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What Illinois’ off-season coaching hires tell us about Lovie

He’s providing autonomy... and staying comfortable.

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Illini football added new assistants this off-season in running backs’ coach Mike Bellamy, offensive line coach Bob McClain, cornerbacks’ coach Keynodo Hudson, and strength & conditioning coach Lou Hernandez. In addition, Lovie named his son, Miles, as linebackers’ coach and installed himself as defensive coordinator.

With the NFL hiring cycle seemingly over, it is safe to say that the Illini coaching staff should stay intact heading into the 2019 season. Now, it is time to asses what these hires signal about Lovie and his plans for Illini Football.

Lovie has no interest in being a “CEO” Head Coach

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Over the last decade, the CEO Head Coach has become a term of art in College Football. The term implies a certain hands off approach where a Head Coach provides his assistants tremendous latitude in coaching their side of the ball. In a story on how Mack Brown is taking the CEO approach at North Carolina, SB Nation’s Richard Johnson precisely described this organizational approach to running a college football program:

It seems to resemble Clemson’s setup under Dabo Swinney: install a folksy head coach as the head of the program and surround him with bulletproof coordinators to take care of the actual football.

It’s not to say Brown and Swinney don’t know what they’re doing on the whiteboard. But they get time to sell their program and have good, hands-on football minds to fall back on. Swinney’s greatest talent may be making you think his folksiness makes him less shrewd of a CEO.

Well, with Lovie naming himself as Defensive Coordinator, the CEO approach is out of the window and there is nothing wrong with that. Lovie knows time is of the essence with this Illini rebuild and another doomed DC coordinator hire, like Hardy Nickerson, will cost Lovie his job. So, Lovie is taking matters into his own hands. He is going to live and die on his ability to coach the defense. Lovie’s urgency is appropriate given the circumstances

Lovie wants to bring in pieces that have been previously successful in Champaign

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Two of the the more recent hires in the off-season cycle were running backs’ coach Mike Bellamy and strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez.

Bellamy was a star WR for the Illini in the late ‘80s and was on the 1989 team that was one game away from winning the Big Ten championship. Similarly, Lou Hernandez was a strength coach under Ron Zook from 2005-11 and, during that time, put numerous players in the NFL. In addition, Hernandez was part of an era under Zook that was relatively successful with a Rose Bowl appearance and two bowl wins.

Bringing back what worked in the past is never a good meta strategy — programs like USC and Miami are recent examples of programs that have failed trying to cling to nostalgia as a meta strategy— but as an exploitative strategy, this is excellent. Bellamy and Hernandez know what it takes to be successful in Champaign and can help provide Illini Football with the right processes and mental models for future success without trying entirely recreate an old and outdated era of the program.

Rod Smith is getting the autonomy he needs to keep building this offense

The Illini’s new offensive line coach, Bob McClain, came over from Arizona with offensive coordinator Rod Smith. McClain was an offensive analyst for the Illini in 2018. So, it seems natural and seamless to plug him into the vacant OL coach role left open by Luke Butkus’ departure to the Green Bay Packers.

However, promoting McClain is evidence of Lovie’s willingness to give Smith more control and autonomy over the offense. To take this a step further, Lovie is shying away from the type of behavior that costs defensive-minded coaches dearly: He is not meddling with the offense.

Effectively recruiting Florida is important

Every recruiting analyst will stress the importance of recruiting Florida:

Florida is the most talented state in the nation. The recruiting battles in the Sunshine State are fierce, because who wins and loses them often helps decide conference and national titles. In the last 35 seasons, 11 of college football’s national titles have been won by schools in Florida. Eight more have come via schools in the two states bordering Florida

Beyond the blue chip four- and five-star recruits who end up at the traditional powers, there are numerous two- and three-star recruits that end up on the rosters of several Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, and AAC schools like Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, West Virginia, Louisville, Central Florida, South Florida, and more. Landing these recruits in key spots on your roster can be a tremendous advantage. However, luring these recruits away from Florida and the Southeast in general can be a risky proposition. A recruiter must project whether a Florida recruit going far from warm comforts of Florida and into a cold climate like Champaign can thrive.

Former Illini running backs coach Thad Ward was a native of the sunshine state and helped navigate the Illini’s relationships in the sunshine state. Once Ward departed for a position at Temple, Lovie felt the necessity of bringing in another assistant with Florida ties.

The hire of cornerbacks coach Keynodo Hudson from Florida Atlantic University should preserve the Illini’s current hold in Florida and will hopefully build new inroads into Florida. Before coaching at FAU, Hudson coached six years at Southern Cal where he helped the Trojans real in numerous blue chip recruits from Florida.

With the hiring of Hudson, Lovie made it clear that effectively recruiting Florida remains a priority.

On Defense, Lovie will continue to stay in his “Comfort Zone”

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

On Signing Day, Lovie announced that his son Miles was taking over as LB coach.

Miles Smith spent the 2018 season as the Illini’s defensive backs coach after the abrupt departure of Donnie Abraham in August. The youngest son of Lovie, Miles spent two years with his dad as a defensive quality control coach on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff in 2014 and ‘15 before joining on with the Illinois staff as a graduate assistant...

...Some fans may be reminded of the nepotism that led to Ryan Cubit being named the offensive coordinator for the Illini when his father, Bill Cubit, was the interim head coach, but those concerns may be a tad over-exaggerated. It’s not uncommon for college coaches to hire their children to lower staff positions, but it was uncommon for Ryan Cubit to get the second-most important coaching job on the staff, coming after only ever coaching for his father. Miles Smith has also only ever coached under his father, but there’s a world of difference between being named linebackers coach and offensive coordinator. Ryan Cubit has not had a coaching job since being fired in 2016 by Illinois.

The move was justifiably met with skepticism and it reeked of nepotism. But all in all, Lovie is staying in his comfort zone where doing such a thing is acceptable. Lovie is a defensive coach, knows the system he wants to run on that side of the ball, and needs to be very hands-on with that side of the ball. If this type of hire had been made on offense, then the story would be different.

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