Lovie Smith is officially the new head coach at Illinois. It doesn't seem like an unusual fit, in the sense that Smith has roots in the area from his time as the Chicago Bears' head coach and had been looking for a job. But Smith hasn't coached in college since 1995, when he was the defensive backs coach at Ohio State, and hasn't even held a coordinator position in the collegiate ranks.
Smith's Bears lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLI in 2007. Five years later, he was out of Chicago with an 81-63 record. After two losing seasons with Tampa Bay, his NFL head coaching record still stands at 89-87, making him one of the most accomplished NFL head coaches to ever return to the college ranks.
There's a bunch of reasons NFL coaches rarely choose to go back to college, and Smith might be only the 11th who went directly from the NFL to college. Here's how he and his six Super Bowl-to-college predecessors have fared, in reverse chronological order.
NFL team: Chicago Bears
NFL record: 89-87 overall (11 seasons), 81-63 with Bears (nine seasons)
Super Bowl: XLI (2007)
College team: Illinois (starting this week)
College team record: 0-0
Last college job before return: Ohio State defensive backs coach (1995)
Smith's hiring became official Monday at Illinois. He had a nine-year run in Chicago, followed by two bad seasons with Tampa Bay. It's been nine years since Smith coached the Rex Grossman-quarterbacked Bears to a Super Bowl appearance.
NFL team: San Francisco 49ers (2011-2014)
NFL record: 44-19-1 (four seasons)
Super Bowl: XLVII (2013)
College team: Michigan (2015-present)
College team record: 10-3 (one season)
Last college job before return: Stanford head coach (2007-2010)
The most recent parallel for Smith, of course, is Michigan's Harbaugh. After four mostly great years with the 49ers, Harbaugh left for his alma mater and made Michigan into a formidable power again almost overnight. The highest point Harbaugh achieved with San Francisco was reaching the Super Bowl at the end of the 2012 season before losing to his brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens.
At Michigan, Harbaugh walked into a much better situation than Smith at Illinois. It's going to be basically impossible for Smith to take Illinois to a 10-3 record next season, and the Illini aren't likely to ever have a recruiting class like the one Harbaugh just pulled in for Michigan.
NFL team: Oakland Raiders (2002-2003)
NFL record: 15-17 (two seasons)
Super Bowl: XXVII (2003)
College team: Nebraska (2004-2007)
College team record: 27-22 (four seasons)
Last college job before return: Wisconsin offensive line coach (1990-1994)
Callahan had a weird two-year stint as the Raiders' head coach, taking them to a Super Bowl in 2002 and then flat-lining and getting fired after a 4-12 season the next year. The Raiders lost to Jon Gruden and Tampa Bay in Callahan's Super Bowl appearance, and Raiders receiver Tim Brown basically accused Callahan of throwing the game.
Callahan took over the Huskers in 2004, and things were never great for him in Lincoln. He won a Big 12 North crown before losing the Cotton Bowl in 2006, and that was the best he could do before the Huskers fired him and replaced him with Bo Pelini.
NFL team: San Diego Chargers (1992-1996)
NFL record: 74-63 overall (nine seasons), 47-33 with Chargers (five seasons)
Super Bowl: XXIX (1995)
College team: Army (2004-2006)
College team record: 9-25 (three seasons)
Last college job before return: Georgia Tech head coach (1987-1991)
Ross had a winding coaching career, much of which he spent in college before moving to the NFL. He'd already been a head coach at The Citadel, Maryland and Georgia Tech when he signed up to lead the Chargers in 1992. He got to one Super Bowl in San Diego, losing it to the Steve Young-Jerry Rice 49ers.
After two more years with San Diego and then four with Detroit, Ross took over as head coach at Army in 2004. He had a military background (and played at VMI), so it was at least a somewhat sensible move. Ross lost a ton in three years, but give him some credit: Army had gone 0-13 under Todd Berry and John Mumford in 2003, right before Ross arrived.
NFL team: San Francisco 49ers (1979-1988)
NFL record: 92-59-1 (10 seasons)
Super Bowl: XVI, XIX, XXIII (1982, 1985, 1989)
College team: Stanford (1992-1994, and previously 1977-1978)
College record: 34-24-1 (five seasons), but 17-17-1 in three seasons after returning from NFL
Last college job before return: Stanford head coach (1977-1978)
Walsh is a legend for his NFL experience. But he sandwiched his 10 years with the 49ers between two separate runs as the head coach at Stanford, where he enjoyed up-and-down success. He was 17-7 in his first two years, which helped him get the San Francisco NFL job.
But after his otherworldly run with the 49ers, Walsh returned to Stanford and struggled. He won the same number of games in three more years – 17 of them – as he did in his first two, going an even .500 with the Cardinal in what turned out to be the last stop of his coaching career. He was 10-3 in 1992, his first year back, but then labored to a 7-14-1 record in his last two years.
NFL team: Washington (1971-1977)
NFL record: 116-47-5 overall (12 seasons), 67-30-1 with Washington (seven seasons)
Super Bowl: VII (1973)
College team: Long Beach State (1990)
College record: 6-5
Last college job before return: Whittier head coach (1951-1956)
Allen had a long NFL career between Washington and the Los Angeles Rams, taking Washington to one Super Bowl. Given all the games he won, he certainly could've reached more of them.
His Long Beach State assignment was an interesting one. Allen made brief appearances in both the CFL and USFL after his last NFL season in 1977, and after taking several years off, he signed on with Long Beach State for the 1990 season. The Forty Niners were 6-5 that year with Allen at the helm, finishing fourth in the Big West. For Allen, that was the end.
NFL team: Cincinnati Bengals (1980-1983)
NFL record: 75-85-1 overall (11 seasons), 32-25 with Bengals (four seasons)
Super Bowl: XVI (1982)
College team: SMU (1989-1990)
College record: 3-19 (two seasons)
Last college job before return: None
Gregg didn't have an amazing NFL coaching career. He had two winning seasons in 11 years between the Browns, Bengals and Packers, with an AFC Championship campaign in 1981 as by far his best year. After Joe Montana's 49ers beat him in the Super Bowl, Gregg had six more seasons in the NFL.
His time at SMU was brutal, but credit to Gregg for even trying. An SMU alum, he took over the Mustangs after the NCAA canceled their previous season in the aftermath of one of the sport's worst scandals ever. Nobody was going to win in Gregg's situation, and indeed he didn't, going 3-19 in two seasons.
The best guess on Smith's future at Illinois is that it'll fall somewhere in the middle of the range of coaches who have made the Super Bowl-to-college trek before him. Whether Smith's experience is closer to Harbaugh's or Gregg's is up to him.