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Can Lovie Smith recruit? That’s the biggest question for Illini

Illinois reportedly will hire former Bears and Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Let’s get this out of the way: Rex Grossman has no college eligibility left.

Lovie Smith’s “Rex is our quarterback’’ mantra was a running joke during his tenure as the Bears head coach, but no matter how stubborn Smith can be with his personnel decisions, Rex will not be his quarterback at the University of Illinois.

But don’t hold me to that.

That’s about all we know as the Illini prepare to make Smith their head football coach. The rest of it is a bit of a mystery. The biggest question remains Lovie’s ability to recruit. A coach has to be willing to tell a recruit that he, the recruit, is God’s gift to football. He has to tell a four-star quarterback that they can’t live without each other. Hell, he has to be able to tell a preferred walk-on that the lad can walk on water. Raising the question, Just how much of his soul is Lovie willing to sell?

That’s part of a larger overriding question: How much is he willing to put into this? It’s not just the hours. It’s the energy necessary to be texting recruits, to be talking a homesick freshman out of leaving school and to be chatting up program donors at a 7 a.m. breakfast in May. To be debating playing time with parents!

Smith has potential positives that most other college coaches don’t. After two stints as an NFL head coach, he’ll be able to tell a recruit that he knows how to turn players into pros. But that alone isn’t going to seal the deal. There has to be a suggestion of a personality from the stone-faced coach, and he’ll have to pick one off the rack. That matters at the college level. Charm and salesmanship matter.

Smith will bring initial credibility to Illinois. He will not bring guaranteed results.