I’ve been going through the history of Illinois Fighting Illini football coaches this past week for a history piece I’m planning to put out next week. With that information fresh in my mind, as I wrote up this piece on Off Tackle Empire explaining that an unprecedented period of sustained stability and competence is right around the corner, I wondered to myself what Lovie’s coaching record might looks like when he leaves Champaign. Then I wondered how that record might compare to our coaches across history.
Specifically, I asked myself the following: how far up the rankings of Illinois coaches can Lovie Smith rise in terms of total wins?
The Internet is a wonderful gift, so this is a fairly simple exercise. Here’s the list:
- Robert Zuppke (1913-1941): 131-81-13
- Ray Eliot (1942-1959): 83-73-11
- Mike White (1980-1987): 47-41-3
- Arthur R. Hall* (1904, 1907-1912): 36-12-4 *Hall coached with a trio of alumni in 1904; this season is counted in Hall’s total
- Ron Turner (1997-2004): 35-57
- Ron Zook (2005-2011): 34-51
- Pete Elliot (1960-1966): 31-34-1
- John Mackovic (1988-1991): 30-16-1
- Bob Blackman (1971-1976): 29-36-1
- Lou Tepper (1991-1996): 25-31-2
- George Huff (1895-1899): 21-16-3
- Edgar G. Holt (1901-1902): 18-4-1
- E.K. Hall (1892-1893): 12-5-5
- Tim Beckman (2012-2014): 12-25
- George Woodruff (1903): 8-6
- Jim Valek (1967-1970): 8-32
- Fred L. Smith (1900): 7-3-2
- Robert Lackey (1891): 6-0
- Gary Moeller (1977-1979): 6-24-3
- Louis D. Vail (1894): 5-3
- Fred Lowenthal (1905): 5-4
- Bill Cubit (Interim; 2015): 5-7
- Lovie Smith (2016-Present): 5-19
- Vic Koenning (2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl): 1-0
- Scott Williams (1890): 1-2
- Justa Lundgren (1906): 1-3-1
- Bill Cubit (Head Coach; 2016): 0-0
Believe it or not, Lovie Smith has a better winning percentage than Gary Moeller in Champaign. I broke ties with winning percentage. So, looking at just this upcoming season, the absolute floor is probably 2 wins and the ceiling is maybe 5? Let’s be really generous and optimistic and give the 2018 Fighting Illini four wins.
This vaults Lovie all the way up to fifteenth on the all-time wins list heading into 2019. But there are some symbolic victories to be had as well. Winning the opener against Kent State would make it so nobody can ever say he didn’t win more than Bill Cubit, and following that up with a victory against Western Illinois will move him past noted disaster artist Gary Moeller. Many of these coaches are reminders of painful eras for the more experienced Illini fans, and moving up this list is a great way to track Lovie’s progress in exorcising those demons.
So, let’s say we enter 2019 and Smith carries a 9-27 record. If this is the year of the bowl game, that will grant the team at least 6 wins. To make up for our generosity earlier, we’ll say they only get 6. Well, the fourth win of 2019 would move him up to 13th, passing another mark of shame in Tim Beckman along the way.
So it’s 2020 and Lovie has 15 wins in his first four years, good for 13th all-time on the head coaching win list. How far can he climb? Zuppke is for all intents and purposes out of reach, and the win rate and longevity numbers will probably make Eliot difficult to reach. But if Illinois were to play four straight years of what amounts to .500 ball, that would add up to 26 more wins, giving him 41 at the conclusion of the 2023 season. This means he’s already been extended once in this hypothetical.
41 wins puts Lovie squarely in the top four Illini coaches of all time.
But there’s still at least another season to play.
The 2024 Fighting Illini need only seven wins to crown Smith as the winningest coach in Illinois history that never won a national title, and the third winningest overall.
But let’s say they don’t stop there. Let’s say they get to nine wins. Lovie Smith caps off the best five-year period for Illinois in over 30 years by getting his 50th win and becomes the first man ever to be named AP Coach of the Year in both the NFL and college football.
Build the statue.
That, however, is in the distant future. The relevant targets for this year are to surpass Cubit and Moeller, with a goal of passing Valek.