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Where did the Lovie Smith Era at Illinois go wrong?

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A post-mortem failure analysis of Smith’s tenure.

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

One of the things I am called upon to do as part of my line of work is failure analysis. A detailed accounting of exactly what the failure is and exactly what led to the failure produces a clear picture of how that failure could have been mitigated or averted and, more importantly, how it can be mitigated or averted in the future.

With that in mind, let’s perform some failure analysis on the Lovie Smith era.

Failure: Recruiting never got the boost it should have from the beginning

There was a little bit of juice for the 2017 class, but all in all this was a pedestrian effort for a head coach whose hiring generated so much buzz. Why is that?

Root cause 1: Lovie Smith did not embrace the role of a dynamic in-person recruiter, choosing instead to focus on the defense and coaching leadership.

Root cause 2: Lovie didn’t bring in enough recruiting star power to overcome the first root cause; while Garrick McGee definitely underperformed, his selection of Hardy Nickerson as well as Gil Byrd and Donny Abraham were ill-advised for his defensive staff. These were old colleagues and players of his that he probably thought he could mentor and give their careers a boost, forming a fantastic braintrust and lifting these coaches up. This would have been a good idea...if Illinois were already a stable and reliable winner. Unfortunately, much of his initial defensive staff represented missed opportunities to bring in guys with some recruiting chops that he could then mentor as X’s and O’s guys.

Root cause 3: Wins came too slowly to sell recruits on anything other than playing time and hope for the future. Let’s examine this one a little closer:

Failure: Wins came too slowly to sell recruits on anything other than playing time and hope. In particular, Illinois lost at home to Darrell Hazell.

With a lot of returning starters from a team that had won 11 games the previous two years, Lovie seemed set up to make a little noise in year 1. This didn’t happen. 2017 was always going to be a very bad year due to this roster situation.

Root Cause 1: Mass exodus by upperclassmen: double-digit attrition in each of Lovie’s first two years eroded that experience advantage, and while it’s debatable just how much Lovie could have done to prevent this, there’s enough stories like Tre Watson’s to suggest that he certainly didn’t value winning with the players he had when he got there as much as perhaps he should have. Playing for the future, so to speak, locked Lovie into a situation where he could sell hope and a future turnaround for a few years, but he’d need to win a lot starting in year 3 or 4 or he’d lose all credibility with recruits.

Root Cause 2: No coherent offensive identity. Garrick McGee’s offense simply never took shape, and ultimately between this and the fact that McGee never recruited a difference-making quarterback, Lovie’s selection of coordinators were mistakes that would prove fatal in the long run.

Root Cause 3: Stubborn unwillingness to adapt defensive playcalling. This surfaced throughout Lovie Smith’s tenure, especially in 2018, but the signs were there early on in the Purdue game in 2016. Lovie was hell-bent on getting this zone implemented through trial by fire and never adjusted coverages or fronts to compensate for David Blough picking his defense apart.

Failure: Repeatedly blown out in 2018, culminating in 63-0

Root Cause 1: Once again, refusal to adapt to the personnel you have to work with. If the players you have can’t execute the scheme you want to run well enough to win games, you either need to coach those players until they can, find players that can, or adjust the scheme to suit them. Purdue, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Maryland laughed their way through blowouts of our confused secondary. This, in turn, exacerbated the recruiting difficulty because in year 3, the games are starting to reflect what the steady state of the program will become.

Failure: Illinois failed to move on in 2018

This is, in my opinion, where the inflection point was for the Lovie Smith era and where I think Josh Whitman made a miscalculation. The victory over Minnesota was nice, but losing to an average Iowa team 63-0 was a rock-bottom moment for many fans as well as the coaches and players if the shots of the sideline during the game were any indication. At the end of year 3, with recruiting showing no visible progress (merely recruiting more athletic players, but ultimately ending up with similar composite rankings as the Beckman regime), the Fighting Illini were completely broken by a team that Iowa fans barely even remember two years later.

In my opinion, November 2018 was the time to cut the losses with Lovie Smith and move on. Coming into this job in as difficult a position as he was in, he didn’t have much of a margin for error. However, through the failures outlined here, he used all of it up by the end of his third season.

Failure: Prep recruiting dries up

Root Cause 1: The 2018 season and 63-0 were drivers of this, but let’s not forget that Illinois started the 2019 season 2-4 with a home loss to Eastern Michigan and a very deflating loss to Minnesota. When you’re 2-4 in year four and it’s par for the course, you’re going to have a hard time convincing Big Ten level players you have anything to offer.

Root Cause 2: With the 2018 contract “extension,” Josh Whitman basically gave Lovie the institutional support needed to make another push. There were vacancies in his coaching staff, and after being given another chance, he simply promoted from within, hired his son and declined to name a defensive coordinator. With Thad Ward gone to Temple, Lovie had lost his most dynamic recruiter. If he was going to have any hope of resurrecting prep recruiting, he needed to replace Ward as well as Austin Clark with some proven, experienced recruiters. This didn’t happen, and the 2020 class suffered tremendously.

Root Cause 3: Reports from high schools in Illinois and Missouri suggest that the Fighting Illini staff simply stopped visiting over the years. Drawing a lot from Texas and Florida and patching holes with the transfer portal doesn’t build the kind of stable program Illinois was aiming for, and if the hope was that the results would speak for themselves, Lovie was going to need to do a whole lot better than 6-7 to have that come to pass. This is why there wasn’t a bowl bounce in recruiting.

So there you have it. Not an exhaustive list, but a detailed look into a lot of key failures and choices that led to the ultimate end of the Lovie Smith era in Champaign. This can also serve as a rubric to judge the first steps of the next Fighting Illini head coach. By the time the 2020 season started, the die had been cast; recruiting was what it was and the team was as good as it was going to be with a head coach set in his ways. May the next coach be more adaptable.