Lovie Smith was the perception-changing hire Illinois needed to make
In 48 hours, Illinois did a complete 180. In the world college football’s engrained perceptions, that’s hard to do.
Let me rephrase that. That’s nearly impossible to do.
The only way new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman had a chance to change the perception of Illini football was to do exactly what he did. Lovie Smith was the hire he had to make.
Does that mean Smith is a lock to turn the program into B1G contenders? No. Smith’s arrival doesn’t guarantee that Illinois will get a monumental boost in recruiting, either. We won’t truly be able to see that impact until three or four years from now.
But everything about Whitman’s first major hire — the guy, the money, the timing — made sense.
For some, the move might not have made sense because of the fact that Smith hasn’t coached college football in 21 years. Recruiting is a little different in 2016 than it was when Smith last recruited high school kids with Ohio State in 1995.
It’s still, however, all about relationships. If there’s one thing Smith can hang his hat on, it’s his ability to build relationships. Players will love him. Recruits will love him. Families will love him.
Coaches who have worked with him like Ron Turner, love him.
“Lovie will do a great job. First, he’s a really good person. The players will react to Lovie very well because he’ll treat them right and with respect,” said Turner, who reportedly played a major part in getting Whitman and Smith on the same page. “Lovie is very smart and a very good football coach. He’ll be terrific for the Fighting Illini community. His familiarity with the state of Illinois and his name recognition, especially in Chicago, will create excitement with Illini fans and certainly be helpful in recruiting.”
Ok, Illinois fans might not be giddy about an endorsement from Turner, who didn’t make a bowl game in his final three years in Champaign.
What about one from Tony Dungy?
“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,” Dungy said in a release. “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.”
Both Dungy and Turner referenced the impact Smith is going to make as a recruiter. Given the way Illinois has struggled to recruit its own state in recent memory, that’s huge. Given the way that Illinois’ current players reacted to Smith’s hire, that’s huge, too.
Whitman knows that while his new coach spent the last 21 years in the NFL ranks, he has connections in Chicago, St. Louis, Florida and Texas. Why reference those four areas? Chicago and St. Louis are the two markets Illinois HAS to dominate while Texas and Florida have more prep talent than any other states.
Current Chicago recruits are old enough to know that Smith was running the show when the Bears made the only Super Bowl trip of their lifetimes. I hate to speculate, but I doubt any Chicago-based football recruit heard the news come out on Monday and said ‘Who?’
This was a splashy hire. The money reflected that. It had do.
Smith’s six-year, $21 million deal might seem like a lot, but consider this. Among SEC coaches, his $3.5 million wouldn’t even put him in the top 10.
It’s still a lot of money to give at a guy who hasn’t worked on a college sideline since the Bill Clinton administration. But that’s not a bad price to land a guy with 11 years of NFL head coaching experience and to do so in March.
Whitman had to act swiftly with a strong, loud statement that helped erase the Bill Cubit/Tim Beckman situation. He couldn’t afford to have two weeks of negative headlines written about the program — and have people question his decision-making — while he tried to dig up the remains of the free-agent coaching pool.
Smith’s presence is instantly going to boost Illinois’ 41,342 average attendance, which was 13th in the B1G in 2015. That much is already evident in the fact that Illinois sold over 1,000 season tickets on Monday alone.
And students are interested, too:
Popular man pic.twitter.com/zmpxQAoswM
— Jeremy Werner (@JWernerScout) March 7, 2016
Smith is going to win over boosters and former Illini players that were likely unsure of the direction of the program a few days ago.
If Smith is going to have staying power, wins will obviously be the most important metric. Illinois averaged less than five regular-season wins per season in the last eight years.
There’s a losing culture stemming from the Beckman/Mike Thomas era that won’t be changed overnight. There could still be some tough times ahead for Smith before establishes some roots in Champaign.
But on Monday, Whitman began the program’s rebirth. And finally, it appears that Illinois is done messing around.