By Tony Hooker
In the end, that says it all, doesn’t it. It doesn’t matter what sort of person Lovie Smith is, really. He has done a fine job of recruiting upstanding citizens to the program. They give back to the community and are almost to a man articulate and thoughtful in interviews. Unfortunately, they went 17-39 in his tenure.
And those who couldn’t toe his particular line were shown the door, even to the detriment of his team. In 2018, freshman sensation Louis Dorsey decided to leave the team after several rules’ infractions. Soon after, teammate Bennett Williams, a freshman all-American who is now a reserve defensive back for the Oregon Ducks, followed suit. The two best players from his first team walked, and Lovie Smith’s response was that “Sometimes divorce is good.”
17-39. After five years as the head football coach at my alma mater, the University of Illinois, Lovie Smith is out, taking the aforementioned record with him. Only time will tell if divorce is good in this instance.
Smith, an out of the blue hire by Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman in his first few weeks on the job, significantly raised the program’s floor, but never came near improving the ceiling. Only an improbable comeback win over Wisconsin and the largest come from behind victory in UI history against Michigan State helped him get to his only bowl, in 2019. That bowl was supposed to be a springboard to this season.
2020 was supposed to be the year. The normally reticent Smith, even spoke to the fact that this was the season he was pressing toward, when taking his lumps and playing not ready for primetime rookies in the early years of his regime.
And then COVID-19 hit, but more importantly, the team went to Wisconsin and, resplendent in their socially aware uniforms, laid a giant 45-7 egg against the Badgers and the air seemed to leave the program’s sails. That’s the trouble with expectations, especially for a moribund team like Illinois football. One negative blow can feel fatal and what little optimism that’s been generated fizzles quickly. I’m not sure if the team felt it, but I did, driving home from my bestie’s house after watching the debacle.
Now Illinois has named Bret Bielema as the 29th head coach in their 130 history, including interims. Bielema, who grew up an Illini fan in Prophetstown, IL is coming back to his native state after a spending the last few years in the NFL, including two under Bill Belichick, who many consider to be among the greatest coaches of all time. Bielema is familiar with the Big Ten of course, having played college ball at Iowa and coached at Wisconsin, first as an assistant, and then as head coach, winning 97 games in the process.
The task that Bielema faces is herculean, if past history is any indication. Since the winningest coach in Illinois history, Robert Zuppke retired in 1941, only three coaches (Ray Elliott, Mike White and John Mackovic) have finished their stint as Illinois head ball coach with a winning record. That’s seventy-nine mostly futile years, for those who are keeping count. Coach Bielema, however, seems to be leaning into the task, as he’s already reached out to the head of the Illinois High School Football Coaches association, something his predecessor never did in 5 years on the job.
Of course, it all comes down to recruiting, and maybe Coach Bielema can build a program like his predecessor at Wisconsin, Barry Alvarez did. Lock down the home state while continuing to mine football hotbeds in the region and across the country. As an Illinois fan, I have no expectation of becoming a juggernaut in the world of college football, although that would be great. No for me, a simple winning record and bowl appearance every year, along with a run at a big ten title at least once every three or four years, would suffice. In my five decades plus of life on this planet, there have been three big ten football championship banners hung. Number four seems so far away, but it sure would be nice. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone.