Former Bears head coach Lovie Smith was a popular choice to take over the Illinois football program as evidenced by Monday's introductory press conference.
It was a splash move.
Big or small, superficial or substantive, really it all depends on perspective or whatever rationale you choose to believe. Regardless, when push comes to shove, the hiring of Lovie Smith as head football coach by the University of Illinois was a splash move, the type all too lacking in past years at Champaign.
Or, strategically speaking, the back end of what many hope was a program-changing 1-2 punch delivered by newly minted athletic director Josh Whitman, an obvious, “hmmm, that could be something” course of action following the ouster of badly positioned incumbent Bill Cubit.
Truly love the fact that Whitman had the cojones to cut the cord on a situation – a contracted two-year stopgap, or Band-Aid, who gave no indication that he would stabilize the team since his forte, offense, already had proven to be going in the wrong direction – that was doomed to fail, and didn’t waste any time in doing so … on his first official day on the job.
Cubit, and his son, Ryan, had to go, if nothing more than as a statement that settling for mediocrity would be no longer an accepted practice by the Illini.
But Smith being a sure-fire solution for all that ails Illinois football, an automatic given to succeed? No, and anyone pitching things along those lines is foolish. His appointment is an attention-grabber for sure, but not a slam-dunk to propel the Fighting Illini into relevance, popular or otherwise, across the state, the Big Ten Conference or the nation.
If anything, this is the ultimate “time will tell” hire. Yes, Smith has been a head coach in the NFL. Yes, he had success with the Chicago Bears, even taking them to a Super Bowl appearance.
But, no matter what excuses you choose to make, Smith ultimately was fired by the Bears and bombed in his last pro stop with Tampa Bay, going a combined 8-24 the past two falls. He has never been a head coach in college. He hasn’t even coached at all in college in more than two decades.
Frankly, the game is much different at the pro and college levels, and arguably it is as difficult for a “pro guy” to take the proverbial step down as it is for the “college guy” to take the proverbial step up.
Recruiting drives EVERYTHING at the college level. This is not a sit-back, draft-a-guy, coach-’em-up or make-a-deal-for-someone-better proposition.
Creating an image, building a brand, a recognizable and respected one, and kicking butt in selling it every day, every year is the ultimate way to win. Even more so than X’s and O’s.
The never-ending battle to build a bridge between Champaign and Chicago hasn’t ended. Yeah, Smith may be beloved in the homes of potential recruits, by the parents of those recruits. The recruits themselves, though, probably won’t even have a memory of the man who guided the Bears on their last trip to the NFL’s ultimate event.
That happened a decade ago, when most kids he’ll now be recruiting were busy trying to survive middle school, never mind developing a life-time love affair with the local NFL team.
Comparing this move to Michigan grabbing Jim Harbaugh prior to last season is silly. With that, the Wolverines brought home a favorite son, a perfect example of a Bo Schembechler “Michigan Man,” who, yes, like Smith, had succeeded in the NFL and reached a Super Bowl.
But he also had coached two collegiate programs prior to that, crafting big-time winners at the FCS and FBS levels … and he’d only been away from the college game for four years before returning to Ann Arbor.
Smith has no ties to Champaign, and, as noted above, it has been awhile since he called any campus home.
Actually heard this was the Illini’s best hire since 1959, Ray Eliot’s last season at the helm. Really? It’s not possible to make such a claim yet, no matter how much you want it to be true.
Yeah, the program has been largely an ode to under-achieving, but Mike White had a pretty darn good run in the early 1980s, including a group in 1983 that remains the only Big Ten team to beat all the other nine conference squads during the regular season, and the guy who followed him, John Mackovic, has the highest winning percentage of any grid coach at the school in the last 11 decades and change.
Not even the great Bob Zuppke’s Red Grange-aided .618 matches Mackovic’s .636.
The only problem with Mackovic was him bolting for a better gig at Texas after just four seasons with the Illini.
With Smith about to turn 58 in two months, you’d hope the pining away for greener pastures stuff would be out of his system by now. You’d hope he will see the potential that is at Illinois, and the possibility of him creating a lasting legacy there would keep him there.
Most of all, you’d hope he deliver on that.
So, enjoy the splash for sure. Just remember, what matters most will show when things finally dry.
Jack Kerwin | email@example.com
BY THE NUMBERS
LOVIE SMITH 89
Career wins as NFL head coach
Career losses as NFL head coach
Years as NFL head coach
Wins his final season as Bears head coach
Years he served as Bears head coach
Wins combined his two years as Buccaneers head coach
Career playoff games in 3 appearances (3-3 record)