Getting Lovie Smith is the big hire that’ll make Illinois football matter. Now we get to see what the program can really do.
Reported by CBS Chicago’s Ryan Baker, Illinois is about to hire former Tampa Bay and Chicago head coach Lovie Smith to take over the head coaching job.
Ryan Baker (@RyanBakerMedia) March
To quote the collective Illinois fan base’s response to new athletic director Josh Whitman’s first day on the job: “Duuuuude!”
Smith is as respectable and impressive a hire that Whitman could’ve made considering it’s 1) March 5th, and most of the elite date options to the dance are taken, and 2) it’s Illinois.
So, let’s just call it right now.
Lovie Smith is the greatest Illinois head coach since 1959. At the very least, over the last 85 years he’s the most impressive hire the program has come up with.
Illinois has gone with the no-names, the up-and-comers, the retreads and the quirky over the last quarter century, but this time around it hired a guy who other teams might want, too.
Robert Zuppke won four national titles and seven conference championships during his epic era from 1913 to 1941, and his replacement, Ray Eliot, won a national title and two conference championships in his 17-year run up until 1959, but Lovie – with all he brings, all he means, all he represents for an absolute non-entity of a football team – is a special hire for the modern era of the program.
The last head coach to leave Illinois with a winning record – not counting Vic Koenning’s interim bowl win in 2011 – was John Mackovic, who went on to bigger and better things at Texas back in 1991.
That’s a really, really long run of suck with Lou Tepper, Ron Turner, Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, and Bill Cubit combining to go 64-130-2 in the Big Ten. Illinois has won 33% of its conference games over the last 25 years – whether it needed to or not.
Overall – again, not counting Koenning – Illinois head coaches have gone 111-170-2 since Mackovic.
Smith enters with the gravitas of a Super Bowl-caliber head coach who not only did phenomenal things with defenses at Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Chicago, but earned the reputation of being the ultimate players’ coach. He wasn’t easy, and he wasn’t lenient in any way, but he always had the undying respect of his top players, and they went through a wall for him.
Dumped/stabbed in the back by Tampa Bay just as he appeared ready to turn things around, now he makes Illinois a national program. Now he becomes one of the few guys who can step into a dud of a situation and make a gigantic splash.
Illinois just got a guy who can punch his weight with Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer, and any other head coach in the conference when it comes to cranking out tremendous defenses.
And now we get to see just how good Illinois can really be.
For years, this has always been on every list of sleeping giant programs considering the recruiting base of Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and even parts of Tennessee and Iowa to draw from, along with a sleeping base of alumni and fans just dying to care.
There were some rumblings when Ron Zook took the program to the Rose Bowl in 2007, and when Ron Turner went 11-1 in 2001 before getting tagged by LSU in the Sugar Bowl, but there hasn’t been any sort of consistent success, and there hasn’t been an A-list head coach – and that’s exactly what Smith is – to open this thing up and see what it can do.
Basically, if Missouri can turn into a player, and if Wisconsin can turn into a powerhouse, and if Iowa can be Rose Bowl-good, then what can Illinois potentially do with a guy who can walk into any recruit’s living room and start listing off accomplishments like Smith can?
But that’s going to be the trick. It’s not always easy for coaches to make the adjustment back to the life of sucking up to 17-year-olds and having to coach children instead of grown men. Some guys seem to take to it – like Jim Mora, Jr. – and others can’t quite flip that switch back on – like Dave Wannstedt.
At the very least, people are going to start caring about Illinois football. For the first time in the lives of most current Illini fans, they can see realistic hope that the program is about to become good enough to be in the mix of big things on a yearly basis.
And somewhere, right now, the rest of the Big Ten West head coaches are breaking something tasteful.
You don’t have Illinois to kick around anymore.