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Sports Saturday

Last place again? Lovie Smith is shaking his head. His message: It’s winning time at Illinois

Smith believes the Illini have caught up to the Big Ten pack in size, strength and speed. The rest of the West — is Northwestern listening? — can consider itself warned: ‘The memo was wrong,’ he says. ‘This is a good football team they have to be ready for.”

Lovie Smith guided Illinois to a 4-8 record last season and is 9-27 in three seasons at the school.
The last time Smith won more games than he lost? It was 2012, his final season with the Bears.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

CHAMPAIGN — Here’s the thing about Lovie Smith’s 9-27 record as football coach at Illinois. About the three games last season — against Penn State in September, Maryland in October and Iowa in November — in which his defense was lit up for 63 points. About a parade of bigger, stronger, faster opponents that has called the state, and the future, of the Illini program, not to mention its 61-year-old coach, into question.

Smith doesn’t remember any of it.

Or maybe he’s just being coy.

“When did that happen?” he said on Day 5 of training camp, his fourth at the school. “We have a short memory. When you’re getting ready to make a move, you have a short memory.”

Here’s the truth: From the jump of the offseason, Smith used those unsightly 2018 scores to grab the attention of his team. He told the defense — which he’ll run this season, without a defensive coordinator — that they’d played terrible football. He told all his players, on both sides of the ball, that enough was enough.

And he told them they were going to be winners in 2019.

“When you’re really bad and you can’t do anything about it, you don’t talk about it a lot,” he said. “When you’ve gotten better and you can do something about it, that’s the time to really use it.”

Understand this: Smith doesn’t bloviate, doesn’t spit into the wind, doesn’t write checks with his mouth that he doesn’t believe in his bones he can cover. He’s more of a realist. But when told about the preseason poll in which 34 of 34 Big Ten writers picked the Illini to finish in last place — yet again — in the Big Ten West, he grinned like a Cheshire cat.

“Where were they supposed to pick us?” he said. “I see why they picked us there. But what everyone is saying is, ‘There’s no reason for us to believe in you.’ But eventually, you do have to play.

“There’s no reason for anybody to pick us up at the top right now, but I look at the teams up at the top and see how I kind of think we match up with them. I’ll just say this: We’re anxious to play the season.”

In case you haven’t yet caught Smith’s drift, it’s this: The Illini are going to jump up and surprise 34 Big Ten writers and everyone else this season. They’re getting ready to break through. The school’s four-year bowl drought? They’ll put in the rearview. All those freshmen who started in 2016, when the Illini went winless in league play and were as bad as any Power 5 team in the country? They’re juniors now. The aforementioned “bigger, stronger, faster” parade is over.

“From here on out,” Smith said, “I think teams should’ve gotten us last year.”

Who would enjoy a rare successful season of Illinois football more than Smith, who last won more games than he lost in 2012, a 10-6 campaign with the Bears that just so happened to get him fired?

“I don’t think anybody would,” he said, before correcting himself. “I don’t think anybody will.”

Taking the Illini to the woodshed is about to get a whole lot more difficult. Smith is certain of it.


“Are you freaking kidding me?”

Illini players lovingly imitate their coach using that expression, which Smith utters often. Missed tackles, sloppy technique, bad bounces — those are the kinds of things that bring out the words.

“Well, we’ve had too much are-you-kidding-me,” he said, smiling.

It’s a question more than a few writers and fans asked last November when, one day after Illinois wrapped up a 4-8 season with a loss to rival Northwestern, the school signed Smith to a two-year extension, through 2023.

From the outside looking in, it was difficult to find any real signs of progress in the team’s play in 2018. Nationally, the Illini ranked 128th out of 130 teams in total defense — getting gashed for over 500 yards per game — and 119th in passing offense.

Year 3 is when proof is supposed to be in the pudding. As for Year 4, well, why would anyone buy what Smith is selling if the naysayers are right and the Illini remain in doormat mode?

“I understand how there continue to be doubts,” athletic director Josh Whitman said. “We’re in the middle of a pretty heavy lift. But people who have been with us day in and out, from Day 1, understand the progress we’ve made, the process we’ve put in place.”

But Whitman — who fired Bill Cubit on his first day as AD and hired Smith on his third — is ready to see some results.

“I think we’re now into that window here where we can start to expect success,” he said. “I felt like those first couple of seasons with us, we were just trying to get to the starting line. We’re past the starting line now.”

The Illini will have to work hard to screw up the early portion of their schedule. By anyone’s math, home games against Akron and Eastern Michigan, sandwiched around a visit to awful Connecticut, should equal 3-0. From there, well, just know there have been all of 10 conference victories in seven seasons, under three coaches, since Ron Zook’s last team went 7-6 overall in 2011.

As a matter of fact — this is preposterously bad — the Illini haven’t won a nonconference road game since 2007. Maybe we owe UConn an apology.

“You can doubt us, but we think we’re going to be pretty good,” Smith said. “We think we know something that no one else does. Who we are, in our opinion, is a lot better football team than what most people say, and that’s a good thing.”


Defensive back Tony Adams was one of 15 freshmen who found his way into the starting lineup in 2017, but a shoulder injury kept him out of the final seven games. By the time the Illini — who started 2-0 and finished 2-10 — were preparing for a trip to Ohio State in mid-November, Adams was feeling a bit sad and lonely and disconnected from his teammates. He hadn’t traveled with them while recuperating.

“My spirits were way down,” Adams said. “But then, all the sudden, Coach Smith was like, ‘We want you to come.’ A few of the [injured] guys, he brought us along. And just the atmosphere [at Ohio State], everything that was around it, it made me so grateful. It uplifted me.”

Adams texted Smith to thank him. He got this in reply: “Get used to it.”

“I wanted them to go to an environment like that,” Smith said. “I knew we weren’t really ready to compete with [the Buckeyes, who won 52-14], but I wanted them to feel that.”

During that game, Smith approached Adams on the sideline, put his hands on him caringly and said, “In a few years, we’re not going to be in this position. Let’s learn from this experience.

Is it any wonder Smith’s players admire him, love him, swear by him? Just as they did in Chicago, they do in Champaign — perhaps even more so.

There is no greater, more powerful example of this than Smith’s bond with Bobby Roundtree, the defensive standout who severely injured his spinal cord in an offseason swimming accident. Smith practically didn’t leave Roundtree’s side in a hospital near Tampa, Florida, sleeping many nights in his room. He has been in daily contact with Roundtree and his family since the former player was transported to a long-term rehabilitation facility in Chicago in June.

“I have three sons,” Smith said. “No, I have a lot more than three sons. Most of the time, that’s just coach talk: ‘Hey, I treat everybody like he’s my son, all the guys are like my sons.’ I don’t use that just throwing out words like that, phrases like that. I love Bobby Roundtree. I love him to death. To see what he’s going through, I don’t think it would feel any different if it was one of my three sons I’ve been with my whole life.”

A rumor made the rounds during Smith’s first season at Illinois, in 2016, that he was having regrets about taking the job and was putting out feelers for a return to the NFL. Smith shakes his head and laughs dismissively at the recollection.

“I love my job,” he said. “I’m a college guy the rest of my life as a football coach.”

If he’s right about one thing — that bigger, stronger, faster thing again — it could lead to a better run at Illinois than many expect. Smith believes the Illini have caught up to the Big Ten pack in those key physical areas. Athlete for athlete, he thinks his guys are every bit as good as those at places like Nebraska, Purdue and, yes, Northwestern.

Doormats? No, sir.

“When they look at us, ‘OK, we have Illinois,’ ” he said. “But then when you get into the game, it’s a little different. The memo was wrong. This is a good football team [they] have to be ready for.”