CHAMPAIGN — Perhaps the biggest question in the wake of Illinois' announcement that Lovie Smith would be the Fighting Illini's new head football coach was whether, after two decades in the NFL, he would be able to recruit the way he needs to in order to take Illinois from the Big Ten's basement to championship contender.
Well, can he?
“I’ve been recruiting and selling every year I’ve been a football coach, selling the way we’re going to win football games, asking free agents to come on board. And recruiting is just that," Smith said during his introductory press conference on Monday afternoon. "You go into homes, and people will trust you or they won’t, try to get them to buy into what you believe. And I feel like I can do that.”
Talking the talk is one thing. Walking the walk is another. But it sure seems like Smith will be able to entice high school prospects to join up with the Illini.
Smith brings a big name to Illinois, and his name reached the status it currently has thanks to years of success in the NFL. He has 11 seasons of NFL head-coaching experience under his belt, including 81 wins during nine season with the Bears that featured three division titles and a trip to Super Bowl XLI. Before he was a head coach, he was the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams when they reached the Super Bowl in 2002.
Not only has he had coaching success at the NFL level, but Smith knows what it takes for players to be successful at the NFL level. Why wouldn't a high school recruit with dreams of an NFL future want to play for someone like Smith?
“That definitely just draws them into it because they’re going to be like, ‘I’m not only just playing for Illinois football, I’m playing for a Super Bowl coach,’" Illinois wide receiver Justin Hardee said. "So I definitely believe it’s going to help in recruiting. It’s definitely going to help us sell the program more.”
"I watched him when he coached in the Super Bowl, and I’ve seen him when he coached," Illinois defensive lineman Chunky Clements said. "So it gives me a feeling like he knows what it takes to get to that level because he’s been on that level. And he’s been to the highest point at that level. So it means a lot.”
Geography helps, too.
Smith's main stated recruiting goal on Monday was getting the state of Illinois' top talent to stay in state and play for the Illini, something that was nearly impossible under Tim Beckman. How does he do it? Well, nine years as the head coach of the most popular football team in the state ought to help. Smith said he still has relationships with high school coaches from his days with the Bears plus Chicago-recruiting experience from his time as an assistant coach at Wisconsin in the 1990s.
“I think most people realize that I was in Chicago for a while," Smith said. "And even before that, a long time ago, I have recruited. Back when I was at the University of Wisconsin, Chicago was my recruiting area. So I’ve recruited. I know high school coaches. Even as the head coach for the Bears, we had a group of high school coaches in each week. So I feel like they’re familiar with how we do things. In their minds right now, they’re saying, ‘I trust what Lovie will do, and I trust sending one of my guys to his football team, to the University of Illinois.’ I think that hopefully that’s what the message is to high school coaches."
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In addition to Chicago, Smith brings a connection to the nearby metro area of St. Louis (from his time with the Rams), as well as the fertile recruiting states of Texas (where Smith grew up) and Florida (from his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
"Lovie’s going to be a great recruiter," Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said. "There’s not a living room in America that’s not going to open up their doors to Lovie Smith and his coaching staff. The four geographic areas you would hope the head football coach at the University of Illinois would have connections to — Chicago, St. Louis, Texas, Florida — he hits all those boxes."
While many see Smith's time away from the college game and his lack of recent recruiting as the thing that could sour this excitement-generating hire for Illinois, those things could actually be Smith's recruiting strengths. He has an NFL resume to sell, and that seems like something kids who watched Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman win division titles and reach the Super Bowl would want to sign up for.