After signing the Class of 2019, Lovie Smith announced two assistant coach hirings for the Illinois Fighting Illini, filling positions that had been vacant since September and October. One was filled with Keynodo Hudson, a fine addition.
The other, after over 90 days of “searching,” went to interim defensive backs coach Miles Smith, who has never held a job outside Lovie’s coaching staffs. Hiring his son to this job at such a critical juncture suggests that he’s more interested in jumpstarting the coaching career of young Miles than he is in building a solid program at Illinois.
Athletic director Josh Whitman really stuck out his neck for Lovie immediately after the season, announcing that the 9-27 head coach would be extended two more years. This was done to send a message that the athletics department is still all-in on building a winning, competitive program. It echoed the original excitement of Whitman’s announcement from 2016. $4 million would be available to Lovie to hire the best and most qualified assistants he could find.
Where did the money go? If it’s still available, Lovie just showed how much he appreciates the support by spending an entire offseason recruiting cycle with two vacant staff positions only to promote Miles to take one of them.
If it’s not available, then the program we’re getting is not the program Whitman sold to us. We were promised a program that would do what it takes to become competitive with its peers, and yet here’s our head coach hiring his kid just like Bill Cubit did. The heat on Lovie that prompted Whitman’s extension didn’t come because fans were upset about going 4-8, it came because fans were upset about a defensive specialist fielding the worst defense in Illini history, taking over the defensive playcalling duties and then losing 63-0 to an unremarkable Iowa Hawkeyes team.
So, Lovie announced the hire this afternoon to little fanfare. The reason he waited this long to announce the hire is either because he gave it his best effort and couldn’t find someone more qualified than Miles, or because he was always going to hire Miles and knew it would be received poorly and therefore waited until after the recruits signed. Neither of these is good, but at least I could respect the first one’s intentions.
Lovie also announced that he would be working specifically with the linebackers on a day-to-day basis, performing the functions of a linebackers coach. This is interesting because it’s the job he hired Miles to do, and apparently thinks he needs to shadow him. At least he has a sense of humor about the whole thing:
#illini Lovie: If I'm a LB, I'd want to go to the University of Illinois. Not just because of the history but we know a little something about LB play. Right, Miles?— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) February 6, 2019
This hire doesn’t make Illinois materially worse as a team in 2019. It certainly gives me no confidence that they’ll improve from the disaster that was 2018’s defense, but it doesn’t make them worse. I suppose on that basis, it’s acceptable.
Given the context though, Illini fans have plenty of reason to feel insulted. Josh Whitman might as well. There was a bit of wiggle room regarding 2019’s on-field results, but Lovie just used it all up with this maneuver. He’d built up some goodwill that may have granted him a reprieve in the event of a 4 or 5 win campaign, but that simply won’t do now that he’s taken this measure. With Lovie betting everything on himself and Miles, it’s time to put up or shut up: six wins, or we’re moving on.