Too often, an absence of true urgency seemed to surround Smith and his program. In the end, the Illini got nowhere.
After Illinois’ football team got off to an 0-3 start this season, coach Lovie Smith was unbowed.
“Do I look like the guy that’s going to panic?” he said.
Too often, though, an absence of true urgency seemed to surround Smith and his program over five deep disappointing years, and that’s among the reasons the former Bears coach was fired Sunday from his first head job at the college level.
Smith was quick to offer positive assessments of his teams even as the losses piled up, which they did at an alarming rate. His records at the school were miserable: 17-39 overall, 10-33 in Big Ten play and 2-5 this season.
“We see things in our program that we’re doing that will eventually get us over the hump,” he said heading into his final game, Saturday’s physically one-sided 28-10 loss at Northwestern. “We’re gaining.”
Really, the Illini went nowhere under Smith, 62, who was under contract through 2023 and is eligible to receive a $2 million buyout from the school. Four of his 10 conference wins came against lowest-of-the-low Rutgers. His last four recruiting classes ranked 10th, 12th, 14th and 14th in the league, according to Rivals.
The closest thing to success came in a “breakthrough” 2019, when the Illini tumbled to 2-4 — losing to Eastern Michigan along the way — before rallying with four straight conference wins, one of them a stunning upset of Wisconsin. But the Illini lost their last three to finish 6-7, bowing out with a mediocre effort against California in the Redbox Bowl.
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith assumes active head coaching duties for the Big Ten Champions Week finale at Penn State. Meanwhile, Illini athletic director Josh Whitman has the real heavy lift: finding Smith’s successor. Rarely has the Illinois job been less attractive from a national point of view.
Buffalo’s Lance Leipold is a hot name in the profession. Illinois has gone the MAC route before and could again. Whitman will cast a wide net, of course. One name to keep in mind: Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator.
But there are bigger-name coaches Illini fans will talk about who wouldn’t touch the Illinois job with a 10-foot pole. Anyone who calls this a destination job is pulling your leg.
Smith didn’t seem to be purposely pulling anyone’s leg when he promised heading into the Northwestern game that his team would play its “best game of the season.” He said that sort of thing often and usually was wrong.
“We’re better in all areas,” he said. “I think anybody that’s watching football, that knows football, will say that.”
No, they wouldn’t. No, they won’t.
“Lovie Smith led the Illinois football program with unquestioned integrity during his nearly five years of service,” Whitman said in an official statement. “I have tremendous respect for Coach Smith and will always be grateful to him for providing a steady, experienced hand at a time when our program required stability. His unshakeable leadership, never more needed than during this pandemic, will be forever remembered.
“Nonetheless, based on extensive evaluation of the program’s current state and future outlook, I have concluded the program is not progressing at the rate we should expect at this advanced stage in Coach Smith’s tenure.”
One other thing Smith said last week: “Five years is too long.”
He got that one right. Only he wasn’t talking about his time on the job. He was talking about Illinois’ losing streak to rival Northwestern. And now it’s at six years. The games haven’t been close, and the Illini aren’t close to being relevant. But someone else has to get them there, that much is obvious.