Lovie Smith

Lovie Smith given contract extension with Illinois

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USA TODAY

Lovie Smith given contract extension with Illinois

Despite four Big Ten wins in his first three seasons in charge of Illinois football, Lovie Smith and his Santa Clause beard got a contract extension on Sunday.

The Illini re-upped Lovie Smith for two more years, which keeps him under contract through 2023. The move is a bit of a surprise considering the former Bears coach is 9-27 since taking over the Illini. This season the Illini went 4-8, which was his best record.

Given Smith's record, Illinois AD Josh Whitman explained that continuity and a young roster are reasons to keep Smith in charge.

"This extension demonstrates my belief in Lovie Smith, his staff, and the plan they have for the future success of Illinois Football," Whitman said in Illinois' press release on the extension. "I have studied our program extensively, and I see steady progress, both in the development of our current players and the talent we are adding to our roster. To date, we have remained one of the youngest teams in college football, with only nine seniors and nearly 80 freshmen and sophomores. As our players grow in strength, skill, and experience, more wins will follow. 

"We recognize that our work is far from finished, with improvement needed in every phase of our program's development, but our plan is sound and our resolve is stronger than ever," Whitman continued. "As I have said on many occasions, stability and continuity are key to building a foundation that will yield long-term success."

Illinois hasn't made a bowl game since 2014 and hasn't had a winning record in the Big Ten since 2007. Smith went 3-9 in his first year in 2016 (2-7 in the Big Ten) before going winless in the Big Ten last season with a 2-10 overall record.

Given the state the program was in when Smith took over, no one expected a quick turnaround for the Illini. The extension allows Smith to show potential recruits that the program has stability and he isn't on the hot seat. As Chris Vannini of The Athletic tweeted, if it doesn't change Lovie Smith's buyout, it doesn't change anything about Illinois' ability to fire him if there isn't improvement in 2019.

Smith coached the Bears from 2004-2012 and had an 81-63 record in his tenure, including taking the team to a Super Bowl. He is the only Bears coach to have a winning record in his tenure since Mike Ditka left after the 1992 season.

Lovie Smith's Bears Cover-2 scheme changed Brian Urlacher – and he changed it

Lovie Smith's Bears Cover-2 scheme changed Brian Urlacher – and he changed it

If there is a singular indicator of the scope of skillset of Brian Urlacher spanning his 13-year Hall of Fame Bears career, it is perhaps that he was voted to four Pro Bowls while playing in one defensive scheme that kept blockers off of linebackers, and four Pro Bowls in an entirely different one that did anything but. Urlacher initially disliked the latter – the Cover-2 of Lovie Smith – but in the end it was the showcase that took him to the heights that culminated in his selection for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And if the scheme ultimately brought out the best in Urlacher, he did the same for it. “Brian Urlacher changed the way you could play Cover-2,” said former Bears center Olin Kreutz.

It was a scheme that Urlacher and running mate Lance Briggs effectively customized with their play, leading to what amounted to changes in the playbook. Briggs recalled rookies being given the playbook but also that caveat that a few things weren’t done exactly the way the textbook showed them to be.

“We could freelance a little bit, and Brian was a big part of allowing that,” Briggs told NBC Sports Chicago. “We could trust each other doing things even when maybe we weren’t supposed to do them. We each knew we would be there for each other and cover for each other. It allowed us to really play fast, and even to change the defense.

“We did things in blitz packages that really changed the defense, unique things from how they were done. We’d practice everything, sharpening that iron, and we weren’t going to out-trick you; we were going to out-play you.”

Urlacher was drafted in 2000 into the defensive scheme of coach Dick Jauron and coordinator Greg Blache. It was a system with massive defensive linemen (Phillip Daniels, Bryan Robinson, Keith Traylor, Ted Washington, Mike Wells) charged with controlling gaps on either side of an offensive linemen. Those space-eaters effectively allowed Urlacher to run free, posting as many as 214 tackles in 2002.

In 2004, Lovie Smith replaced Jauron and installed his Cover-2 scheme with its undersized, speed-based linemen (Alex Brown, Tommie Harris, Adewale Ogunleye). Smith’s system tasked linemen with responsibility for getting through a single gap, with linebackers similarly responsible for designated gap.

Urlacher had seen the Smith defense in operation and didn’t like it. Or at least what he thought it was.

“Initially Lovie’s scheme was the middle linebacker running [backwards] down the middle of the field every play,” Urlacher said. “Every play it felt like the middle linebacker was out of the play. If that was going to be the case, I wasn’t super excited.

“But they changed that right away. Lovie said, ‘We’re going to keep you on the line of scrimmage, we’re going to modify our defense,’ and we did. There were some plays where I went down the middle but it was really plays where I was taken there by a receiver or tight end. It wasn’t like I was just running out of the play.”

Smith laughs when told of Urlacher’s initial impression of what has been a time-honored system that is still functioning. Smith and coordinators Ron Rivera, Bob Babich and Rod Marinelli knew what Urlacher represented – a middle linebacker with the speed to position himself to both defend the run and also drop into coverage in passing situations, when MLB’s are routinely pulled in favor of an additional defensive back.

“There’s always been a little bit of a misconception about our defense,” Smith said. “The ‘Mike’ linebacker does run down the middle of the field, but only in certain circumstances. And if that’s all the Mike linebacker did, Brian definitely wouldn’t like playing in our system.

“But that was just a small part of what it did. The system is a linebacker-friendly system, and it could produce Hall of Fame linebackers, Mike linebackers and ‘Will’ [weak-side] linebackers. It was ideal for Derrick Brooks. It was ideal for Brian.”

Ironically, Smith was on the sideline, just not on the Bears’ side, when Urlacher made his debut at middle linebacker. Smith was Tampa Bay’s linebackers coach when the Buccaneers mauled the Bears 41-0 in week two of the 2000 season, and Smith remembered watching with great interest when Urlacher came off the bench. Smith and the Bucs had spent time scouting and meeting with Urlacher before the 2000 draft.

“When he came into the game, we were on the sideline watching,” Smith recalled. “I remember he made a great tackle on our sideline. Sometimes I’ll think back on that play, because you could see he was a great player, and of course the rest is history.”

Briggs and Urlacher effectively rewrote portions of the defensive playbook and concepts. Coaches created situations in practice without telling either of them, look for a certain reaction to the situations, and when Briggs and Urlacher reacted differently, that’s how it was entered into the playbook.

“We’d do something and they’d say, ‘OK, that’s how we’re going to write it up,’” Briggs said, laughing. “There was a lot of things in that playbook, from a base standpoint, that we had evolved so far. Coaches would tell rookies when they came in, ‘Look, the ‘base’ is not necessarily exactly how we’re going to play our base,’” Briggs said. “We evolved very far in that defense.”

The evolution was accelerated by Urlacher’s understanding of both opposing offenses and every assignment of every player in his own defense.

“He would never get credit for how smart a player he was,” Smith said. “Brian knew what every player – every player – was supposed to do. You talk about quarterbacks knowing everybody’s job. Well, Brian did all of that, and if a play broke out against you, he would know exactly who to say something to.” 

Urlacher is mystified at the criticism leveled at Smith that the scheme was too passive. To Urlacher, it was exactly the opposite.

“That defense was aggressive,” Urlacher said. “When we played, it was ‘run through your gap,’ solo gaps, get downhill. That’s why Lance and I had so many tackles for losses. We were aggressive and when we played Cover-2, we were just solid. We knew what we were doing, everyone knew their jobs, and we just didn’t screw up.

“The Cover-2 is good for any scheme. You get a team that runs all those gadgets behind the line – stuff that Kansas City did, like with Tyreek Hill – and if you have your corners looking in, it’s like a nine-man box. It’s not a great, great defense, but it’ll get you to the next play. We were always sound and knew exactly what we were doing. They couldn’t fool us, that’s for damn sure.”

Brian Urlacher Q&A: HOF Bears career 'still feels like yesterday – it all does'

Brian Urlacher Q&A: HOF Bears career 'still feels like yesterday – it all does'

For the better part of a 13-year Hall of Fame career, Brian Urlacher was the face of the Chicago Bears and a fixture at the middle linebacker position that traced its roots to the Bears. As he prepares for induction into the NFL’s Ring of Honor, Urlacher looks back over the years – and people – with NBC Sports Chicago reporter John “Moon” Mullin, who covered the Bears over the entire course of Urlacher’s legendary career.

NBC Sports Chicago: Not to focus on the negative, but how ironic to think about a Hall of Fame career starting with a demotion. Coaches installed you at strong-side linebacker on draft day, displacing Rosevelt Colvin, but it didn’t work, at all. What was the main problem?

BU: “People somehow think that ‘SAM’ is the easiest position, easiest to learn, and where, if you screw up, coaches think it’s not going to hurt our defense too bad. But for us, most linebackers, we’re used to playing in space, so it’s like all of a sudden you feel confined. You feel like, in an ‘under’ front, you’re basically eliminated from the play unless you’re spilling or making a play. In an ‘over’ front you can run a little bit, get around and move.

“But I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being over the tight end. The funny thing was, later in my career, I’d ask the coaches if I could be head-up on the tight end. I wanted to do that stuff.”


NBC Sports Chicago: Coaches privately admitted later that it was a mistake to force you in there.

BU: “They were just trying to get me on the field, but I was so bad. Coach [Dale] Lindsey was so patient with me and I think he saw how frustrated I was and not getting the technique down.”


NBC Sports Chicago: Was that the first time in your sports life that you’d been benched? And how hard was it on you, and on Rosie, who was an excellent pass rusher?

BU: “First time [benched], 100 percent. I’d started my last two years in college, then just a few weeks in with the Bears, I’m ridin’ the pines. I started one [2000 preseason] game but I just made so many mistakes that it was inevitable.

“Plus, Rosie was good, man, really good. He was technically sound, didn’t make mistakes, and he made plays. No way I should’ve started over him. Then Barry [Minter] got hurt, hurt his back, I think, against Tampa and Greg [Blache, defensive coordinator] says, ‘OK, get in there.’ And I was, ‘Oh, s**t.’ I was calling signals, calling the plays, and thank God Warrick was helping me. I was lost.”

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NBC Sports Chicago: It’s been said, by both teammates and coaches, that beyond being a great player and tremendously welcoming and inclusive teammate, that you really understood the minds of those coaches and teammates. 

BU:  “I like people [laughs], so I really enjoyed spending time with my teammates. Obviously the longer you played together, the more you understand about someone, what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. And I think I had a pretty good read on what I could or couldn’t do, or could or couldn’t say.

“And we were coached so well, not because I or anybody else was so smart. Coach Babich, coach Smith, coach Marinelli, they made sure we knew exactly what to do on every play, and also how to adapt on the fly.”


NBC Sports Chicago: You anguished a little over your presenter, among Lovie, Greg and Bob Babich. You finally decided on Bob.

BU: “Yeah, I spent nine years of my career with him, and he’s the closest guy for me football-wise. He’s the guy I’m closest to, a good dude.”

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NBC Sports Chicago: You obviously were a chapter in the Bears-Packers history. But it was different with you, not so much a blood feud. The difference seemed to be your relationship with Brett Favre.

BU: Those were fun games, really fun. Brett was so awesome because he enjoyed playing football and I was a lot like that as well. He loved being out there, he was a gunslinger, took chances, talking to me all the time – ‘Nice hit,’ ‘Nice tackle,’ that kind of stuff – and he was one of the best of all time, too.

“I had watched him as a kid, so finally getting to play against him was pretty damn cool.”


NBC Sports Chicago: And you and Lovie’s defense really fared well against him after so many bad years against him in the Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron tenures.

BU: “We started out slowly against him because we weren’t very good. When Lovie got there, it put the hammer down to Brett. Then Aaron put the hammer down on us.”


NBC Sports Chicago: What did you do differently against him with Lovie?

BU: “All we ran against him was Cover-2. It didn’t matter if it was third-and-1, fourth-and-1, whatever, we weren’t going to put our defense in a position where he could be as good. Throwing the ball, there was no one better.

“I think in the second half of the first ’07 game against him [27-20 Bears win], they had 27 snaps and 26 of them, we ran Cover-2. They had 17 points in the first half, 3 in the second. We hunkered down ran the same defense again, and again, and again. There was nothing they could do against it.”

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NBC Sports Chicago: Things ended unpleasantly with the Bears and you after the 2012 season. Lovie was fired and your contract conversations with GM Phil Emery were scratchy, to say the least, ending in the Bears withdrawing. How hard was it to get past the way things ended between Emery and the Bears and you?

BU:  “None of that really mattered in the end to me. I think I’m a pretty forgiving person. I think the thing I was most bitter about was that I didn’t get to say good-bye to anyone in that building – to any of the trainers, the equipment guys, the media people, the lunch people, the maintenance crew – I didn’t get to say good-bye to anybody.

“Looking back, that was thing that hurt. I didn’t go back in the building for two, three years, so I didn’t get to see those people. That was tough.”


NBC Sports Chicago: Coming from a small town and the Southwest, how tough was Chicago for your personal life?

BU: “It was adjustment, that was for damn sure. A big adjustment. I had to learn the hard way sometimes what I could and couldn’t do. I’m just happy Twitter, the video cameras in phones, that stuff came along toward the end of my career[laughs]. It’s so stupid what these guys have to put up with. But in the locker room, as players, we pretty much knew what was really going on with each other.”

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NBC Sports Chicago: So what’s up now? You were starting to look like a golfer; what’s your handicap down to?

BU: “I don’t play that much anymore. I kind of lost the bug. Now I get a good workout in the morning and then chill out.


NBC Sports Chicago: At the end, did you think you still had more left? Was it it somehow disappointing not to get all the way to the end on your own terms?

BU: “I think I could’ve played a little more. My knee was feeling better, and the longer the ’13 offseason had gone on, the better it felt.

“But looking back, I honestly didn’t have any desire at the end – I wasn’t going to be playing for Lovie, it was going to be a new scheme and coaches, and I just didn’t want to go through that. So it wasn’t that hard a decision. And from what I hear from the guys who were there, I did the right thing. It was not fun.

“But it all was fun. My rookie year still feels like yesterday. It all does.”