College football is a dangerous animal. If you take a job, fans will give you about twelve seconds to turn a program around. If you can not turn a team that was terribly recruited, terribly taught, and terribly coached into a powerhouse, fans begin to lobby for your job.
Illinois fans, not all but some, share this characteristic. Already in 2017, Lovie Smith’s first true season as the helm of the damaged ship that is Illinois football, fans are beginning to state that Lovie is overrated, not the right man for the job, et cetera.
Lovie Smith was hired to lead the Illinois football program in March of 2016, three months into the offseason. This gave him almost no time for recruiting, assembling a staff, and meeting current players before the start of training camp. Now, in 2017, you can begin to see the signs of what a Lovie Smith led team can accomplish.
Recruiting is most certainly turning around. There was concern early in the offseason due to a large lack of recruits on board. According to 247 Sports, the Illini rank tenth in the Big Ten team recruiting rankings for 2017. For a team that had very few commits early in the offseason, this is quite a turn around.
Fans look to basketball for a program that can change in an instant. With new Head Coach Brad Underwood, the basketball program already has a great incoming class in 2017. That, however, is the vast difference in football and basketball. In college basketball, a single player can turn an entire program around. With five guys on the court at a time, it is much easier to fix your overall standing in basketball. College football, on the other hand, is a much larger, long term project and process.
College football teams are allowed, assuming there are no infractions that cause a loss of scholarships, at least 85 players on scholarship and up to 105 total players. With 11 players on the field at a time, and football requiring many more moving parts and complimentary pieces, the rebuild of a football program can take multiple years.
A five star quarterback or running back will not do anything for you if the offensive line can not block. Likewise, the best offensive line in the country will not do much for you if your running game in nonexistent and your quarterback can not throw a five yard outlet pass.
That is the boat Lovie Smith is in. Every program in the country has gone through a rebuild. Alabama did it when Mike Shula took over the program, going 10-23 over three seasons. Mike Shula’s final season featured six wins. Enter Nick Saban. His first season, 2007, mirrored Shula’s six wins. In 2008, the preverbal tide began to shift, and the Crimson Tide piled up twelve wins that season.
Now I am not here to compare Lovie Smith to Nick Saban. Nick Saban is one of the greatest college coaches to ever be in the game. Lovie Smith, in his second season at Illinois, is not quite ready to be in that conversation. Programs are not made in a season. Saban knew that. He fans knew that. His boosters knew that.
James Franklin’s first two seasons in Happy Valley tallied seven wins each. His third season? Eleven. This was a job he inherited that was an absolute mess with severe, deserved, and highly justified sanctions against the team. Franklin and fans knew the process. I recall fans saying Franklin, too, was highly overrated after his second season. Surprisingly, the tune changed in 2016 after a heartbreaking loss to USC in the Rose Bowl.
Fans want wins, there is no doubt about it. Other than the recent birth of my child and the day I got to marry my wife, there are few things I would love more than to see an Illinois team that was year in and year out near the top of the Big Ten. I too, want to see this thing turned around. To that point, I can also look at this roster, as currently constructed, and see a lack of depth at vital positions signaling that 2017 may still show some signs of growing pains and a continued rebuild.
Lovie Smith deserves the chance to succeed. He deserves the chance to recruit and build this program as he and the rest of his staff see fit. Fans need to understand this will take some time, and a man’s first season should not be the deciding factor in his future employment.