Lovie Smith is selling himself as the future winner of Illinois’ waiting game.
“I’m a patient man,” he told reporters Monday during Big Ten Media Days at McCormick Place.
That patience will certainly be tested as Smith enters his second season as the Fighting Illini’s head coach.
He’s maybe the most buzzed-about Illinois head football coach ever after his lengthy and successful tenure with the Bears, but will that buzz ever pay off? That’s the question everyone’s asking about an Illinois program that has languished in the Big Ten’s basement for the vast majority of recent memory, and that’s the kind of question Smith was bombarded with Monday.
The famously cool-tempered Smith handled them all, certainly expecting what the line of questioning would be after winning just three games in his first season in Champaign. Though trumpets accompanied his arrival, Year 1 of the Lovie Era was scored almost entirely by an orchestra of sad trombones.
Hence Smith’s recurring theme Monday: patience.
“You have to have patience,” he said. “You’d like for it to snap a finger and it happens. Our sport’s a little bit harder than that. And in this conference there are a lot of good programs. Ours hadn’t been there. But in time you have a plan, it works. So when we say patient, we want to see marked improvement this year, and eventually we’ll be a team that people are talking about.”
Hiring Smith remains a great triumph by athletics director Josh Whitman, and Smith’s very presence makes Illinois’ future look far brighter than it would have with a head coach with a far less impressive resume. Getting recruits to listen becomes far easier when a former NFL head coach — one who’s been to a Super Bowl — strolls through the door.
But the obstacles to an Illinois rise remain high. The program was in a bad place when Smith arrived, the stain of Tim Beckman’s mistreatment of players still lingering. The conference it plays in provides Illinois with a tremendously tough schedule each and every season, even when the biggest boys from the Big Ten East aren’t on the docket.
One of the biggest challenges to making the Illini “a team that people are talking about” was the program’s facilities, hardly comparable to the best around the Big Ten and across the country. But the athletics department is taking ambitious and expensive steps to remedy that, recently announcing a facilities overhaul that Smith is optimistic will make his program a bigger hit with prospective recruits.
Smith applauded his incoming recruiting class — ranked in the top 50 nationally and 10th in the Big Ten, higher at least than in-state rival Northwestern — and the offseason work by his returning players to get stronger and faster and tougher than they were a season ago, and that is tangible improvement.
Unfortunately, it might not translate to more wins in 2017, which in the end is the only barometer that’s truly worth a damn in the cutthroat world of college football.
Smith is being realistic in talking about a patient approach to rebuilding a program that has won eight games or more just five times in the last 30 years. But there’s a difficult tightrope to walk in a sport that often sees fans, donors and media demand immediate success.
“When I say it takes time, I’m not talking about a whole lot of time,” Smith said, seeming to make sure his rebuilding plan didn’t sound like one that would span decades. “I’m just saying, the first year, it normally doesn’t happen right away unless you come in to a program — and some guys get an opportunity to go to a program — where they’ve won before. That’s a lot easier. But where we were, there were challenges.
“We say ‘take time,’ but we want to see improvement this year and we know behind the scenes we’ve made improvement. We’re in a whole different frame of mind right now. You’ve got to believe that you can win before you hit the field based on what you’ve been doing. We’re closer to that right now.”
Whitman, who is now overseeing a pair of rebuilding efforts in his two major programs after replacing men’s basketball coach John Groce with Brad Underwood earlier this year, is feeling the same way. He injected the football program with some genuine excitement when he hired Smith last year. Now he’s playing that waiting game, too.
“As they say, patience is a virtue, right?” Whitman said Monday. “Sure, do I want to go out and win 12 games this year? Of course I do. But I also am so committed to the process and in supporting coach Smith and our student-athletes as they go out every day because I know what we’re doing and I see the work that they’re putting in.
“I think the worst thing you can do right now is panic and say, ‘Oh, we won three games in the first year.’ That’s the way this works. And when we get there, when we build this thing, it will be that much sweeter because of where we’ve come from.”
Thing is, with all the excitement and all the confidence about the long-term future of the program shared by Smith and Whitman, Illinois still has 12 football games to play this fall. Once more the team is expected to finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten standings, hardly unexpected considering the annual strength of the conference.
As Smith and Whitman ask for patience, fans will have to sit through what is expected to be three months of losing football, which makes that ask a little bit tougher.
That’s where the players come in. They have faith in their team and their teammates and their head coach that builds that perennial sense of world-beating confidence that accompanies every team, no matter the predicted win total.
“Are we going to surprise people? Sure,” wide receiver Malik Turner said, not loving a question about outside expectations but still voicing his belief in his team’s capabilities. “It’s not really going to be a surprise to me because I’ve seen what we’ve been doing and I have a very positive feeling about this team.”
“It’s not going to be a surprise to ourselves, but I think we’re definitely going to surprise some people,” defensive back Jaylen Dunlap said. “If somebody thinks we’re only going to win two games, then we’re definitely going to surprise those guys.”
Voicing the opinion that you’re going to win every game isn’t exactly something new for a college football player, specifically the talkative ones who get invited to media days. But there was a glimmer of something that Smith has provided these players that has been a major achievement in the still-nascent rebuilding effort: stability.
Stability was in short supply as Beckman was accused of mistreatment, investigated for it and fired for it a week before the start of the 2015 season. Bill Cubit took over on an interim basis, was named the new permanent head coach on the morning of the regular-season finale, then fired a few months later. Enter Smith and his staff and a new system and approach on both sides of the ball, a head-spinning amount of change in a short period of time.
Well, the whirlwind has finally died down for these players and for the program in general. And that in itself is a big accomplishment in Champaign.
“It’s knowing what you’re getting now. You know you’ve got a coach like coach Smith that’s going to be here. There’s some stability around the program. That should feel good for everybody,” Dunlap said. “That should feel good for the recruits that are coming to sign here, the players that are here.
“Change is not always good, but it was good for us. I know that we’re not going to have a change soon because coach is a great coach.”
Smith knew a shocking jump wouldn’t come in his first year, and it doesn’t look like that jump will come in his second year, either. But he’s happy with the progress his program is making and was adamant that the quality of football should be evidently better this fall.
Is that going to mean more wins? Maybe. Maybe not. But this program is evolving, which is a positive development.
That’s the thing about evolution, though: It usually takes a long time.
“We weren’t good enough last year. But we’re going to be better this year,” Smith said. “You stay the course, and eventually you start seeing wins.”