It was eight months to the day that I walked out of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa with one unpopular thought about Lovie Smith.
If I’m Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, I have serious doubts about Smith’s ability to be the guy to turn around Illinois.
At the time, that might’ve seemed a bit harsh. After all, it was just one bad performance on the road in non-conference play following a 2-0 start to the season. And as Illinois’ official Twitter made sure to remind everyone, it was starting 38 true freshmen on each side of the ball (slight exaggeration).
It was a nice crutch to lean on during and after Illinois allowed 47 points to a Group of 5 school. If not for a garbage time touchdown, Illinois would’ve lost to USF by 30-plus points. The Illini couldn’t tackle, it couldn’t hold on to the football and it couldn’t move the ball through the air against a defense an AAC team that ranked 76th in FBS against the pass.
Some people might not have agreed with my postgame take that Illinois was a complete mess. I bet those same people thought that Illinois would win at least one game in conference play. That, of course, didn’t happen.
What happened since that night in Tampa was Illinois got outscored by 185 points vs. the B1G (an average of 20.6 points per game). That means Smith is entering Year 3 of this experiment with a 5-19 overall record, including a 2-16 mark in B1G play.
A few other not-so-favorable things happened.
Smith fired offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, who was expected to be the Illini’s ace in the hole after he left Louisville in 2016. Illinois then signed the No. 55-ranked recruiting class in February (12th in the B1G). Due to multiple departures at the position, the Illini completed spring camp with one scholarship quarterback (three more will enroll this summer).
That’s not the type of offseason that suggests Smith is ready to make good on Whitman’s roll of the dice.
I know what Smith’s supporters are thinking. Nobody expected Illinois to suddenly become a contender in 2017. The thinking was that it was going to take at least 3 or 4 years to really get things moving in the right direction. Blasting Smith for not immediately turning around the mess that was Illinois football in 2015 probably seems too critical.
You know what isn’t too critical? Blasting a coach who puts out numbers like these in Year 2:
- Total defense — No. 85
- Scoring defense — No. 91
- Passing yards per game — No. 106
- Fewest penalty yards per game — No. 106
- Rushing yards per game — No. 122
- Scoring offense — No. 126 (dead last among Power 5)
- 2018 NFL draft picks — 0
For what it’s worth, Dawuane Smoot is the lone draft pick of the Smith era, and he was a third-round pick in 2017 who was projected higher than that before the 2016 season. He’s also Smith’s lone unanimous selection for any one of the three All-B1G teams on both sides of the ball.
You want some more numbers, Smith apologist? Sure. What about the fact that Illinois, despite all of that youth that was apparently doing so much of the work last year, is ranked just No. 78 in returning production for 2018? What’s the spin zone out of that? I look forward to seeing Smith step up to the podium at B1G Media Days and talk about how beneficial that experience will be for his young team.
That’s really the only thing you can hold on to if you think Smith is still the guy. The numbers show that there are fewer and fewer of those people than there were when Smith was hired. Illinois’ home attendance dropped to an average of 39,429 fans last year, which was a decrease of 13.6 percent from Smith’s first season in Champaign.
That’s not the direction you want your program heading in, especially after shelling out a school record $21 million to bring Smith on board for six years. If I was betting today, I wouldn’t put my money on Smith lasting all six years. It’s not unreasonable to question if the 60-year-old coach has the energy and patience for the uphill climb that still awaits after two years on the job.
Maybe Whitman won’t have the patience for Smith to take that kind of time to rebuild this thing. I realize that sounds crazy considering Whitman made the bold hire in the first place, and it’s likely what will determine his long-term future in Champaign.
But think about it. Illinois is five months removed from breaking ground on a new $79.2 million football performance center. Dwindling attendance, lackluster performance and a football coach making an average of $3.5 million per year don’t mesh well with the sales pitch associated with a major project like that.
Speaking of money, here’s another reason why Whitman should be desperate for significant improvement in 2018. Smith will get a $1 million bonus at season’s end if he’s still the coach. And because of the backloaded nature of his deal, he’ll also make $4 million in Year 4, with $5 million coming in Year 5 and 6 of the deal.
Oh, and if Whitman wants to fire Smith in Year 3, he’ll owe him a massive $12 million buyout (that number decreases to $4 million in Year 4). That number right there suggests that Smith won’t be on the hot seat in 2018. Whitman pretty much prevented himself from backing out of his rich investment until Year 4 of the Smith experiment.
Still, though. It’s time that Smith actually shows he has a grip on this job and what it takes to succeed in it. Graduating players and preparing young men to be quality adults is all well and good. Nobody is doubting Smith’s ability to do that. But Smith wasn’t paid $21 million to sit in the bottom of the B1G basement for a few years until he faded off into retirement.
At the end of the 2017 season, Whitman told fans “Don’t waver. Don’t falter in your belief.” He added this, too.
“There have been a lot of hurdles that have been in front of us,” Whitman said. “The last two years have really been about knocking down those hurdles and putting us in a place to run the race. I feel very confident that we’re getting to that place now, that we’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Either Whitman is blind or I’m blind. For his sake, he better hope it’s the latter.