Well, by now you’ve certainly heard the news. For the first time in his career as a head coach, Lovie Smith has been deservedly fired, this time from the University of Illinois.
Hopes that Lovie, in year five, could build on a five-game stretch of competitive football in the 2019 Big Ten season, were dashed by an 0-3 start, given a brief respite by two victories and then lowered into the ground by the fifth straight Illini losses to Iowa and Northwestern, both in decisive fashion.
The euphoria around Illinois when Lovie was hired, silly as it may seem now, was completely justified because even now, Josh Whitman’s decision to hire Smith holds up as a good one for the program.
1: Josh Whitman pitched his way out of a jam on Day 1
Let’s not forget the extraordinary circumstances under which this hire was made. Josh Whitman took over the AD role with Bill Cubit entering a 2-year contract. Whitman deserves credit for simply doing something to avoid Illinois football treading water for one year waiting for a long-term solution. This is how 2010s Kansas happens. The only thing worse than picking a bad direction for a college football program is having no direction at all.
2: The Lovie Smith hire demonstrated a new level of commitment to Illinois Football
In the early days of March 2016, Lovie Smith was not on anyone’s radar as a potential head coach of Illinois. It’s an incredibly unusual time to make a coaching change, so expectations were fairly low for a replacement. These low expectations were further bolstered by the difficulty the previous administration had in opening up the purse to pay big-time college coaching salaries.
Whitman instead brought in a name that was well-respected in the state of Illinois with a stature far greater than any name that was thrown around Illini message boards during this time. The statement that this made was that this new Illinois AD is willing and able to swing for the fences to bring premium coaching to Champaign.
3: The Goodwill Generated By Lovie’s Hiring Went A Long Way Towards The Smith Performance Center
Having gotten the attention of Illinois alums and fans everywhere, Whitman moved to capitalize on this momentum by announcing a new football facility. That Illinois made this move at all showed an understanding of where our disadvantages with recruiting lay, and Whitman was able to sell this vision into a new facility.
In short, the Smith Performance Center was a tangible benefit of Josh Whitman making an impact hire in Lovie Smith, even if Lovie himself never lived up to the hype. With the success Brad Underwood has had, Whitman should be trusted to make the next Fighting Illini football head coaching hire. The reaction to Lovie’s hire showed that the Illini donor base very much wants to believe in this athletic director.
So what happened? How did this fall apart?