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Illinois fires coach Lovie Smith after 5 seasons

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, left, and Illinois head coach Lovie Smith shakes hands after an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Champaign, Ill. Iowa won 35-21. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois fired coach Lovie Smith on Sunday with a game left in its ninth consecutive losing season.

Smith became Illinois’ first Black head football coach when he was hired by athletic director Josh Whitman in March 2016. The longtime NFL coach went 17-39 in five seasons at the school.

Smith’s original deal was for six years and $21 million, but he received a two-year extension through 2023 after Illinois went 4-8 in his third season.

Whitman praised Smith’s integrity and “unshakeable leadership,” especially this season during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Nonetheless, based on extensive evaluation of the program’s current state and future outlook, I have concluded the program is not progressing at the rate we should expect at this advanced stage in coach Smith’s tenure,” Whitman said in a release. “To achieve our competitive objectives, I believe new leadership of the football program is required.”

The Illini made one postseason appearance under Smith, losing 35-20 to California in the Redbox Bowl in 2019. They were 6-4 last season after a thrilling comeback victory at Michigan State, but then dropped their last three games.

The slide continued into this year, with Illinois losing its first three by a combined 117-45 score. It is 2-5 after it was pushed around in a 28-10 loss at Northwestern on Saturday, allowing 411 yards rushing in its sixth straight loss in the series against the in-state Wildcats.

The school said offensive coordinator Rod Smith was elevated to acting head coach.

The Big Ten is scheduling one more game for its teams next week, but the opponents for the teams not playing for the conference championship had not yet been revealed.

While the 62-year-old Smith flopped with the Illini, he could attract some interest from NFL teams looking for help on the defensive side of the ball.

Smith spent nine seasons as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, leading the team to three NFC North titles, a Super Bowl appearance and an 81-63 record. He also went 8-24 in two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before he was hired by Illinois.

He coached linebackers for the Bucs from 1996-2000 and served as the Rams’ defensive coordinator from 2001-03.