Changing The Expectations
There's a good and a bad side to expecting to win. Over the last ten years, the SEC has shown us the ugly side of the burnished coin: win at all costs, regardless of the aftermath, no matter the price tag, even as - in LSU's case - the university itself is in peril. There's an ugly side sometimes to winning. But in Illinois' case, the expectation to be excellent is just what the grand old doctor ordered. The ugliness of the past can be fixed with discipline, with a comprehensive plan for success, with teamwork. What ails Illinois, Lovie Smith can cure.
As news seeped through the national media that Lovie Smith would be taking over the Illini, many pundits who cover Big Ten football on a casual basis remarked that Illinois has not been successful for a long, long time. A few times, Champaign was called a "graveyard of coaches," with the next conclusion that Lovie Smith will be forgotten about until the day he is fired. After all, it's hard to win at Illinois. They have to compete with Michigan, Ohio State, and other blue-blood programs.
But that line of thinking - that blue-bloods remain blue-bloods, and other programs had best remember that - is a little blind to the past decade of college football, when teams like Michigan, Texas, Florida, USC, and Nebraska fell precipitously from their perch at the top of the college football hierarchy. Meanwhile, hungry up-and-comers - like TCU, Utah, and Boise State - went out and proved that as long as there's 120 feet of clean field somewhere, football is football, and recruiting disadvantages that get so trumped up in the media can be overcome.
Illinois does have disadvantages, but a cry of its inferiority is a strange tone on the day that the Illini hired an NFL head coach, with Super Bowl experience, to take over the program. Sure, Lovie Smith will have to get re-acquainted with recruiting - though he pointed out several times that he's done that already, in some capacity, for decades. He'll have to re-establish recruiting connections in the state of Illinois, but we're talking about a man who went 81-63 for the state's NFL team. He'll also have to set up and use a Twitter account on an active basis. Very, very tough - though on second thought, maybe I shouldn't talk.
There are more substantial challenges for Lovie's tenure. Illinois' depth is not great, and it was common for the team to lose at the line of scrimmage, whether it was last year or the several seasons preceding. Lovie could recruit more impressive linemen, but development will take a little bit of time. The defense lacks the kind of athletes to put Lovie Smith's more exotic pages of the defensive playbook into much use. What talent there is still needs to be molded.
But the biggest work has already been done, and it was orchestrated in a matter of weeks by a man who, until March 4, was the athletic director of Washington University in St. Louis. And that work was to give this team focus, to give it energy and determination to go out and compete for the next year, through summer workouts and the fall season. The wins might not come right away, but the growth definitely will, and that usually precedes at least a win or two. And that's a job well done for a random week in March, by a guy getting settled into his job.
Reactions From Players, Others
Never doubted my decision, fight through your choices even when the clouds are foggy cause they will clear in time #WEWILLWIN— Caleb Reams (@SirClutch97) March 7, 2016
This was a common theme among the players, who have handled the adversity here with grace and maturity.
Texted a top 2017 Chicago recruit a bit ago, said he really likes the Lovie hire, but is waiting to see what happens w/ Mike Bellamy.— Ryan Easterling (@RyanEasterling) March 7, 2016
Bellamy is Illinois' wide receivers coach, and very popular with the players. Bellamy's name was not brought up in Lovie's press conference, though Mike Phair was. Phair and Lovie Smith have worked together in the past, and Lovie said he would try to keep Phair.
Yes, his name is Man Berg. Yes, that's his name.
Last but not least much love and respects to Coach Lovie Smith for becoming the head coach at the original Linebacker U @Illinois_Alma— Simeon Rice (@simeon_rice) March 7, 2016
Butkus. Studwell. Kevin Hardy. Ray Nitschke. John Holecek. Some great, great linebackers over the years.
This was tweeted before Lovie Smith's hire. Again, nothing but grace and class by this football team.
"I think what's going through my mind the most is kind of just happiness that it's over, it's not getting drawn out. ... I mean, I remember watching him in the Super Bowl when he was coaching the Bears. ... [Now] we don't have to lull in any negatives or wait for any rumors or anything like that - we can just get straight to work." ~ Joe Spencer, offensive lineman
Love the hire. Instant credibility with recruits and current players with his NFL experience. https://t.co/aWCRdzZ8Yh— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) March 7, 2016
Herbstreit also tweeted with the hashtag #SleepingGiant. He's been in the Big Ten; he knows the conference better than most national analysts.
"This is outstanding for the University of Illinois. If anyone asked me to identify someone from the NFL who would be great at coaching college football it would be Lovie Smith. He not only brings football expertise, but will help young men grow and have their best interest at heart. He is the type of coach I would want my sons to play for if they were playing college football.
"As an alum of the University of Minnesota, I'm not thrilled, but I'm happy for Illinois. This is a sensational hire. He's going to have moms and dads very excited to have their sons play for him and grow as people." ~ Tony Dungy
Hitting the Links Is Adscititious
This column discusses the emotions around the hire, the state of the fan base, and the financial impact Lovie Smith has had already.
Don Brown tops the list.
Samuels is a great corner prospect for 2017, and a high school teammate of three of Michigan's 2016 signees.
Long story short: Peppers will put up some staggering and unique stat lines this year.
The quarterback with the most pass attempts for Minnesota last year, outside of Mitch Leidner, was a true freshman - Demry Croft. Croft is a tall, lanky dual-threat quarterback who's got all the tools necessary but is still putting it all together. Seth Green, who will be a true freshman this year, is another good athlete - a little more compact, with more muscle, a stronger arm, and more agility in the run game. I genuinely like both as overall players, but Minnesota fans would probably be leery if Leidner was hurt for long stretches. Still, Northwestern fared pretty well with Clayton Thorson this past season, and Croft is a pretty close comp.
One of the things Illinois' athletic director made clear in Lovie Smith's press conference was the role that a football program can have on a larger university. Donations, enrollment, interest, tourism. Indiana is winning more on the football field, and they are investing more into Bloomington.