Is Lovie Smith’s New Illinois Gig Just A Stepping Stone To Another NFL Job?
I thought it was pretty classless of Peyton Manning and Lovie Smith to make their big announcements on National Cereal Day. Who tries to upstage cereal? It's just not right.
Anyway, Manning is officially gone, not that anyone's surprised. His retirement has had more lead discussion than a new Star Wars movie. But Smith to the Illini was less anticipated. Can the former Bears/Buccaneers head coach bring the Illini football program back to relevance?
And more importantly, does he have any intention of staying around long enough to get that done?
First, some fun facts:
When was the last time Illinois won a major bowl game? That would be 1964: with a 17-7 win over Washington. That is, if you don't count the Florida Citrus Bowl as a major bowl game. They won that in 1990 (31-21 over Virginia).
Last Big Ten title? 2001 under Ron Turner (7-1, 10-2). Their only one in the past 25 years.
Last national championship? They're claiming 1951, when they went 9-0-1 and won the Rose Bowl. Although in the final AP and Coaches polls, Tennessee (10-1) was No. 1.
Smith's path to this job has not exactly been traditional. Bill Cubit served as interim head coach last season after his predecessor, Tim Beckman, was fired in August of 2015 for allegedly being to rough on his players. Cubit was named as the official head coach in November, and even given a two year, $2.4 million contract. But then director of athletics Josh Whitman did a turnaround and fired Cubit on March 5.
Presumably that's when Whitman learned that Smith was interested (he had been fired by the Buccaneers in January). Sports Illustrated:
Smith may not have recruited in 20 years, but he can likely get into more doors than Cubit could have. In the area that Smith will recruit most heavily, he'll be able to say, "Remember when I took the Bears to the Super Bowl?" That should go a long way with high schoolers, their parents and their coaches. Smith will still have to prove he can close the deal on National Signing Day, and he'll have to prove this fall that he can adjust to the wide variety of offenses he'll face at the college level.
If he wins, Smith might bolt for another NFL job. That's the risk Illinois must take. But if that happens, it means Smith would be leaving the program in a better place than he found it. That's all Illinois can ask for now. It isn't Ohio State. It isn't Alabama. It's a Power Five school with a fan base that is a lot more interested in the football team than it was last week or last year. That isn't a bad weekend's work for a new AD.
Personally I wouldn't want to work for an AD with such an unpredictable trigger finger. Loyalty hasn't exactly been Whitman's calling card so far. But then, Smith may not be planning to stay long. He ha sthe look of a guy who really wants back in the NFL spotlight.
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