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After 20 years in the NFL, how will Lovie Smith adapt to the college game? "Football is football."

Lovie Smith

The last time Lovie Smith coached a college football game, Nebraska ruled the sport as king through its seat in the Big 8 Conference, overpowering opponents by keeping the ball on the ground five out of every seven snaps through its weaponized triple-option offense. So, yeah, things have changed.

Twenty years after his last college job -- he was Ohio State's defensive backs coach way back when -- and two years before his new class of freshmen were born, Smith is back in the college game, introduced Monday afternoon as the head coach at Illinois.

The obvious question: with two decades gone and less than six months and ticking until toe meets leather on the 2016 season, how quickly can Smith acclimate himself to this brand of football? "Football is football. You're doing some of the same things," he said. "I know there's recruiting involved. I've been recruiting every year I've been a football coach, selling the way we're going to win football games, asking free agents to come on board, and recruiting is just that. You going into homes and people will trust you or they won't. I feel like I can do that.

"There are some differences, but I'd say more similarities than differences," Smith continued, noting the read-option as the primary difference. "Beyond (the read option) it's not a big jump. I started a rookie quarterback (Jameis Winston) this past year. This time last year he was wearing a letterman jacket on a college campus. From what I've seen, there isn't a big difference in how you win football games from college to the professional level."

With that answered, the question turned to the other side of the table. Why did new Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman, on his first official day on the job, jettison head coach Bill Cubit, a veteran, well-liked coach who eagerly coveted the job, for a coach two decades removed from the game?

Well, why not? With deference thrown to the super glue-and-duct tape job Cubit and his staff did to win five games last season, Whitman inherited a mess of a football program. Its head coach was in year one of a highly unusual two-year contract, its team is on a streak of four consecutive losing seasons, and its fanbase could not have been more apathetic. There's something to be lost here, for sure, but not much.

"This brings a level of stability and enthusiasm to a football program that needs it," Whitman said, mentioning the energy in the room during Smith's 7 a.m. meeting with his new club.

"We are going to go out and find the best football coach in the country to come work with you at the University of Illinois," Whitman told the Illini when delivering Saturday's news. "We are going to go out and find someone who's willing to stand with you, to swing with you."

Every head coach is dependent on his staff, and Smith even more so. Both Smith and Whitman paid lip service to interviewing the remaining staff -- Smith said "some may" stay while singling out defensive coordinator Mike Phair -- but gave every indication to a broad search for assistants. "I've talked to a lot of people," Smith said. "The wheels are in motion."

Smith remained intentionally vague when discussing scheme -- a wise move considering the direction will be dependent on the coordinator hires, especially on offense. "We'd like to have a balanced attack. Want to be able to run the football, the passing game that you'll love," Smith said while again alluding to the read option. "We'll be based (defensively) from a four-man front and do things from there."

Whitman admitted he didn't know Smith until reaching out shortly after winning Illinois' AD job on Feb. 17. The two sides engaged in hypothetical conversations until Whitman visited the Smith home in the Tampa area, where a day long meeting ended with Whitman hammering out a deal with Smith's son and agent, Matthew Smith.

"I bought into Josh's message and the direction he was taking the program pretty quick," Smith said. Part of that message was a renewed commitment to football from the chancellor's office down, and Whitman serves as a living example of that as a former Illini tight end. A six-year, $21 million contract helps, too. "I'm not going anywhere," Smith said. This is the start of the third quarter of my career."

Whitman is banking on Smith's nine-year run as the Chicago Bears' head coach will gain him entry to recruits in Chicago, as will his two-year stint as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach. Whitman also mentioned Texas (Smith is a native of Big Sandy, Texas) as an avenue Smith opens for the Illini. "He is a man of high-integrity, he is a leader of men, a mentor, a teacher, a great recruiter. There's not a living room in America that's not going to open their doors to Lovie Smith and his staff," Whitman said.

With his staff and his recruiting strategy covered, the last unchecked box from Smith's two-decade sabbatical is the perhaps the biggest change in the college game from 1995 to 2016: social media. And that's an avenue, Smith asserted, he can handle himself.

"I think it's a misnomer that I'm some old guy that doesn't know what's going on right now," he said through a smile. "I can adjust to social media. I can flip that switch."