Just before Illinois’ football season came to an end in 2020, athletic director Josh Whitman elected to make a coaching change. After five years with the program, Lovie Smith was fired.

During those five seasons in Champaign, the Fighting Illini were just 17-39 with a 10-33 record in B1G play and appeared in only one bowl game, finishing 6-7 in 2019. With a 2-5 record through the regular season in 2020, Whitman decided it was time to find a new leader.

Shortly after the firing, Illinois announced it had hired Bret Bielema to take over the program.

One question that often gets ignored when a coaching change is made is how the players — past and present — feel about it. Former Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe recently talked about Smith’s firing in an interview with The Spun.

“It was unfortunate, but this is business,” Imatorbhebhe told The Spun. “Everyone knows Illinois isn’t a blueblood, so we needed to have a full offseason in order to be the team we know we could’ve been. We had 17 returning starters, 5 of us were Senior Bowl watchlist guys, and we had a lot of talent that was going to step in. Teams that aren’t like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and those used to winning, need a full offseason to gain the momentum and confidence to perform the way they know they can.

“Not being able to do that was unfortunate because I think it could’ve been a different story and Lovie would’ve still been there.”

Imatorbhebhe transferred to Illinois before the 2019 season, coming to Champaign from USC. He made a big impact in his two years with the program, hauling in 55 receptions for 931 yards and 12 touchdowns. The receiver’s best year came in 2019, when he had 634 yards and 9 touchdowns on 33 catches, averaging 19.2 yards per grab.

We’ll never know if Illinois’ 2020 season would’ve been different had it enjoyed a full offseason to prepare. And maybe Smith would still be in charge in Champaign.