The high point of the Lovie Smith era of Illinois Fighting Illini football came at the expense of the Minnesota Gol_en Gophers, as defensive coordinator Robb Smith was fired for allowing 600+ yards in back-to-back games. As I’ve covered before, one of the perks of rooting for a team that hasn’t been highly regarded is that wins come with an extra side of schadenfreude, and while I’m first and foremost thrilled for our players to get to enjoy such a great win and excited for the potential to grow as a team, it would be dishonest to say I’m not amused by Illinois’ role as a coach executioner.
The Illini secondary and defensive line played their best game of the year on Saturday and Rod Smith’s offense is hitting its stride. Three games remain. Can Illinois force any more firings?
Game 1: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Scott Frost is in year one at the helm of Nebraska, and while the 0-6 start was troubling, the improvement of the team throughout the year has been encouraging and Some Other Memorial Stadium was treated to a near-upset of #10 Ohio State this past week. Already all-but-eliminated from bowl contention at 2-7, Nebraska fans know they’re playing for the future. The last time a first-year Nebraska coach played Illinois, his bizarre decision to throw 31 times in 25-mph winds despite success with the running game cost the Cornhuskers a win and was the first sign that this might not be the coach of destiny.
It’s difficult to imagine offensive coordinator Troy Walters making similar decisions as Frost’s apprentice, and though a shutout at the hands of Lovie’s boys would certainly be cause for concern, there’s no way any offensive staff will be fired for the performance. Erik Chinander may have a slightly shorter leash at defensive coordinator, but it would be unprecedented to fire a coordinator in year one for performance-related issues, even if Reggie Corbin racked up 300+ yards in a dominating win. Firing Outlook: Virtually Zero Chance
Game 2: Iowa Hawkeyes
This is one of the most stable coaching staffs in the country, with Kirk Ferentz in his 20th season as the head man. He’s the longest-tenured coach at a Power 5 school and at this point it’s hard to imagine anything short of a slide into a 2-10 (0-9) season would see his ouster. When I say that, I mean that if Iowa goes 8-4 this year and then has a winless season in conference play next year, that still wouldn’t force his firing. They would have to have a series of seasons that go from six wins to four to three to two. I firmly believe Ferentz will retire before that happens.
When Kirk does retire, I believe his heir, Brian Ferentz, will ascend to the throne. He’s had success as the offensive coordinator so far, as this has been one of the best Iowa offenses in recent memory. Seventh-year defensive coordinator Phil Parker has put together a good unit this year, but this unit just gave up 38 points to Purdue in a loss. It’s certainly not unthinkable that he sees the door if AJ Bush looks like Tommie Frazier against the Hawkeyes, but it’s highly unlikely. Firing Outlook: Highly Unlikely
Game 3: Northwestern Wildcats
This coaching staff is much more Ferentz than Frost, as Pat Fitzgerald has been around since 2006 and has coached Northwestern to previously unthinkable levels of sustained relevance. Also previously unthinkable? Northwestern leads the Big Ten West despite an 0-3 non-conference record that includes home losses to Duke and Akron. Northwestern would basically have to repeat 1979-82 for Fitz to be dismissed at this point.
Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is in his 11th season and his defense has been Northwestern’s calling card for the past six or so years. Given that this unit shut down Wisconsin’s top-rated rushing offense, it’s unlikely Illinois could score enough to fire Hankwitz, but perhaps losing a 65-51 shootout to miss out on the Big Ten title game could be a traumatic enough event to force a purge.
Offensive coordinator Mick McCall is also in his 11th season after replacing one Garrick McGee, and it’s him I’d like to focus on. The offense has been anywhere between maddeningly inconsistent and absent for years now and seems to be a random number generator. Should the Cats get shut down by a pristine performance from the Fighting Illini defense, Northwestern fans would relish the chance to discard McCall. Firing Outlook: Conditionally Probable
Technically, DJ Durkin was also fired after his team played Illinois, but we’ll only claim Robb Smith as a casualty of the Illini. Let’s go shake up the league’s coaching staffs some more!
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