Monday, March 7, 2016

Lovie is our Football Coach

It's hard to imagine someone having a crazier, more successful first three days on the job than new Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman. By firing Bill Cubit only a few months into his new place holding contract as Illinois Head Coach, and hiring Lovie Smith to replace him two days later, he has done more for Illinois football than has been done in my lifetime. He may have just laid the groundwork to finally, after not only decades of horrible football but more specifically the last few years of horrific leadership and on-field results, have a consistent program to be proud of. I know I am getting ahead of myself, but maybe, just maybe, Illinois has a duo in Whitman and Smith that can lift this program from obscurity.

When Whitman was announced a few weeks ago, I was cautiously optimistic. On paper, he has all the qualities required to be a good AD. He knows the school, having graduated from here and playing on the football team as well. He has been successful since, both as an attorney and an AD elsewhere. In person and in interviews he is articulate, prepared, engaging, straightforward, and charismatic. The only concerns I had were his lack of experience in big conference athletics, and whether he would be able to handle the mercurial Illinois donor base well. At this point, it appears that both of those concerns have been answered with aplomb.

Whitman recognized right away that the Bill Cubit situation was wrong. This is nothing against Cubit, for he appears to be a fine coach and a good leader to the program. But, as Whitman said, this is all about the future and what will make this program relevant and perennially successful for years to come. So, Whitman fires Cubit on his first day on the job. True to his background, he seemed to have been prepared for this and used his connections (Ron Turner apparently) to reach out to Lovie Smith and gauge his interest in the job. On top of all that, he had to engage and secure the support of the donor base to come up with funds necessary to lure a coach of Lovie’s caliber to come to Illinois, which to outsiders (and insiders if we’re really being honest) appeared to be an also-ran dumpster fire of a program, beset on all sides by corruption, incompetence, and failure. Whitman did all that and more, having the wherewithal and courage to fire the football coach in March, secure unheard of levels of salary for an Illinois football coach, and then land the hire.

And what a hire it is. Bears fans will surely be mixed on their memories of Lovie, but let it not be revisionist history. Lovie had his shortcomings, but his positive attributes suit the college game perfectly. He is an honest man with integrity. He runs a clean ship. He is a damn good football coach who with the right offensive staff can be very successful. But most importantly, his ability to relate to players is of paramount importance to his chances of success. Take one look at twitter today and you will see an explosion of support from his former players and colleagues. Apparently when he addressed the team this morning they gave him a standing ovation. Simply, his players worship him. Even Jameis Winston, who only played for him one year in Tampa Bay, praised him and said he owed him a debt of gratitude for showing him what it means to be a professional.

Think that will play in living rooms across Illinois and the rest of the country? Lovie is a coach who has always put his players first, loyal to a fault, and has treated them with respect throughout his career. When he was fired by the Bears, you could hear the anger in Brian Urlacher’s voice every time he did an interview. Not only will recruits feel the same connection, but their parents will be comfortable with their sons going off to Illinois to rejuvenate an ailing program when the coach is someone they absolutely know they can trust. When you combine that with his NFL pedigree, you get a coach who should be able to instantly make Illinois matter on the recruiting trail.

And that’s really the dual purpose the hire serves, isn’t it? It not only brings needed stability and foundation to a program floundering rudderless in the recesses of college football, but instant credibility. Everyone knows who Lovie Smith is, and his respect throughout football all but ensures that Illinois football will finally be looked at in a positive light. When you have people like Tony Dungy and Marvin Lewis waxing poetic about his ability to lead the program, it tends to make people thinking highly of the program. Smith will galvanize the NFL alumni base, as you can see already with the over joyous support already given to him by players such as Vontae Davis, Akeem Spence, Corey Liuget, Arrelious Benn, and Juice Williams. Just imagine also what this is going to do for fundraising. All of this attention is obviously good for the program, but what it means most of all is that it is finally again proud to be an Illini.

This is just the start, to be sure. Lovie hasn’t coached in college in years. He has to hire a good staff, a problem that has plagued him elsewhere. But if nothing else, Lovie and Whitman have shown what I have espoused all along; that culture change is essential to any rebuilding project, and that it starts at the top. Whitman has already shown, in less than a week on the job, that he has what it takes to build a winner. He is at least trying, ready to leap into the unknown with moves that Illinois simply does not do, all in the effort to do something else Illinois does not do: win. With Lovie’s hire, we’re finally moving in the right direction. See you all in Champaign.