Alex Brown

There’s something special going on at Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

There’s something special going on at Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

For the first time in the Lovie Smith era, Illinois is bowl-eligible. 

It’s been a long, strange trip here for Lovie and the Illini. In his first three years at the helm of the program, the team failed to top four wins in a single season, amassing a combined record of 9-27 (4-23 B1G). But something about this 2019 group, which currently sits at 6-4 (4-3 B1G), feels different.

Take it from those who know Lovie best.

“They’ve bought in,” Alex Brown, who played under Smith for six years with the Bears, recently said. “Lovie is changing the culture down there, and he’s getting everybody to believe.”

That belief was on full display in the Illini’s matchup with Michigan State in East Lansing last Saturday — a comeback victory of historic proportions that clinched the program a bowl berth for the first time since 2014. At one point trailing 28-3, the visitors rode a number of big plays, turnovers and big-play turnovers to storm back and snap a 37-34 victory from the jaws of certain defeat.

“When you play for Lovie, everybody is motivated… You’re never out of [a] game,” said Matt Forte, five years a student of Smith in Chicago. “You can be down, and he knows that one play by anybody can start the turn of events.”

Olin Kreutz was with the Bears for seven of Smith's nine years coaching the team.

“It was awesome to see Coach Smith get that win, because you know how hard he works at it,” he said. “And for his team to do it in a way that’s kind of ‘Lovie Ball’... It’s just what you expect from Coach Smith because that’s what he preaches.”

Illinois turned Michigan State over four times on Saturday, including a fourth quarter pick-six that cut the Spartans’ lead to just one point with 4:53 to play. This season, the Illini lead the FBS in total turnovers (26), defensive touchdowns (6) and are second in turnover margin (1.4). Add those gaudy figures (and a bowl appearance) to a campaign already highlighted by a last-second victory over then-No. 6 Wisconsin, and suddenly, it might be time to start thinking about a full-blown resurgence in Urbana-Champaign.

“The most dangerous thing for that whole conference is a team that has bought into the Lovie system,” said Lance Briggs, who played nine seasons as a linebacker under Smith in Chicago. “The players that are going to come and play at the University of Illinois know now that they’re walking into a team that believes in what they’re doing, and when they believe in what they’re doing, great things are going to continue to happen.”

Smith has certainly proven in the past — and to the people of Chicago, no less — that he’s capable of executing this type of turnaround.

“I’m sure you guys have heard this story about our '05 team and how we started out 1-3, and then all of a sudden. Boom. It just happened,” Brown said. “That is exactly what I see happening with U of I right now.”

All the program has accomplished in 2019 is a great step, but the hope is that even greater things are on the horizon.

“You wait ’til next year. They are going to compete, and they’re gonna beat — I’m calling that right now — they’re gonna beat either Michigan or Ohio State next year,” Brown continued. “They have the people there. More importantly, they have the belief that they can beat ’em.”

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Charles Tillman, Alex Brown among former Bears who returned to Halas Hall for rookie minicamp

Charles Tillman, Alex Brown among former Bears who returned to Halas Hall for rookie minicamp

Charles Tillman and Alex Brown were among seven former Chicago Bears who visited the team's rookie minicamp this weekend, offering an in-depth look at what it means to be a Bear.

"I just think you get real-life stories from guys that have been in these shoes," Matt Nagy said, via ChicagoBears.com. "It's one thing for coaches to say it; it's another thing to have real-life people come in who have been in this organization and have had good experiences. I think if you look around and see the guys, they're taking it all in. You can't replicate that."

The Bears are evaluating 70 players at Halas Hall ranging from first-round pick Roquan Smith to journeyman quarterback Aaron Murray, a former fifth-round pick of the Chiefs in 2014.

Tillman and Brown were joined by Jay Hilgenberg, Steve McMichael, Marcus Robinson, Bob Wetoska and James "Big Cat" Williams.

Brown, a fourth-round pick out of Florida in 2002, made sure he studied Bears history when he was a rookie.

"I did my best to learn as much as I could about the Bears, and nobody's history goes back as far as the Bears because they were here in the beginning," Brown said. "And then understanding what Papa Bear meant to the team. Understanding the players that have come through here that kind of paved the road all the way through for us to be here. It's not like the Jacksonville Jaguars that started in the mid-90s. This was started in the beginning. You can't go further back than the Chicago Bears."

Chicago's history of Hall-of-Fame linebackers will cast a hovering shadow over Smith, the eighth pick overall, who's said all the right things to reporters during his first few days on the field. 

“I’m not thinking about just being a starter,” Smith told reporters Friday. “I’ll start on special teams if that’s what they want me to do, I’ll do it. It’s not like I’m just saying, ‘Hey, I have to be the starter.’ You crawl before you walk.”

Smith gets it. And if he stays the course, he'll soon add his name to the growing list of legendary Bears defenders.

"There's three ways to get on the unfailing road in life," McMichael said. "You show up early, you pay attention and you work your butt off. Now if you're about them three things, you're going to be a success—in life, not just football."