Hidden behind ESPN’s Insider Access and well, probably ignored by most except the most die-hard college football fans, an article was published by Adam Rittenberg in which he discussed how big buyout clauses might prevent some schools from firing their coaches. Even if I had Insider access, I probably wouldn’t have read the article since my team is not going to part with Jim Harbaugh until he is buried in the ground. An interesting little tidbit did emerge from the story though in that Lovie Smith is not happy at Illinois.
Now Smith has come out to refute that claim which was rather predictable. What coach is actively going to declare that he’s unhappy with his current position, in his first year, with four games to go? Not one that wants to have a shot at winning another game. Has any coach ever copped to the idea that he’s unhappy with anything other than the current record of a team? If so, I don’t remember it.
It’s possible that Lovie Smith actually isn’t happy at Illinois. Maybe he figured that going from the NFL to the NCAA would be a breeze. Pete Carroll did it and built a dynasty before running back to the NFL to try and create another. Bobby Petrino ditched the Miami Dolphins mid-season to go to Arkansas. Jim Harbaugh did it and turned a garbage Michigan team into a College Football Playoff contender. How hard could it be?
Well, Harbaugh and Petrino walked into schools that were loaded with talent. Illinois wasn’t teed up nicely for Smith when he arrived, having previous gone 5-7 the year before and done so without players that make you go “Why isn’t this team better?”. Illinois hasn’t really been loaded with talent since Ron Zook was there and took them to a Rose Bowl.
So yeah, it’s not as easy as it looks and just maybe, Lovie Smith really is unhappy.
Well Illinois needs to figure out a way to make him happy.
Illinois doesn’t have that “wow” factor when it comes to college football. They don’t have their pick of the recruits or the pick of the coaches. The only other Illinois coach I can name besides Zook is Tim Beckman who got fired right before the 2015 under a slew of allegation. Yes, they play in a Power Five conference but they are more or less a second class citizen there.
Quite frankly, Lovie Smith might be the best coach that Illinois is going to be able to land until the program turns the corner and starts producing regular winning seasons. I bet even if they threw all sorts of money at him, PJ Fleck wouldn’t leave Western Michigan for the Illini. Maybe an FCS coach might take the leap but how many hot coaching prospects do we hear about coming from there? This is a guy you want to keep around, at least for a bit.
Lovie Smith may not have a lot of college coaching under his belt but the fact that he took a Chicago Bears team to the Super Bowl with an absolutely terrible quarterback says something about him as a coach. He didn’t win, but he got there. He can tell kids that he knows what it takes to get to the ultimate level and they have to believe him. He’s got a credibility that you really can’t deny.
Most importantly though, he wanted to be at Illinois. Someone with actual coaching ability and actual credibility wanted to be at this school even when he knew it was going to be a rebuilding year. Not a lot of coaches want to willingly step into a program that they’re going to have to remake from the ground up. Going in Illinois’ favor is that it’s a lot easier to remake a college team than a pro team. Any pro team that comes calling is going to be an absolute mess which is going to make staying in Champagne look even better.
Illinois needs to pull Lovie Smith aside and figure out if he’s happy and if he’s not, figure out what will make him happy. This program is never going to get off the ground and become what it was in the 50’s if it keeps the revolving door of coaching going.
Might want to keep that checkbook handy.