Why Illinois had to move on from Lovie Smith
Lovie Smith is a great football coach. He’s a great person. There’s plenty of evidence of both statements. I’ll always believe that after what he did with my hometown Chicago Bears.
Unfortunately for Smith, there’s also a lot of evidence that his return to college ball just wasn’t working. With reports on Sunday that Illinois is severing ties with Smith near the end of his 5th season, it underscores the reality that it’s all about winning — even at a program like Illinois. Even with a $2.6 million buyout for a cash-strapped athletic department during a pandemic.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that it is possible to win anywhere. You can’t win somewhere, until you can. Look at how Tom Allen has transformed Indiana, which hadn’t even been ranked in 25 years before doing so in 2019 and climbing into the top 10 in 2020. Look at how Matt Campbell has transformed Iowa State, which hadn’t been ranked for 11 straight years but has now been in the AP Top 25 in 4 straight seasons. North Carolina has finished the season ranked once in the last 22 years since Mack Brown left for Texas, but Brown returned last year and has the Tar Heels all but guaranteed to do so in his second season.
The examples are plentiful, which is why even Illinois — which hasn’t finished over .500 since 2011 and has won double-digit games just once since 1990 — isn’t going to tolerate a record of 17-39 with 1 bowl appearance over nearly 5 seasons. Sure, Smith took over a program that had gone 17-32 with 1 bowl appearance in 4 seasons, so it isn’t as if the longtime NFL coach torpedoed the Illini. But he clearly was not elevating it.
Smith added defensive coordinator to his docket in 2019, and that unit ranked 97th nationally in total defense this season and 100th in yards per play.
The big question for NFL coaches coming to the college game is always about what sort of effort they will give in recruiting. And with Smith, it clearly wasn’t his thing. His first full class in 2017 ranked 10th in the Big Ten, but it has gotten worse every year since — to 12th in 2018, 13th in 2019 and 14th in 2020. The class that Smith has lined up for 2021 ranks just 13th. That’s enough of a sample size to know that Smith just isn’t cut out for that sort of grind.
Just looking at the big picture, this year was always make-or-break for Smith. The Illini pulled off one of the biggest upsets of 2019 with a win over Wisconsin and a thrilling comeback at Michigan State. It was a fun story, until Illinois lost 3 in a row to close the season, including to an awful Northwestern team and to Cal in the Redbox Bowl.
Coming into this season, the Illini had the 14th-most experience returning, according to Phil Steel’s Experience Chart. There were 14 senior starters, tied for second among Power 5 teams and behind only Northwestern (15).
So for the Illini to be 2-5 with 4 losses by 14 points or more was unacceptable. For the Illini to have a Simple Rating System (a metric that takes into account point differential and strength of schedule) of -8.74, their worst since 2012, was unacceptable. For the Illini to have let up at least 392 yards in every game was unacceptable. For the Illini to have less than 300 total yards in 3 games is unacceptable.
For the Illini to have lost to in-state rival Northwestern for a fifth straight season under Smith was unacceptable. Saturday’s lackluster 28-10 defeat was the final nail in the coffin. Attempting 3 field goals in the first 20 minutes of the game in windy and rainy conditions was regrettable.
So what’s next for Illinois? It needs to find its Tom Allen or its Matt Campbell. Even at schools where winning feels impossible, it is — until it isn’t.