Even Lovie Smith's self-proclaimed 'biggest critic' believes he'll rebuild Illinois
When Lovie Smith was introduced as Illinois’ next football coach, he fielded questions from reporters. As is customary, reporters were asked to provide their name and publication before asking their question. Many were people that Smith was meeting for the first time, so it made sense that he was given a proper introduction to everyone he would be dealing with on a regular basis.
Not everyone needed an introduction.
“Lovie…David Haugh, Chicago Tribune.”
“I know who you are, David,” Smith said, which got a laugh from the media contingency.
Of course Smith knew who Haugh was. After all, Smith had called his house before to lecture him about columns he didn’t like. When Smith was coming off a 10-6 season in 2012, Haugh wrote that the Bears needed to move on. He covered Smith for nine years in Chicago. He knew the inner-workings of the organization and why Smith’s time had run out with the Bears.
There wasn’t a personal vendetta. They just didn’t see eye-to-eye.
“When he was here, nobody in Chicago was tougher on Lovie Smith than I was,” Haugh said. “I was professionally critical and objective, and some people think was over the top at times. But I hope he succeeds and I think he’s a terrific football coach. I think a lot of the things that happened in Chicago in the end were a product of being here too long. But I don’t think that has anything to do with his ability to accomplish what he wants to accomplish at Illinois.”
That’s right. Even the guy who called for his firing believes that Smith will make it work in Champaign.
Did he forecast Smith taking the job at Illinois? No. Does he see risk in the hire? Yes. But Haugh said that the move grew on him after it was first reported last week.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized it made perfect sense,” Haugh said. “Here was a guy who had something to prove in his mind. He’s a proud coach who has been fired twice now and feels like he wants to get back in it rather then just stay at home and do nothing, which I respect. This is a coach that always finds himself as a molder of men, a guy who takes that role as coach very seriously.
“It’s a very good fit. It’s a good fit when you consider Illinois’ need to be relevant, to redeem credibility, and to get in the living rooms of young athletes of parents who know who Lovie Smith is.”
That was the biggest question surrounding Smith’s hire. How would a coach who hasn’t been in the college ranks since before current recruits were born, handle that part of the job?
But Haugh always saw Smith as more of a college coach during his NFL days. That’s why he isn’t worried about the transition.
“The same qualities that make some of these guys so dynamic and successful in the NFL certainly carry over to the college game, and I think you’ll see that with Lovie Smith,” Haugh said.
Smith’s firing from Tampa Bay after just two seasons caught many off-guard, including Haugh. Smith tripled the Buccaneers’ win total from two to six with a rookie quarterback. Still, he was let go.
Even if it’s a slow rebuild in Champaign, Haugh doesn’t is confident Illinois will have a much longer leash with Smith than Tampa Bay did.
“I can’t see them being impatient with Lovie Smith,” Haugh said. “Josh Whitman has a lot riding on Lovie Smith’s success, too. Theoretically, if he starts 4-7, 4-7, he’s not getting fired in Year 3 unless he breaks a law or violates NCAA rules.”
If there was one thing Haugh always gave Smith credit for when he was in Chicago, it was that even in one of the top markets in America, Smith never became part of the news. He stuck up for troubled players, and players loved playing for him.
Haugh believes Smith’s reputation will be appreciated more down the road than in present time.
“He’s a real significant figure in the state’s football history,” Haugh said. “He’s the first African American coach of the Bears, he’s the first African American coach at Illinois. He should be very proud of what he’s accomplished in the state. I think you can look back in five years, and they’re going to be very proud of what they did in bringing him to Champaign.”
More than simply a branding facelift — which Illinois needed after the Tim Beckman player mistreatment scandal — Smith’s impact on Illinois could be determined by the consistency he establishes on the field.
Illinois had back-to-back winning seasons once in the last 25 years. The two times Illinois went to BCS bowls during that stretch, it missed the postseason the year after. Every Illinois coach during that quarter century was fired.
But Smith, Haugh said, is plenty capable of breaking that mold.
“I think it’s a game-changer. I’m not going to predict national championships or even Rose Bowls,” he said. “But I think I could see in 4-5 years, Lovie Smith having Illinois to the point where their talent cupboard is replenished to where they’re competitive each and every week with the top of the B1G. I think they might have some holes that are exploited by the Ohio States and Michigan States of the world.
“But I can definitely see Lovie getting Illinois to the point where they’re an 8-9-win team consistently and any given Saturday, they will upset an Ohio State or a Michigan and pull off one of those games that you look back at the banquet and say ‘That was a special moment.’ I think he’s going to have a lot of special moments.”