Lovie Smith’s Illini facing a longtime image deficit vs. Pat Fitzgerald’s Cats
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There are those in the University of Illinois’ neck of the woods who accuse the sports media in Chicago and beyond of fawning over Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald like lovesick puppies.
Maybe they’re right.
‘‘I’ve never heard or read one negative word about how he presents himself in public,’’ the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus told me after Big Ten media days last week in Chicago.
‘‘Pat Fitzgerald is the perfect public example to which Illinois should aspire,’’ said Scott Dochterman, who covers Iowa for The Athletic. ‘‘He’s both passionate and eloquent, and he represents Northwestern better than nearly every other college football coach represents his school.’’
‘‘Fitz is a magician at the lectern,’’ the Omaha World-Herald’s Lee Barfknecht said. ‘‘Smart, savvy, weaves his school’s narrative deftly. Leaves Illinois in the dust.’’
Fitzgerald bragged to a ballroom packed with hundreds of reporters about the Wildcats’ successes with academics, facilities and results on the field. He effused about championships to come. Give him this: He was compelling and convincing. Then again, he nearly always is.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith, meanwhile, has one heck of a beard. If there was one takeaway from Smith’s news conferences at media days, that was it. It wasn’t anything to do with the Illini’s future because Smith was typically understated and guarded with his comments. Then again, he nearly always is.
That’s OK, isn’t it?
‘‘Pat’s better than most coaches in the country at the podium, but it’s easy to win the presser,’’ CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd said. ‘‘Sooner or later, you have to win games. . . . At the end, it’s about hard work, recruiting, etc. There are a lot of boring coaches who get it done.’’
Dodd mentioned the Patriots’ Bill Belichick. I’d add Alabama’s Nick Saban. Both examples probably are obvious.
But college coaching is, in sizable part, a sales job, and that’s an area in which Illinois has fared poorly through the years. As Barfknecht cleverly put it, Illini coaches ‘‘have been known for not being well-known.’’
That happens when you don’t win games. It doesn’t help when you don’t ‘‘win the press conference.’’
When was the last time Illinois had a coach who routinely won the news conference?
‘‘Really, the answer to your question is Mike White — all the way back to the ’80s,’’ said Mark Tupper, who recently retired after 44 years at the Decatur Herald & Review. ‘‘Mike was a different kind of guy, and he was building and he got results.’’
Herb Gould, the former Illinois beat writer for the Sun-Times, also harks back to White, who brought California quarterbacks and a certain edginess to the program. That skips over, going back, Tim Beckman, Ron Zook, Ron Turner, Lou Tepper and John Mackovic.
That’s a mighty long time.
Not everyone agrees. Dochterman says it was Turner. Potrykus and Dodd say it was Zook, the pedal-to-the-metal recruiter without the record to show for it. Again, winning the news conference isn’t everything.
It seems to have done a lot for Fitzgerald and the Wildcats, though. When he was named coach after the death of Randy Walker in 2006, Fitzgerald still was known best as an all-time great player at the school who had helped lead the Wildcats’ stunning ascent to the Rose Bowl in 1995. That no longer has much cachet with young members of the media, let alone with recruits who weren’t born then.
These days, his personality and presence set the tone for how the Wildcats are perceived nationally. Smith has the same number of Big Ten titles as Fitzgerald — zero — but Illinois is as low-profile a program as there is in the Power Five conferences.
Most of it can be attributed simply to winning and losing, but coaches moving the needle — or not — must play some
role in that.
‘‘Fitzgerald dominates Illinois coaches by 10 miles when it comes to the media,’’ College Football News’ Pete Fiutak said. ‘‘Younger, more intense, more in love with the school — it’s genuine with him.
‘‘Illinois coaches are always retreads or rentals. Lovie doesn’t want to be at Illinois; he wants to be the head coach of the Houston Texans. Fitzgerald is the ultimate true-believer head man, and it shows.’’
That’s just one national writer’s take. It’s at least a little bit revealing, though, isn’t it?