t.co/5biCuuVxt1 pic.twitter.com/dBiuayp4eQ
Smith coached the Bears from 2004-2012 and had an 81-63 record in his tenure, including taking the team to a Super Bowl. He is the only Bears coach to have a winning record in his tenure since Mike Ditka left after the 1992 season.