Late Saturday the University of Illinois announced that Lovie Smith had been relieved of his duties as a head football coach. Smith was hired in 2016 to replace Bill Cubit who had just been given the job as head coach just months before after serving as interim coach for over a year. Smith has gone 17-39 overall and 10-23 in Big ten play in 5 years.
Supporters of Smith say he was given a bare cupboard. While that is partially true, there was a lot of talent to build around, and Lovie failed at that. Although to his defense the initial fault is not Smith's. The fault goes back to 2014 and allegations about the Football program under then Coach Tim Beckman. AD Mike Thomas fired Beckman in August 2015. 3 months later Mike Thomas was let go. The handling of the Athletics was taken over by the administration and they took no action in hiring a new AD and left the interim tag on coach Cubit until the last game before making him head coach.
They then hired Whitman the following spring while the administration did not see an issue here it was clear that there was some trepidation on the part of High School players and coaches. Then when Whitman was hired, his first act was to fire Cubit who was trying to repair the damage. Again more red flags raised. The announcement of hiring Lovie Smith was supposed to be a "big splash" hire. However, I think with all the Chicanery involved between the firings and hirings the hire was met with skepticism. A rough start was expected two years later Smith had gone 5-19 and recruiting had not improved significantly. The next three years did not go much better with a 12-20 record. The lack of 4 and 5-star recruits have not played well with many fans in Champaign.
In 2016 Smith hired Garrick McGee as Offensive Coordinator and Hardy Nickerson as Defensive Coordinator. 2018 McGee was fired and Rod Smith brought in. While there was an increase in the offense the defense got no better. Nickerson was fired and Lovie became Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator. While the offense continued to show life the defense was marginally better.
Illinois did manage 4 conference wins in 2019, including a 24-23 upset win against #6 Wisconsin in Champaign. Illinois went 6-6 in the regular season getting a bid to the Redbox bowl where they lost 35-20 to the University of California. This season in 7 conference games they are 2-5 with victories At Rutgers(3-5) and Nebraska(2-5). Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith will coach the team's final game at Penn State 0n 12/19.
The search for a new coach has begun, some names have already been floated around, but what does Illinois need for a change of culture?
1. They need a salesman- Someone who not only can sell the program but the university as well. Not only to players but coaches and the All-important Chicago Public League. It does not appear that Coach Smith was able to completely repair relationships in this area.
2. They need a coach that knows how to delegate jobs and let his coaches coach.
3. The university needs a coach who not only knows the Xs and Os but how to apply his talent to do that- The constant switching of offensive schemes and shuffling of players led some to think that player management was chaos.
4. The program needs a coach who is familiar with the college game.- Also familiarity with the Big Ten or Illinois would go a long way in repairing relationships across the state.
5. The coach needs a personality. Lovie may be a nice guy but maybe too nice. College Football is a high profile sport and the Big Ten is a high profile league. Teams need a coach that can be the face above the crowd not a face in the crowd.
6. The university needs a coach who can relate to players.- While players liked coach Smith I don't think he relates well to today's players. perhaps someone younger or more attuned with college football.
With the search just beginning numerous names have been suggested. Here are just a few.
Bret Bielema NYG, asst coach - looking for a Big splash this could be it. Former Wisconsin Head coach with a 97-58 overall coaching record and 68-24 in the Big ten While at Wisconsin Also known as an accomplished recruiter. Well known good with the Xs and Os.
Clark Lea Defensive Coordinator, Notre Dame A Midwest guy whose name has popped up for other jobs currently runs the Best defense in the nation.
Jeff Monken Head Coach, Army Illinois native he has been rumored to be on the list of candidates for both Vanderbilt and Arizona jobs. He coached at Georgia Southern 38-16 prior to Army 85-54.
Hey if you can win at Army.
Todd Monken (cousin of Jeff) Offensive Coordinator, the University of Georgia Like his head coach cousin he is an Illinois Native responsible for turning around a Southern Mississippi program in 2 years from 1-11 his 1st year to 9-5 his 3rd year. The current Georgia offense is scoring at a 31.3PPG.
Jay Norvell Head Coach, Nevada Another former Big Ten coach 1989-1994 at Wisconsin. he also coached at Iowa State, Nebraska, UCLA, Oklahoma, and Texas. so power 5 conference coaching is in his wheelhouse He has had 3 consecutive winning seasons at Nevada.
Lance Leipold Head Coach, Buffalo 23-9 his last 3 seasons at Buffalo and over 100 wins as a div III coach for Wisconsin- Whitewater. He has had success recruiting the Upper Midwest.
Dave Clawson Head Coach, Wake Forest. regarded as a top program builder he has taken Wake Forest to 4 consecutive bowl games.
Luke Fickell Head Coach, Cincinnati some might be hesitant given the last Mac coach Illinois hired. Fickell coached at Ohio State before taking the Cincy job. He is 34-13 in four years, 30-5 over the last three. He was considered and turned down the Michigan State job last year.
Sean Lewis Head Coach, Kent State. An Illinois native who played at Wisconsin influenced by Dino Babers and Art Briles.
Jim Leonhard Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin He played at Wisconsin and 10 years in the NFL before coming back to Wisconsin to take over the defense which is consistently regarded as one of the nation's best.
Marcus Freeman Defensive Coordinator, Cincinnati A top assistant to Luke Fickell. A former Ohio State player who knows how to recruit the Midwest.
Thanks for reading see ya soon.