New Illinois head coach Lovie Smith last coached at the college level when he worked as Ohio State's secondary coach in 1995. It's pretty rare to see a guy return to the college game as a head coach after being in the NFL world for decades. But it does happen, and some guys have proven to be big successes.
At the top of that spectrum: Pete Carroll, who was actually USC's fifth choice back in 2001. He'd last coached in college 18 seasons earlier when he was the defensive coordinator at Pacific, his alma mater. Carroll led USC to two AP national titles and to an astounding seven top-four finishes in his nine seasons.
Carroll is the exception though. Mostly it's been guys who have had moderate success. Before we get back to Smith, let's get a better look at some of the others who have made a similar move, who had been out of the college ranks for at least a decade and then returned to take over a Power 5 program.
*Jim Mora went 28 seasons from the time he GAed at Washington to getting hired to run the UCLA program. He's worked out quite well for the Bruins, leading them to 37 wins in four seasons with a 3-1 record against archrival USC.
*Mike Sherman, a former Texas A&M O-line coach in the mid-90s, was the Packers' head coach for six seasons before eventually landing the Aggies job in 2008. He and his staff actually recruited quite well, landing a bunch of future first-round O-linemen, in addition to Aggie greats Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, who both blossomed in College Station. Still, Sherman went just 25-25 and 15-18 in conference play.
*Bill Callahan last served as Wisconsin's offensive line coach in 1994 before getting the Nebraska head coaching job in 2004, bringing with him the West Coast offense to a place that loved its power football persona. In his debut season, he went 5-6, the Cornhuskers' first losing year in more than 40 years. He lasted four seasons, going 27-22, 15-17 in league play and just 1-10 against ranked opponents.
*Dave Wannstedt, my colleague at FOX Sports, is himself a formers Bears head coach. He'd gone 17 years between his time at Miami as Jimmy Johnson's defensive coordinator before his hiring at his alma mater Pitt in 2005. He had some big recruits (LeSean McCoy among them). His Panthers did knock archrival WVU from a BCS national title game appearance. Wannstedt went 42-31 and won 26 games in his final three seasons but was dumped by an AD Steve Peterson, who had proven to be a disaster for the Panthers.
*Al Groh left South Carolina in 1988 after one season as the offensive coordinator and returned to college 13 years later as Virginia's head coach. He lasted nine seasons, going 59-54, although he never produced a top-20 season. He did get to No. 22 and No 23, however.
The biggest challenge for Smith will be recruiting. Obviously it's evolved a lot in the two decades since he worked in college football. Quite frankly, it's changed a lot just in the past five years. It's always key for any new head coach to have good recruiters on staff. It'll be especially so for Smith.
When Mora was hired at UCLA, he hired some guys with very strong reps as aggressive recruiters, and the Bruins have upgraded their talent level. Carroll had an advantage. He inherited arguably the top recruiter in the country when he got to USC in Ed Orgeron.
As for Smith, I'm told he was regarded as a good recruiter in his day. Prior to his season at Ohio State, he spent two seasons at Tennessee. On Monday, I spoke to David Blackburn, now the AD at Chattanooga. Blackburn used to be the assistant recruiting coordinator for the Vols when Smith was there. One of Smith's big recruits for Tennessee was landing DB Terry Fair out of Arizona. Fair emerged as a two-time all-SEC pick and left as a first-round draft choice.
"Lovie was a really good recruiter," Blackburn told FOX Sports. "He's very easy going, very calm and really good at building relationships because people can sense that he is very genuine and sincere, and that was his edge."
As Smith pointed out Monday, it's not like recruiting is something that is new to him.
"I've been recruiting and selling every year since I've been a football coach, selling the way we're going to win football games, asking free agents to come on board," Smith said at his introductory presser Monday afternoon. "Recruiting is just that. You go into homes and people will trust you, or they won't. You're asking them to buy into what you believe. I'm anxious to embrace that."
The hiring of Lovie Smith definitely has made the Illini more relevant. What happens with that momentum is another story. With the relatively recent additions of Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, the Big Ten is tougher than it's been in years, but on the bright side Smith takes over a program in the much more manageable division, the West. It's not a stretch to think the Illini will be able to compete for a title within a few years. The talent gap isn't that wide between the top and middle of this division. Smith inherits a talented QB in senior Wes Lunt. Unfortunately for the 6-5, 225-pound former Oklahoma State quarterback, Smith will be the fourth head coach in his college career.
It does help that Smith is well known in Chicago, which has to be prime recruiting turf for the Illini. Even if today's recruits don't remember Smith as the Bears coach, there's a good chance that their parents and aunts and uncles and high school coaches do.