The Illini have bought in to what Lovie Smith has planned. How couldn’t they?
After a year of head-coaching turmoil featuring the firing of Tim Beckman a week before the 2015 season started and Bill Cubit’s holding of the head-coaching job for just a few months, a known commodity like Smith brought some stability — and more importantly some credibility — to Illinois football.
But the players’ embracing of Smith and his all-star staff is not just a positive development for the 2016 season. It shows how future players might feel about Smith, and how he can use his program’s new No. 1 selling point, a proven winner at the NFL level, to bring in better recruits than Illini fans and observers are used to seeing.
“It’s been a good feeling, him coming from the NFL to us,” sophomore running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn said during Big Ten Media Days. “Just being around a coach who knows what it takes to get to the NFL is a great experience.”
And this from Dawuane Smoot, who Smith pegged earlier this offseason as a potential first-round pick in the NFL Draft.
“It feels good just knowing that he’s been there before and he’s brought people up like Julius Peppers and stuff,” he said. “It’s great hearing that from him.”
Smith’s NFL resume now allows Illinois to talk to any recruit it wants to, and that’s especially helpful in state. The Illini haven’t had much consistent success bringing in the Land of Lincoln’s top recruits, but when the former Bears head coach comes calling, it’s hard to say know.
“We have a great university to recruit to,” Smith said. “Your education is second to none, degree means quite a lot. And the football part, of course, is coming, but all we’ve asked people to do is give us a chance, look at how we’re going to do things. We’ve gotten that, the response has been how you want it to be. We have a great recruiting base right here in Chicago. There are a lot of great athletes here. From my time way back in college to my time here as a head football coach I knew about the high school football here, and if we can just take care of our own right here. We’re the flagship university of our state, so we need to be able to do some things close to home.
“I’ve gotten that from a lot of people. It’s ‘Lovie, we feel like we know you. You’ve been in our homes every Sunday for a lot of years.’ That’s a part of the lure to come back to a place that we do kind of call home, familiar surroundings. So that’s what we’ve gotten. They’re listening to what we’re saying. The first step, of course, is getting people on campus. We’ve had a great response of people coming to watch our practices, spring ball and just take visits down to our university. Once you get there on campus, you’ll really like it.”
But even independent of his local ties, Smith’s status as a successful NFL head coach is mighty appealing to kids. As Vaughn and Smoot illustrated, the goal to get to the NFL becomes a heck of a lot more attainable when learning from a guy who coached numerous Pro Bowlers and took a team to the Super Bowl.
As far as this year’s team goes, Smith brings a different attitude than his predecessors, and comments from players — which didn’t reference either Beckman or Cubit — seemed to indicate an appreciation for a more relaxed atmosphere, something that one would guess didn’t exist under Beckman, who was booted for mistreating players and making them play injured.
“He’s just a more calm and relaxed coach,” Vaughn said. “We haven’t even seen him yell yet. We’re all waiting for it. It’s calm around the facility now.”
One would imagine it’d be difficult for players who have experienced nothing but mediocrity in Champaign to not get excited and hopeful with Smith’s arrival. This season should be a case study in how to maintain that enthusiasm while perhaps not racking up an overabundance of first-year wins.
It’ll also be interesting to see what recruits think about it, but for now, the current crop of Illini is most definitely on board. Again, after what these players have been through, how could they not be?
“I think if a change is made, someone assumes there needs to be a culture change. For us, I had nothing to do with that. We came in new, and we’re installing our culture, how we’re going to do things, how we’re going to win football games. That’s what we’ve done,” Smith said. “We’ve placed a big emphasis on that. Players have embraced it, and they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.”