Lovie Smith was hired as a big-name splash at Illinois tasked with a long-term rebuilding project to get a struggling football program out of the Big Ten's basement.
With an ugly 2-6 record through eight 2016 games — the only wins coming against Murray State and Rutgers, with an embarrassing loss to Purdue peppered in there — it's abundantly clear that the rebuild will be a long one, maybe much longer than originally thought.
But how long will Smith be a part of it?
That would seem like a strange question prior to this weekend, but a report from ESPN's Adam Rittenberg (it's an Insider story) says that Smith is "miserable" as the Illinois head coach and asks whether Smith could leave Champaign after just one season.
Several industry sources say that Smith is miserable in Champaign. Yes, every 2-6 coach is miserable, but this situation is especially sour — and that the rebuilding job looks much greater than he anticipated. Could Lovie be one-and-done? A source close to Smith says no and that while the rebuild is extreme, Smith should be rejuvenated after signing his own recruiting class. Then again, if the NFL expresses renewed interest in Smith, all bets are off.
So while "Will Smith leave after one season at Illinois?" is an attention-grabbing question, at least one of Rittenberg's sources seems to think that won't happen.
The roster is in disastrous shape. He may want to wait out the upgrades, but he's also 58 and basically an NFL lifer— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) October 31, 2016
Someone close to Lovie said his recruits will help a lot and lift his outlook. Still think he's back.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) October 31, 2016
Came from three sources. Also cited someone close to Lovie I trust who thinks he'll be back. All in the story.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) October 31, 2016
Smith was asked about the report during his weekly press conference Monday.
"Am I happy right now with where we are? No, no one on our football team is happy with where we are right now," Smith said. "My time in Champaign, it's a little bit bigger than where we are right now. Our football team, we're going to win a lot of games eventually, and there's not much more than that. As I said after the game Saturday, not many of us should be happy with where we're at right now, but we're going to do something to fix it together here.
"I would not get into speculation at all," Smith said when directly asked about the whole "one-and-done" phrasing. "You're hearing it from me. I would go on what you're getting from me right now."
It's understandable that Smith's perspective could be changing. The roster looks to be in much worse shape than anyone could've predicted, and injuries to key offensive pieces have resulted in the Illini getting blown out on a fairly regular basis, including in each of the last two games: a 41-8 loss to Michigan and a 40-17 loss to Minnesota. Really, this year's team seems to be playing worse than last year's team — the one upended by its head coach getting fired a week before the season started.
But, as has been the case since Smith was hired in the spring, the positives lie in the long-term future of the program. Smith is still putting together his first recruiting class, and his mere presence as someone with a successful NFL resume should bring an uptick in recruiting, particularly in the state, where he was the long-time head coach of the Bears. The Illini also recently announced plans for major renovations to the football facilities. Those two factors — getting his own players into his program and getting an upgrade in facilities — should improve the outlook for Smith and the Illini.
But if he really is "miserable," maybe there's nothing keeping him in Champaign if another opportunity arises.
"When I took the job, I expected us to eventually win a whole lot of football games, and that hasn't changed," Smith said. "As far as how soon? Yeah, you want to come in, win every game right away. Normally it doesn't happen that way. We've had opportunities to win games. A few games we didn't (have those opportunities). But as far as what I thought, we want our team to play to the best of their ability each week. We haven't done that.
"We're going to go back, continue to correct and coach the guys hard, and eventually we'll get over the hump."
Smith added a couple tweets later on Monday night.
MaryAnne and I are incredibly happy in Champaign. We love this University and this community.— Lovie Smith (@LovieSmith) October 31, 2016