Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was a successful college football team. In an era where boosters, athletic directors and fanbases press for immediate results, the Illini faithful need to keep that old French proverb in mind this fall.
When Lovie Smith was hired as Bill Cubit's successor back on March 7th, the collective mindset of the orange and blue fanbase took a dramatic turn. Suddenly there were "Rose Bowl!" chants followed up with "New Year's Day bowl?" questions and before you knew it Illinois fans were sounding more like Ohio State ones. The expectations for a team that just went 5-7 and is enduring their second coaching change in as many years skyrocketed. And reasonably so, perhaps. Smith brings a professional game plan and staff with him to Champaign, and few other college coaches can walk into a recruit's living room and say they took the state's NFL team to a Super Bowl.
But expectations must be managed for Smith's inaugural season at the helm of the Fighting Illini. For one, the schedule does him no favors. Illinois' Big Ten cross-divisional opponents in 2016 are Michigan State and Michigan. They also play road games at Wisconsin and Nebraska and host North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota; all seven of the aforementioned squads went to a bowl game last year. Besides the way the schedule sets up (which is currently ranked the 35th toughest in the nation), the roster construction is lopsided as well.
For a variety of reasons, certain positions on each side of the ball lack depth. This is Tim Beckman's roster, make no mistake about that, and Lovie is going to have to try and extract every ounce of talent he can out of it. True freshmen may be on the two-deep at right guard, middle linebacker, and in the secondary. There's nothing the new coaching staff can do about that.
Opposing offenses might still be carving up the Illinois secondary if they've got a talented QB under center, which many Big Ten foes do. This season could be considered a test of sorts for Lovie -- "Let's give you an under-recruited roster that's been through two coaching staffs and see what you can do with them!" It's easy for a new coach to inherit great players and ride them to a successful first year, but what about the players who haven't shown much promise under previous coaches? The 2016-17 season will be a great barometer for how good of a coach Lovie truly is (my guess is he's going to be a pretty good one).
Another key to consider is how quickly the players can implement the new coaching schemes and game plans. Wes Lunt has spent the last two and a half years of his life trying to learn as much as he can about Bill Cubit's offense. Now he must turn around in three months and learn a completely new system under Garrick McGee. It's not impossible to accomplish, but there's a reason why this year's spring game was a scrimmage and not a formal game. Players will need to quickly adapt to their new style of play as quickly as possible before September rolls around. That might mean a slow start to the season, which even further necessitates the plea for Illini fans not to panic if Year One under Lovie Smith doesn't go "according to plan." Take a look at how previous Illinois head coaches have fared in their first season in charge:
|Arthur Hall (1907)||3-2|
|Robert Zuppke (1913)||4-2-1|
|Ray Eliot (1942)||6-4|
|Pete Elliott (1960)||5-4|
|Jim Valek (1967)||4-6|
|Bob Blackman (1971)||5-6|
|Gary Moeller (1977)||3-8|
|Mike White (1980)||3-7-1|
|John Mackovic (1988)||6-5-1|
|Lou Tepper (1992)||6-5-1|
|Ron Turner (1997)||0-11|
|Ron Zook (2005)||2-9|
|Tim Beckman (2012)||2-10|
|Bill Cubit (2015)||5-7|
An interesting side note from this chart is that Cubit actually had the best first-year record since 1992, but I digress.
To be clear, this is by no means an indictment on Lovie Smith nor is it a pessimistic outlook on the 2016-17 football season. But fans need to remember that turnarounds at schools like Illinois don't happen overnight, and the results you see in the upcoming season aren't going to be indicative of where Smith can take this program. Granted, sometimes quick turnarounds do occur. Penn State, for example, fired Joe Paterno, went through the Jerry Sandusky scandal, suffered the death of Paterno, hired Bill O'Brien, and went 8-4 the next season. The key is that this is Illinois; this isn't Columbus or even Happy Valley. So though the immediate results might not show it, the foreseeable future is bright for Illinois football, and that's something Illini fans haven't been able to say in quite some time.