Deep down, Lovie Smith thinks of himself as a father figure. When he was with the Bears, it was not unusual for him to call people into his office for mentoring purposes. Not just players but staff members, Halas Hall employees and the occasional sports reporter.
So reports that Illinois will hire Smith as its football coach, while shocking at first, make sense upon further reflection. One of the figurative hats that a college football coach wears says “Dad’’ on it. He dons it when he goes into a recruit’s home and sells himself to the parents. The parents want to see someone who will take good care of their child. And Lovie, with that golly-gee politeness and no-cursing policy, will look like something out of a PG-13 movie. Jim Harbaugh, he is not.
And he’ll be perfect in sleepy Champaign-Urbana, which is a lot closer to the corny high school atmosphere he tried to foster with the Bears. Kind of hard to do that in a city as gritty as Chicago.
Can he coach? That’s almost beside the point. Smith’s arrival would give Illinois someone with a name. Considering Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, the previous two coaches, were relatively unknown when they arrived on campus, that means something.
The flip side is that lots of people in Champaign are very aware of his mixed record with the Bears — the Super Bowl appearance during the 2006 season followed by five of six seasons in which the team didn’t make the playoffs.
He wasn’t what you’d call a law-and-order coach when he was with the Bears. He kept troubled players if they happened to be talented troubled players. Tank Johnson and his litany of off-field issues come to mind. That might not be the best news for a school trying to change the perception that its athletic department is a mess.
Illinois never should have given a two-year contract to Cubit in November, a few months after it had canned Beckman. The school knew that it had to hire an athletic director and that the new AD probably would want to bring in his own football coach. Cubit’s buyout is for $985,000.
At least one thing is clear: Lovie just lost the ability to be angry at the world for how the Buccaneers treated him. Tampa Bay fired him in January after only two seasons with the team. Critics roundly panned the move, saying a struggling franchise should have done better by its coach. But Illinois just did to Cubit what the Bucs did to Smith.
Will Smith enjoy the demands of being a college football coach? Rubbing elbows with alums? Traveling around the country to recruit? Imploring 18-year-olds to play for him? Nervously waiting for his star quarterback’s grades to come in?
And as much as parents might appreciate his fatherly bearing, will high school players? Specifically, Illinois high school players, who have long ignored the Illini? Will they want someone hipper, someone Harbaugh-like? All of these are unknowns.
Charisma has never been Smith’s thing. Getting players to believe in him and stay loyal to him are his strengths. The absence of a discouraging word was the hallmark of his nine-year tenure with the Bears. Smith wouldn’t have criticized a leaking hazardous waste site if it had a Bears logo on it. The team’s core players loved him for his refusal to criticize them.
Whitman announced Saturday that John Groce would be back as men’s basketball coach, which doesn’t make sense if the idea is to win basketball games. The Illini haven’t done nearly enough of that under Groce. Perhaps Whitman didn’t want to raze the entire athletic department in one day. I would have started with men’s basketball.
But something had to give at Illinois, which has been going on a downward path for the better part of two years. Smith hasn’t coached in the college ranks in more than 20 years, but choosing coaches with long college résumés hasn’t worked out well for the Illini.
I’m not a Lovie Smith fan, but as an observer, I’ll be watching this experiment closer than I would otherwise. It’s an interesting move. The Illini get a bigger name than they might have expected for a job that’s not very attractive. Smith gets a chance to put some luster on a coaching career that has been dulled by losing. If he succeeds, he’ll be an icon in Champaign. If not Father of the Year.
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