Imagine Lovie Smith sitting in a living room explaining to a prospective college football recruit why he should choose a particular school. When that recruit, aligned by his parents and close relatives, asks why should he choose the particular university, he would be reminded by Lovie Smith that he has led a team to the Super Bowl.
This is what University of Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman envisions.
According to Pro Football Talk, Lovie Smith is closing in on the Illinois Fighting Illini head coaching vacancy. He would be the right head coach, at the right time, for what originally seemed like a terrible situation. The hiring of former Chicago Bears’ head coach Lovie Smith would be refreshing.
There has been a lot of criticism heaped in the direction of the Fighting Illini these days. One can easily suggest that what has taken place at the University of Illinois’ athletic department is embarrassing.
First, it was reported that former Fighting Illini football coach Tim Beckman was in charge of a culture that included pressuring players to perform hurt. ESPN cited that Beckman was also demonstrative in influencing the medical reports, which led to his firing.
Beckman was consequently fired just one week before the Fighting Illini’s season opener in 2015. Bill Cubit would eventually get hired by interim AD Paul Kowalczyk. Cubit was dumped by Whitman with one miserable 5-7 season under his belt.
Miserable because of the uncertainties in the athletic department. Paul Kowalczyk was replaced by Josh Whitman. Now Whitman looks to replace Bill Cubit with Lovie Smith.
Lovie Smith expected to become next head coach at Illinois https://t.co/MDF4uHQ5zz— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) March 5, 2016
When Whitman was hired by Illinois to run its athletic department, the university was met with ridicule and vitriol. That was primarily due to the idea that the former starting tight end of the Fighting Illini did not come from a university with a major sports program. Whitman was the AD of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
The biggest question was who Whitman could reach out to, as far as big names were concerned, if he hails from a much smaller program.
No one saw Lovie Smith as a potential coaching candidate. Once it was known that Whitman had spoken with the former NFL head coach, it ceased all questions.
The official announcement that the Illinois Fighting Illini have hired Lovie Smith to be the new head coach has now happened and it feels like a natural fit.
Once you look past how his tenure with the Bears — Smith was fired after a 10-6 season — there are plenty of reasons why Illinois hiring Lovie Smith makes sense.
For Illinois, specifically, replacing Bill Cubit w/ Lovie Smith isn’t much different than the Cubs replacing Ricky Renteria with Joe Maddon.— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) March 6, 2016
Lovie Smith is 93-90 as an NFL coach after spending eight seasons with the Chicago Bears and two years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That includes a 3-3 record in the playoffs. Prior to agreeing to coach the Bucs, Lovie Smith led the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006. He has another Super Bowl appearance from his time as the defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams.
Lovie Smith gives the Fighting Illini a coach who is a proven winner at the next level. He has taught talented players his variation of the Tampa-2 defense, a defense that, when utilized properly with the right players, can be very effective. Under Lovie Smith’s tutelage, players such as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, and Tommie Harris all had strong seasons. It would not be surprising to see the trio of Urlacher, Briggs, and Tillman as NFL Hall of Famers someday. Lovie Smith can take much of the credit for their ascension.
Lovie Smith can also take some credit for the maturation of receiver Brandon Marshall and the success of running back Matt Forte.
What also makes Lovie Smith a strong hire for the Fighting Illini is that he is a strong teacher of men.
Integrity is a strong suit of Smith. Since he is a devout Christian, it is hard to imagine him running anything but a clean football program. His ties to Illinois, Florida, and Texas will help him when it comes to recruiting. His overall demeanor as a father figure and mentor could only help.
"Lovie expected to bring his 2 of his sons to Illinois ... all Cubit assistants given permission to seek other jobs" https://t.co/WOpDHovko7— Dave Wischnowsky (@wischlist) March 6, 2016
Some will wonder how Lovie Smith can handle the rigors of recruiting talent to the Illinois Fighting Illini. Who he brings in as assistant coaches will play a major role here.
As the head coach, Smith will only have to travel to formally initiate recruitment or close the deal. His assistants will handle the lion’s share of the duties. His assistant coaching hires could range from the available coaches out of work, including former Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Fraizer. His group of assistants could extend to former pro players with some coaching experience as well as those looking to coach. Since he does have connections with several former NFL players looking to get into coaching, it is difficult to see a downside.
The idea that a head coach of Lovie Smith’s status would be interested in taking the job is a plus for the Fighting Illini. It suggests that the moribund football program can become relevant once again. The idea that the Illinois Fighting Illini is interested in Lovie Smith is even more impressive, but for a different reason.
Lovie Smith is a black football coach who is now joining the NCAA, where there is a void of black head coaches. How he does will no doubt open up more opportunities for black coaches looking at the NCAA as an option for head coaching vacancies. Now that the biggest obstacle has been crossed, Lovie Smith’s biggest challenge will be how well he handles the rigors of coaching in the NCAA, although his experience includes some time in college. Smith will likely do as well as Illinois Fighting Illini AD Josh Whitman did in hiring him.
Well done for the first major hire to start a new day for the Illinois Fighting Illini.
[Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images]