Northern Illinois wide receivers coach Thad Ward has accepted a job as the new running backs coach for Illinois coach Lovie Smith, according to a source.
The respected Ward is a major addition for the Fighting Illini’s recruiting efforts as he brings a strong track record as a recruiter in Florida.
Ward has been with Northern Illinois for the past three seasons in his current position and coached two-time All-Mid-American Conference honoree Da’Ron Brown, who was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL draft. Ward helped the Huskies win the MAC championship in ’14.
Prior to joining Northern Illinois, he coached wide receivers at Western Michigan in 2012 and was the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator at Gardner-Webb in ’11. He was the running backs coach at Western Illinois from ’05–10, a stretch during which the Leathernecks had a 1,000-yard rusher every season. In 2008, he coached Herb Donaldson to a Division I-best 162.2 rushing yards per game average.
While coaching at Western Illinois, Ward participated in the NCAA Football Coaching Academy and the NFL’s Minority Internship Program in 2009, working with the Baltimore Ravens.
He got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant at Florida A&M in 2002 before moving to Tallahassee (Fla.) Rickards High for two years as wide receivers and defensive backs coach. He also served as interim head coach at Tallahassee Rickards in ’04.
The Tallahassee native played wide receiver at Coffeyville Community College for two years, becoming an all-conference selection before moving to Central Florida. In his senior year with the Knights, Ward caught 43 passes for 446 yards with a touchdown.
He joins up with Smith, who was hired as Illinois’s coach on March 7, two days after new athletic director Josh Whitman fired former Fighting Illini coach Bill Cubit. Cubit had his tag as interim coach removed in late November in the midst of leading the program to a 5–7 record.
Smith, 57, was fired as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January after going 8–24 in two seasons, which included a 6–10 mark this past year. He coached the Chicago Bears from 2004–12, compiling an 81–63 record with a Super Bowl appearance in ’06 and three NFC North titles.
He last coached at the college level in 1995 as Ohio State’s defensive backs coach.