Illinois coach Lovie Smith’s beard steals show at Big Ten media days, but he talks progress
This was Smith’s fourth Big Day media days, and he approached it the same way as he has past events. He spewed empty platitudes and preached optimism for the upcoming season.
For the second consecutive Big Ten media days, Illinois coach Lovie Smith’s beard stole the show at the Hilton Chicago. That was about the only thing worth talking about Thursday on the Illini front.
Smith’s beard was noticeably thicker and longer than it was last year. But enough about his facial hair.
This was Smith’s fourth Big Day media days, and he approached it the same way he has past events. He spewed empty platitudes and preached optimism for the upcoming season.
‘‘When we first got here, we knew there were some challenging things that we had to take care of, and we attacked it,’’ Smith said. ‘‘We went to work right away. We overhauled our football program. We have a lot of new players.
‘‘Recruiting has gone well. A few years ago, we had 15 freshmen that started. Those guys are juniors now and are running our football team, and that’s a good thing. Our recruiting is going well and [so are] our guys’ offseason workouts. Our players are really working extremely hard.’’
Smith also set the standard for his 2019 team.
‘‘Are we saying this is a year where you should really see where we are? Absolutely,’’ Smith said.
Smith, however, said more or less the same thing at media days last year.
‘‘Year 3 will produce results,’’ he said last July.
Those results weren’t favorable by any measure. Illinois suffered several lopsided losses, including a 63-0 rout at home to Iowa, and finished 4-8 last season.
Still, Illini athletic director Josh Whitman said he saw progress in the program.
In some programs, Smith might have been fired after last season. But despite his 9-27 record in his first three seasons at the school, Whitman gave him a contract extension in December that runs through 2023.
Smith said this will be a telling season, even though 34 Big Ten reporters voted unanimously that Illinois will finish last in the Big Ten West.
‘‘This is a year our best football should be put on the field,’’ Smith said. ‘‘That’s what we’ve been building for.’’
The only way for the Illini to change the perception of their program is by winning, Smith said.
‘‘We have to find a way to win, finish games,’’ Smith said. ‘‘You train for that.’’
So is this the season Illinois will put up a legitimate fight against Big Ten opponents?
‘‘I don’t know,’’ Smith said. ‘‘We’re looking to improve our team. We’re better right now. It’s talk right now until we get the chance to show it on the football field.
‘‘We’ve done what we’re supposed to do in spring ball [and] summer workouts. We need to get to training camp now and see this group. There’s some new additions, [but] we need to get everybody together as a team.’’