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.

“When we brought Lovie on board, we had a lot of needs; we needed a steady hand, an experienced voice, someone who would bring credibility to the program,” Whitman said during a Zoom press conference.

“At the end of the day, we weren’t able to win enough games or quite get over the hump despite the best efforts.”

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.

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

The Illini close out the season at Penn State on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith was elevated to acting head coach.

“This Illinois football program is primed for success,” Whitman said.

“I want to win. I want somebody who is going to come in here and win football games, do it with integrity and for a long time.”

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 them 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.

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