Truth is, lifeless Illinois can’t do better than Lovie Smith, not even close
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A 63-0 loss wouldn’t seem to scream “job security’’ for a college football coach. Further, a 4-23 Big Ten record in three seasons wouldn’t immediately bring to mind the need for a contract extension.
But this isn’t a normal situation.
This is Illinois.
And Illinois, a beige, middle-of-nowhere university when it comes to sports, can’t do better than Lovie Smith, not even close. It’s why, after a season from hell, the school recently gave him a two-year contract extension through 2023.
The idea that he’s the best Illinois can do might sting some Illini fans and enrage others looking for blood. But Smith had a stellar résumé when he arrived in Champaign in 2016. An 81-63 record as the Bears’ coach. A Super Bowl appearance. Players who loved him. Another shot, a failed one, as coach of the Buccaneers. But two NFL jobs.
What we have here is the opposite of the age-old “it’s not you, it’s me’’ breakup line.
It’s you, Illinois, not your coach.
The Illini would have figured that out quickly if they had canned Smith over the weekend. What coach of note, substance or sound mind would have wanted this job?
Smith isn’t responsible for the downtrodden state of the football program. That goes back years. But he obviously hasn’t helped matters.
The biggest disappointment of the Smith era has been his failure to lure talent to Champaign. When he was hired three years ago, it figured to be his strength. His best trait as Bears coach was his ability to relate to players, to make them feel special and to protect them from outside criticism. He was an athlete’s dream and a sportswriter’s nightmare.
It would translate perfectly to the college game in terms of recruiting. That was the thinking.
Instead, Smith’s team gave up 63 points in three different games this season, including the 63-0 loss at home to Iowa. That’s not a schematic problem. That’s an athletic problem.
Whereas Illinois should have thanked its lucky stars when it bagged Smith in 2016, now it’s his turn to buy some lucky stars thank-you cards. He landed in the one place that had no standing, foundation or deep coffers to fire him. He landed in the one place that would feel compelled to give him a contract extension. When can I start work there?
If Illinois had canned Smith, you know what kind of coach it would have attracted? A coach like Tim Beckman, a mid-major guy who stumbled into the Illini job in late 2011 and was run out of town three seasons later over accusations he had pressured players to avoid medical treatment so they could continue playing with injuries.
Beckman won four Big Ten games with Illinois. If you’re wondering why Lovie’s program is in the state it’s in, you can start there.
Since coming to Champaign from Washington University in St. Louis, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman hasn’t done much to dispel the perception that the Illini’s aim is low. Both his athletic director jobs before Illinois hired him were at Division III programs.
Pre-Whitman, there was Mike Thomas, who, before he found Beckman in Toledo, was the athletic director at Cincinnati and Akron. He’s now at Cleveland State.
Hard to be big-time when the people you hire aren’t.
“We endured several lopsided losses and expected to win more games,’’ Whitman wrote on the school’s website Sunday. “After studying the season, however, there were undoubtedly signs of progress.”
Progress? Does he take his audience for idiots?
“A growing narrative around our program is that Illinois Football has failed to progress and that [Smith] is in jeopardy of losing his job,’’ Whitman wrote. “If I allowed that narrative to continue unchecked, we would risk damaging the foundation we have worked so hard to construct over these last years. Thus, today we put it to rest and get back to the business of building for the bright future of Illinois Football.”
First, “football’’ should never be capitalized but especially when it has to do with the University of Illinois. Second, just say it, Josh: We stink, and although Smith hasn’t been great, we have no shot of attracting anyone who has close to his experience and achievement level.
I was never a Lovie Smith fan when he was with the Bears. He was condescending to the media and thus to the fans whom the media served. But the right move was for Illinois to stick with him, if only because the alternative was likely far worse.
I have a suggestion for Smith, from one old guy to another: Lose the bushy gray beard. I wouldn’t think it connects with high school recruits, other than in an “Uncle Drew’’ sort of way. Young players generally don’t want a coach who looks like their grandfather. Some of them are looking for a father figure, a role Smith played very well when he was with the Bears. A father figure, not Father Time.
Speaking of time, Lovie, you bought yourself some more. You are a very lucky man, if a coach can be said to be lucky while in the employ of Illinois.