Can you believe that Lovie Smith is actually the head coach of Illinois football? He’s had the job for over a year now, but it’s still surreal to see someone of such prominence roaming the sideline in Champaign. The best part about the hire? It really couldn’t have come at a better time. The Fighting Illini were on the tail end of a four-year stretch that featured utter irrelevancy, however the conversation immediately shifted in a positive direction following the move.
Smith’s first season at Illinois admittedly didn’t go too well — some would argue he failed to meet expectations with the holdover roster — but it’s important to keep in mind that he wasn’t brought in to cultivate immediate success. This was a conscious, long-term effort by the athletic department to improve the football team.
With that in mind, here are a few things that Fighting Illini fans can look forward to from the program over the next five seasons.
Better players, probably
When Smith was hired, there were some concerns over his ability to recruit high school athletes. Those complaints made sense, too, because this wasn’t exactly a skill that needed to be utilized during his time in the NFL. But Smith quickly put together a coaching staff riddled with professional experience, and the results were pretty great considering the short turnaround after being hired in March.
Illinois’ 2017 recruiting class ended up ranked No. 47 nationally, and while that figures will absolutely need to improve, it signified a drastic jump from the days of Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit. Four-star prospects Ricky Smalling (WR), Owen Carney (DE), Delshawn Phillips (LB), and Kendrick Green (DT) will provide a strong base at key positions area
The 2018 class is off to a bit of a slow start to this point, but the Fighting Illini have remained in the conversation for talented players out of St. Louis and downstate Illinois. Hopefully the coaches will soon have some on-field results to sell as part of their pitches.
Memorial Stadium renovations
That’s right! Fighting Illini football will soon begin a $132 million project at Memorial Stadium.
The renovations will add team facilities in the south end zone, including new locker rooms, training/recovery/sports medicine areas, meeting and office space, and recruiting venues. Overall stadium capacity is expected to remain around 60,000.
Illinois hopes for the south end zone portion of the project to be completed during the Summer of 2019, with the following changes to the east grandstand taking hold in 2020.
Commitment to winning
Leapfrogging off the renovations, it’s clear that Illinois once again cares about its sports, and that’s largely thanks to athletic director Josh Whitman. He completely revitalized the Fighting Illini. Immediately after taking over the job, Whitman hired Smith to a massive six-year, $21 million deal while also granting one of the largest assistant salary pools in the Big Ten.
But this commitment goes far beyond financial backing. For the first time in what seems like forever, there’s one cohesive, clear vision being shared by everyone at the university in regards to the football program. That’s what it takes for a winning culture.