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Lovie Smith, Illini talking big game but can they back it up?

Believe it or not, the University of Illinois was once a big deal in the world of college football. They’ve won the fourth-most Big Ten championships in the conference’s history (14), but the last 60-plus years have seen things take a general downward spiral. Illinois has just six Big Ten titles since 1950 and only two since 1990.

That history didn’t stop new head coach Lovie Smith nor athletic director Josh Whitman from talking Big Ten titles as the two spoke to the media for the first time since Smith’s hire was announced early on Monday morning.

In fact, listening to the two of them speak, one would believe Big Ten championships are an inevitability under Smith’s tutelage. Even the best of recruiters couldn’t sustain success in Champaign, including Ron Zook, who went from a Big Ten championship in his third year to being a mediocre program in a few years time.

Still, Smith and Whitman spoke plenty of how the culture and trust in the ideas Smith has for this program will be paramount in building what they hope will be a championship-caliber team.

What is also for sure is that Whitman is very confident in his first move as athletic director. He made that much known in the firing of Cubit, but also in the money spent to hire Smith in the first place.

A six-year, $25 million deal puts Smith squarely in the middle of the Big Ten coaches salary race. Bill Cubit earned just under $1 million for coaching last season, but that was a rare instance and had it been Tim Beckman we would’ve been looking at a coach making just over $1.5 million this past season.

Smith’s $2 million base salary in 2016 will gradually increase to $5 million over the last two years of the deal. It’s an impressive commitment that will ensure Smith and his staff stay in the mix of coaching salaries within the “Power 5” conferences.

The biggest strength of this hire right now isn’t on the field — its in the fact that the entire college sports world is talking about Illinois football, and not in a joking way. Getting the media to pay attention in a conference where Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer suck the majority of the air out of the room is impressive in and of itself.

Media attention and hype is well and good, but from today on it will be all about what Lovie Smith does with his coaching staff and his players. Hiring top recruiters in the college game during spring ball isn’t exactly an easy task, and all eyes will be on those first moves for Smith and Whitman.

What will the staff salary pool be? Can Smith tap back in to the college football world and begin to build a championship staff?

It certainly appears the money for assistants won’t be an issue:

Smith also hinted that he already has an idea of whom he wants on his staff and the makeup of the coaches he’d like to be with. He indicated that the read-option will be a part of a varied offensive look and his famous 4-3 defense will be in Champaign as well.

Given all of that, it appears the Illini athletic department and the university in general are ready to support whatever this program needs — monetarily or otherwise.

Between Smith’s plan of action, the serious pool of money for assistant coaches and his knowledge of the NFL there is a clear chance for this hire to be a home run. The proof of that will start when the Illini get going on spring practice, and that won’t be happening until April at the earliest.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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