Lovie Smith knew the challenges ahead.
He accepted the vacant Illinois coaching job knowing full well the program had a 17-32 record with just one bowl appearance over its last four seasons. He was aware that he was inheriting a thin roster thanks to former coach Tim Beckman’s poor handling of player injuries and medical decisions. And he was prepared to embrace the college landscape after spending the last 19 years in the professional ranks.
With its 42-21 loss to Northwestern in its regular season finale Saturday, Illinois finished Smith’s first year as a college football coach with a 3-9 (2-7) record. He was able to summarize his thoughts on the disappointing — yet not all that surprising, when you take a microscope to the situation — result rather briefly.
“We did a lot of things teams that lose do,” Smith said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “When you win three games, you’re not talking about an awful lot you’ve done.”
Smith won 81 games with the Chicago Bears from 2004-12, including a 13-3 record and a trip to the Super Bowl during the 2006 season. But for some reason, he was let go after going 10-6 and missing the playoffs in 2012.
The Bears are 21-37 since he left and are one of the NFL’s worst teams in 2016.
“I feel the same way I felt then: You’re a 10-win coach, you don’t assume you’re going out the door, and nothing has changed,” said Smith, who went 8-24 with the Tampa Bay Buccanneers before taking over Illinois. “Beyond that, for me, I don’t look back. I have new challenges ahead. As much as anything, you pull on some of your past experiences.”
Illinois showed flashes of what could be in the future under Smith’s tenure throughout the season, including a win over Michigan State and a competitive loss at Nebraska that featured a six-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
A full offseason and recruiting cycle should help the Fighting Illini compete for postseason eligibility in 2017. That will be the goal.
“I feel great about leading this age group of men,” Smith said. “It helps when you’re a veteran coach and you’ve been in this situation. We have a lot of young players who haven’t, so I have to show them the way.”