Preview 2017: Can Lovie Smith Really Rebuild Illinois?
Will Illinois head coach Lovie Smith be able to rebuild the program in a hurry?
Better to have Lovie and lost than to never have had Lovie at all.
As long as he starts winning in Year Two.
The one big question after Lovie Smith was hired by Illinois still hasn’t been answered. Can a successful NFL head coach really be a rebuilding college football head coach for a program that has so much work to do?
Unfortunately, at this point in his illustrious career, Smith might be the perfect college football head coach for a program that’s already amazing, and that’s not Illinois. At least not yet.
The rough 3-9 season was one thing – he was just taking over – but that can’t happen again in his second year. He was a quick-fix hire for a school that needs a long-range vision, which means everything needs to be accelerated with at least a whiff of potential success.
This is the year his strengths as an NFL head man have to translate to the current college game when it comes to trying to turn a program from a nothing-burger into a conference powerhouse. But those positives only look good with success on the field.
Smith has to make Illinois win because he’s probably a better football coach than the guy on the other sidelines. Do that, and then the recruiting – the biggest piece of the puzzle – takes care of itself. But will Smith – 59 when the season starts – really want to play the long game for a kid who probably won’t make an impact until 2021?
He’s proven at the highest of levels that he can succeed as the ultimate players’ coach among men. But does he really want to keep wading through the recruiting muck and suck up to children who were barely alive when the Chicago Bears lost to the Indianapolis Colts in XLI? If his first full year as a recruiter was any indication, yeah. The 2017 class wasn’t all that bad.
However, the idea of having a recruiting advantage because he knows what it takes to get to the NFL might not be as big as you’d think. Urban Meyer is pretty good at that, too.
And so is Paul Chryst. And so is Jim Harbaugh. And so are most coaches at good Power Five programs. Smith’s sales pitch has to be around that, around instant playing time, and about the potential for the program to be amazing now, and too keep hammering home the point, that only comes with winning.
His style and his gravitas would probably work great at a Wisconsin, or an Iowa, or a Nebraska – Big Ten West programs with the pieces mostly in place – but over the next few years, is he going to be able to combat the enthusiasm of P.J. Fleck at Minnesota, or the hot scheme of a young coach in Jeff Brohm at Purdue, or the intensity of Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern?
Win, and then age, experience, and the no-nonsense approach become an asset. Don’t win, and there might be a concern that Illinois needs to go younger, but without the goofiness of Ron Zook or Tim Beckman.
It’s simple. Go 6-6, get to a bowl, and all the questions and concerns go away, and the narrative completely changes. Then, Smith really is putting together something to get excited about after a disastrous Year One.
Nothing worked. The offense was horrendous, the defense underachieved, and the special teams were awful. Worst of all, the team got worse as the season finished up.
But there’s hope especially now that Smith has settled into the gig.
The defense might be undergoing a reboot on the front seven, but the secondary should be decent enough to hold its own. It’s the other side that’s the key, following a year when the offense was among the worst in the nation at consistently keeping the chains moving.
If JUCO transfer quarterback Dwayne Lawson is able to go this fall – he’s getting his grades in order – and if 2014 breakout receiver Mike Dudek can finally stay healthy, all of a sudden, Illinois has a passing game. The running back options are nice, and while the line might not be a killer, it shouldn’t be a liability.
Again, six wins and a bowl appearance is all it’ll take this year to generate the necessary buzz. Do that, and Smith was the right hire for the right program at the right time. Struggle again in another losing season, and the grand experiment comes into question.
And Smith would be firmly on a hot seat.
Just like any other college football head coach.