It’s fitting that coach Lovie Smith and his boss, athletic director Josh Whitman, were talking Illini football in the shadow of the I-55 construction project between the Dan Ryan and Lake Shore Drive.
Both are works in progress that have been going on a long time, with no end in sight.
Illinois will pull its shovel out again after this season when it begins work on a $79.2 million football facility adjacent to Memorial Stadium in Champaign. The 100,000-square-foot addition will feature a new locker room, a weight room and training facility, plus new coaches’ offices. It’s expected to be completed in time for the 2019 season.
“We’re trending in the right direction,” Smith said Monday at Big Ten media day at the McCormick Place Hyatt. “The facility is a big thing. It’s a sign of our commitment to get this going. We know that behind the scenes, we’ve made improvement. We’re in a whole different frame of mind. You have to believe you can win before you hit the field. We’re closer to that right now.”
And yet, as Illinois heads into Year 2 of the Lovie Smith rebuild, “patience” is the operative word. Again.
“We’re 15 months into this,” Whitman said. “It’s a process. It’s not going to happen overnight. They say patience is a virtue. When we get there, it will be that much sweeter because of where we’ve come from. That’s the mindset we have. And I hope it continues to be shared by our fans.”
Another thing the Illini have going for them is Smith, whose stature remains untarnished by a rocky 3-9 start last year. The former Bears coach only assumed the Illinois job in March 2016.
“He knows football,” senior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap said. “He’s been around the game for so long, he has a lot of wisdom. He’s the same person every day. There’s not really any panic. A coach who blows his top doesn’t have a lot of wisdom. I think we have the best coach in the country, to be honest.”
Illinois’ patience could be tested early. Two of its nonconference opponents, South Florida (11-2) and Western Kentucky (11-3), are coming off huge seasons. And Nebraska and Iowa will be a formidable one-two punch to open Big Ten play.
But Illinois believes. And so, apparently, does Illini Nation.
“It’s fun to be with Coach in Chicago,” said Whitman, mentioning their trip to Wrigley Field on Sunday night to see Smith’s old Tampa pal, Cubs manager Joe Maddon. “We walked around Wrigley. To see all the fans call out to [Smith] and interact with him, I think it means a lot to them. The reality is, he’s one of the more recognizable figures in football. We felt a different dynamic around our football team last year. And I’m confident we’ll continue to see that this year.”
Another thing the Illini have going for them is that this is their second year under the same set of coaches. The distractions of embattled Tim Beckman and interim Bill Cubit are only a memory.
Again, though, Whitman said he won’t measure the season by wins and losses, and he advises Illini fans to share that view.
The offense could be bolstered by the return of oft-injured receiver Mikey Dudek, who provides another quality target, along with Malik Turner, for new quarterback Chayce Crouch.
The defense returns only three starters, none on the defensive line. But Smith expects his experienced backups to step up.
“Every great player was once a young player,” Smith said. “Last year, we were really heavy, with seven defensive linemen coming in. We think it’s going to be a short learning curve for them.”
That would be the kind of progress the Illini crave.
Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould and at TMGcollegesports.com.