When a coach takes over a losing college football program and dramatically changes it, you hear two words in the analysis of the rebuild over the years: “culture” and “identity.”
What is the culture? What motivates this team? What principles are they committed to and what do they believe in with respect to how to play football?
What’s their identity? What offense do they run? What defense do they run? What’s the thing you need to know about this football team under this coach?
These questions have been asked about Lovie Smith’s Illinois Fighting Illini from day one, and after Saturday’s win against the Wisconsin Badgers, the answer for both emerged in one phrase.
Sure, every coach wants to instill this into their players, but it’s difficult to overstate the number of quitting opportunities that were presented to everyone involved in this monumental win.
Dre Brown could have quit. He could have quit the game entirely after two ACL tears in two consecutive years of spring practice. He could have quit on Illinois after Tim Beckman was ousted and replaced with Bill Cubit, who was then extended only to be fired months later. In the middle of this coaching turmoil, he suffered the second of those ACL tears. Nobody would have blamed the kid from DeKalb for quitting the game or for trying to get a fresh start somewhere else after the mess his start at Illinois had been.
Brown could have quit after failing to crack the rotation even for a 2017 team that was playing for the future. The determination he showed in working his way back onto the field and gaining 76 yards on 15 carries on the losing end of a blowout at Ohio State in the rain seemed destined to be something forgotten to the college football world. Rod Smith became his fourth offensive coordinator in 2018, and he stuck it out through the instability to provide a big spark off the bench against Minnesota. Even still, he entered this year fourth on the depth chart.
On second and eight, Brown could have stepped out on the right sideline to stop the clock with under 40 seconds to go and preserve a timeout to set up 3rd and short. Instead, he trucked Faion Hicks into Rantoul at the 31, spun away from star linebacker Jack Sanborn at the 29, denying him an attempt to strip the ball, and pushed a pile of defenders to the 26. Dre had worked too hard just to get back on the field to settle for anything less than every single inch he could gain.
This put James McCourt in position to become a hero. McCourt could have quit as well after losing the kicking battle to walk-on player Chase McLaughlin. He could have left when Caleb Griffin was brought in as another, younger scholarship kicker to take over for McLaughlin. Nebraska needed depth at kicker. As part of the class that was brought in by Bill Cubit only to lose their head coach less than a month after signing day, McCourt had every right to go somewhere else.
Every opportunity in the world was presented, but nobody quit.
The Illini could have quit after the mighty Michigan Wolverines raced out to a 28-0 lead. They could have allowed the Wolverines to simply run a scrimmage in Champaign. Hopelessly behind, what seemed to be a Pyrrhic fight for pride turned into a three-point game. This persistence wasn’t even rewarded that day as Michigan would score two late touchdowns to escape with a three-score win. Yet even in a hopeless situation, even as media members, fans and loudmouth blog creatures such as I declared themselves “done” with this whole season, they kept fighting this losing battle.
The Illini defensive scheme was picked apart by the Minnesota read-option running game to the tune of well over 300 yards as Rod Smith’s offense was suffocated by the Gopher front seven. The defense could have given up on its own coaches, tuned them out, blamed the offense and refused to fight. None of this happened, and even as Minnesota simply brushed off the two defensive touchdowns, the pride and fight of these Fighting Illini never waned.
Keynodo Hudson and the recruiting arm of the coaching staff could have given up after losing out on a number of defensive back prospects in the 2019 and 2020 classes. At an absurdly late stage, they found Devon Witherspoon, who himself could have given up on playing FBS football in 2019 after no teams signed him due to uncertainty about whether or not his ACT score would come in. He could have gone to junior college and reset, but because both sides never gave up on this 2019 season, he took the field for Illinois on Saturday.
On third and four with the Badgers just out of field goal range, a rare play-action pass drew Stanley Green up the field, taking coverage help away from Witherspoon. Kendric Pryor beat him on a slant and had a clear path to the end zone. Halfway through the fourth quarter of a game where the defense spent 41 minutes on the field, Witherspoon found enough hustle to run down Pryor at the three-yard line to set up a goal-line stand that held Wisconsin to a field goal. If not for this play, Illinois can’t kick the field goal to win.
Jake Hansen could have quit after an ACL tear kept him out his whole freshman year. Milo Eifler, Oluwole Betiku, Brandon Peters, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Richie Petitbon and Trevon Sidney could have quit when their careers at their respective Big Time College Football Schools failed to pan out. Peters could have quit on Lovie this year after either of the times the head coach let the clock run out at the end of the first half of a game, denying Peters the chance to make plays to try to turn the game around with a late first-half score. Reggie Corbin could have quit after a whole season worth of rehab work from his torn labrum in 2015 culminated in riding the bench for two years under Garrick McGee.
They all could have given up. Media folks gave up. Die-hard fans gave up. We gave up.
I mean, we REALLY gave up.
And yet this team, even when presented with every opportunity imaginable, refused to give up. It refused to go away. The Illini would not go gentle into that good night. It’s the biggest reason they won Saturday’s game. Imatorbhebhe lost a fumble inside the Illini 20-yard line that Wisconsin turned into points. He would later score the touchdown that brought the Illini within two points late in the game.
I have been absolutely brutal to Lovie Smith since last year’s historic loss to Iowa. I can only tip my hat and praise Coach Smith for getting this performance out of the team after all the awful things they’ve been through. Somehow, Lovie found a way to make them fight long past the point anyone thought they were capable of fighting. This is certainly not the greatest Illinois football team of all time, but I can’t think of one more deserving of the “Fighting” part of the name “Fighting Illini.”