CHAMPAIGN — Finally, Illinois football is relevant again.
It might not last as long as the folks in Champaign hope. It might not come with top-ranked recruiting classes or double-digit win seasons. But for the time being, the Illini are once again worth watching.
That’s what happens when you introduce Lovie Smith as your new head football coach.
“We started the process this morning,” Smith said. “If we recruit the way I know we will, there’s no rebuilding as far as I’m concerned. We’re going to try to put the best football team on the field as quick as we possibly can. And in time, whatever time that might be, we will be competing for Big Ten championships.”
[MORE BIG TEN: Why Lovie Smith is a home-run hire for the Illini]
Smith’s arrival in Champaign already paid dividends. His introductory press conference was packed with media members. His first-day tour of the student union drew Beatlemaina-esque attention from students. And when players showed up after Smith was done talking, the smiles on their faces were a mile wide.
Smith has brought excitement, buzz and a reason for paying attention to a program that desperately needed it. And without coaching one down of football, he’s already taken Illinois to a new level.
“Had an opportunity to go over to the union today and hang out with some of the students. They’re excited. ‘What can I do, Lovie, to help our football team win? Gonna be there supporting you.’ We’re going to be a hard combination to beat,” Smith said. “Had an opportunity this morning to meet our football team, and I saw a bunch of eager young men ready to be coached. And all I said was trust my plan for how we’re going to win football games. You could see it in their eyes how they were buying in. This is an exciting time for Illinois football.”
The reasons an exciting time was needed are numerous. Sure, on-field performance is generally the biggest factor in the level of apathy, and there have been just six Big Ten wins in the past four seasons, with only one trip to a bowl game during that time.
But the Tim Beckman Era came to a screeching end when he was fired a week before the 2015 season began after allegations of student-athlete mistreatment were found to be true. Athletics director Mike Thomas’ exit wasn’t long after, when further details of Beckman’s behavior sullied the program even more. Bill Cubit was left as the head coach, but with just a two-year contract, the program’s future under him was always in question.
[MORE BIG TEN: Watch: Illini players give Lovie Smith a standing ovation]
One of Smith’s biggest challenges is moving on from that tumultuous time in the program’s history.
“Whenever there’s a coaching change, there are some other things that happened in the past. I realize that,” Smith said. “But I didn’t get into it any more than that. I just know what we’re going to do going forward, how we’re going to run our program. We’re going to do things with class, integrity, going to be able to trust what we’re doing. It’s about us starting that climb today. … I know there’s been some things in the past, but we’re going to run our program a certain way, and you’re not going to hear an awful lot of complaints about how we’re doing things.”
New athletics director Josh Whitman deserves an awful lot of the credit for moving on from those problematic times. Not only was he the one who spitballed Smith’s hiring in the first place a few weeks back, but he’s the one who’s made the shake ups that have needed to happen in the wake of what happened under Beckman and in the season that followed.
Whitman still hasn’t even been on the job for a full week. He dismissed Cubit on Saturday. He announced Smith’s hiring on Monday. Not bad for three days of work.
In hiring Smith, Whitman has already transformed this football program from one that looked destined to stay in the uninteresting basement of the Big Ten, perhaps stealing wins away from Purdue and Rutgers for the next several seasons. Instead, the program is now something worth getting excited about. Smith’s presence alone makes the Illini interesting to fans, the media, outside observers, the players and prospective recruits.
“This brings a level of stability and enthusiasm to a football program that needs it,” Whitman said. “I cannot tell you how exciting it was to walk into that team meeting this morning. Had a chance for our team to respond for our team to respond to seeing Lovie Smith walk through the door for the first time. As long as I do this, I’ll never forget the feeling in that room, the excitement in the air, the smiles on those guys’ faces. … To be able to walk in that room and put in front of them hope, to put in front of them stability, to put in front of them a championship vision, you could see their eyes light up. You could see them understand this is our moment, this is our time for the University of Illinois and for our football program.”
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]
For such a mild-mannered man, Smith has generated an awful lot of excitement.
And the goals are lofty enough to match the buzz. Smith and Whitman both want this to be a program that annually competes for championships. It might sound crazy to think Illinois can reach that status after what’s been a pretty dismal decade and a half of football — four bowl appearances in 14 seasons — but with Smith’s headlining presence and Whitman’s driving passion, it does kind of seem possible. Not overnight, of course. This is a league dominated by Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, and Illinois can’t get to that level without first getting to the level of Iowa and Northwestern, which is still a decent ways away.
But Smith is wearing orange and blue again and has people jazzed about Illinois football, something that also seemed pretty impossible just a few days ago.