“Everything has been positive, which you would expect. When you’ve never lost a game at a place, normally it’s pretty positive, right?”
Lovie Smith … the comedian?
The comment — delivered Tuesday on Day 2 of Big Ten Media Days — wasn’t exactly side-splitting, but it was a surprising moment of levity from Smith, who’s returned to the Land of Lincoln to resurrect another orange-and-blue football program.
The joke was a nice little representation of the immense amount of excitement and positivity surrounding the program, something that couldn’t have been fathomed when the Illini finished another bowl-less season in November. The campaign started with Tim Beckman’s firing a week before the opener, then plodded through a 5-7 finish before ending on an uninspiring note with Bill Cubit’s head-scratching two-year contract, announced ahead of the finale against Northwestern.
But new athletics director Josh Whitman took swift action in dismissing Cubit and replacing him with Smith, a huge name — especially in these parts — with a track record of NFL success that brings instant credibility and a reason to pay attention to a program that only was making headlines for the wrong reasons.
Instantaneously, thanks to that eye-popping hire, feelings about the Illini changed.
“Sometimes when things haven’t gone the way people would like, change is good and you get excited about change and seeing what could possibly be,” Smith said Tuesday. “We all have histories on what we’ve done in our past. Hopefully that’s helped a little bit.”
Smith has brought reason to pay attention to Illinois football, but he warned that the overnight transition from boredom to excitement likely won’t be mirrored in the win-loss column. Smith still has to recruit multiple classes of players to stock his program, and while there are several talented players currently on the roster, a departure from losing seasons might still be a ways off.
“I can’t tell you we’re going to win every game,” Smith said. “I really don’t know how many games we’re going to win. The number of games our talent level says we should win, that’s what we want to do. We want to play up to our potential each week. That’s our goal each practice, each week. If we can do that, I think we’ll be OK. We were a five-win team last year. We know we need to improve upon that, and we will.”
And perhaps that’s why much of the talk Tuesday was focused on recruiting and building the future of this program. This is still mostly the same roster that Beckman built, and he never finished a season with an above-.500 record. Illinois has been to just five bowl games in the 21st century, only four in the past 14 years.
Thankfully for the Illini and their fans, Smith has plenty of advantages to breed recruiting success.
His name recognition alone ought to help, particularly in the state where he led the Bears for nine seasons, winning three division titles and earning a trip to Super Bowl XLI.
“The Chicago area — I can’t talk specifics about recruiting — one message we’ve got is ‘Lovie, we already know you. You’ve been in our homes on Sunday quite a bit.’ It has helped a little bit.
“They’re seeing my face, and that’s the first step, just getting them to come down and look at our university. And we’ve got a lot of players to come and see our university.”
And Smith is looking elsewhere, too, hoping to attract talent from all over. Even if kids in Indiana, Missouri and Texas didn’t grow up as Bears fans, they’re still sure to listen when a former NFL head coach walks through the door.
“They're listening to us. And that's all we want. Give us a chance,” Smith said. “Not just Chicago area. There's a triangle of the St. Louis area, of course. And Indianapolis there's a triangle. I'm from Texas. So we'll, of course, recruit that area. We have a lot of players on our team from the Florida area also. So recruiting is going well. And it's been a while since I've been in college ball. That has changed a little bit. It is a 24/7 job. And we're embracing that.”
There’s a reason Smith and Whitman have traversed the state trying to crank the excitement up even higher. There’s a reason Smith has met with fraternities and sororities in Champaign. There’s a reason the Illini are trying to pack Memorial Stadium and plastering up billboards in Chicago.
Everyone wants instant results, and if Illinois doesn’t get them in Year 1 under Smith, folks might think this is just more of the same with a new head coach, more of the losing that reigned throughout the eras of Ron Turner, Ron Zook, Beckman and Cubit.
But Smith wanted to promise that those days are in the past, no matter what the win-loss record looks like at the end of 2016.
“Every function we’ve been to — and we’ve been through a lot — has been that way,” Smith said of the current mood of excitement and optimism. “It’s the same message as our players have given: ‘Coach, what do we need to do?’ And for our fans, the message is come back, the message to our students. There’s nothing like student excitement in Memorial Stadium. From talking to the fraternities, the sororities, we need their energy in the stadium wearing the orange and blue. All of those things, University of Illinois bumper stickers, whatever it is, let people know who you believe in.
“Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. It’s about today.”