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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Monday, February 26, 2024
Jake Powers

Column: Lovie Smith hire helps bring coaching balance to Big Ten

At the beginning of Kirk Ferentz’s head coaching tenure at Iowa, people were stocking their bomb shelters with Chef Boyardee ravioli to avoid the inevitable catastrophe Y2K would surely wreak on all of humanity. Jim Harbaugh has redefined “Netflix and Chill.” Paul Chryst wears sweatshirts from Walgreens on the sideline, Urban Meyer is the football czar of the North and Mark Dantonio hasn’t slept more than five consecutive hours in his entire life, probably.

A police lineup of current Big Ten football coaches would force even the seemingly infallible Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau to scratch his chin. Thanks to the absolute gift the Illinois Athletic Department has been over the past year, we can now add Lovie Smith to that band of characters.

Tim Beckman, the man who assured everyone at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago last July that the Illinois football team does in fact employ actual doctors, was fired in late August, making way for then-interim head coach Bill Cubit to take over. Beckman’s tone-deafness led to his demise, and just this past Saturday, Cubit met his own as well, even after signing a two-year deal in November to stay on board with the Illini.

Enter Smith, brought in by new Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman, who disposed of Cubit during his first day on the job and reeled in Smith two days later. In a Monday news release, Whitman made his intentions very clear.

“Naming Lovie Smith as the Illinois head football coach is the first step in taking this program to a place of national prominence,” Whitman said in the release.

Although that’s a bit of public relations jargon that seeps its way into every hiring announcement, and he had much more to say at Smith’s official introduction Monday, it’s right on the dot in this case. Smith’s hiring will bring relevance back to a sputtering program, and it affords Illinois the head coaching legitimacy that is beginning to define the Big Ten.

Even if Rex is indeed still our quarterback, Smith’s arrival on the college scene 21 years after he served as defensive backs coach at Ohio State will reverberate throughout the conference. The former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach is an enormously overqualified candidate whose defensive know-how will likely take a backseat to his inevitable recruiting draw.

For the first time in years, Illinois has a recognizable name that should strike the right chord with in-state recruits, a territory the school has interestingly failed to capitalize on recently. Obviously Smith has been away from recruiting for some time, and it will be an adjustment to familiarize himself with today’s dizzying task of drawing in high school talent, but he’s proven to be the type of coach players can trust. He spent 13 years as a college-level assistant before making the leap to the NFL, and he’ll be able to synthesize his experience of working with younger players with his ability to handle both outside pressure and the greater deal of administrative duties he picked up in the NFL.

The changes at Illinois aren’t going to take place rapidly. While the Big Ten West is undoubtedly the weaker half of the conference, the Illini roster has now had three coaches in the last eight months. That sort of instability takes to time to ameliorate, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Illini’s losing ways continue for another season or two.

The one thing that will be absent from Illinois football over Smith’s tenure, though, will be embarrassment. Gone are the days of Beckman’s cringe-worthy news conferences, shutouts at the hands of Penn State and, in a way, the uncomfortableness surrounding Cubit’s departure. Smith brings a respectability to Champaign that is desperately needed and, finally, Illinois now has a leader who won’t be overshadowed by the always-interesting cast of Big Ten coaches. His temperament, frustratingly even-keeled at times, won’t attract average fans, but it’s the type of attitude players and the university will come to appreciate. If the Big Ten is riddled with coaches who make splashy headlines, Smith’s strength is, with the exception of the buzz he created on Illinois’ campus Monday, that he’ll largely avoid drawing unnecessary attention to the team.

The coaching pendulum still hovers over the powerful Big Ten East (Harbaugh is grinding his teeth right now), but Smith helps sway that paradigm by a considerable measure. No coach in the conference boasts the same level of pro-level experience Smith possesses, and it would be a mistake to think that won’t come into play within the next few years.

It’s always a shame to see Big Ten teams struggle, and while the Illini may soon cause problems for Wisconsin and the rest of the West, everyone benefits from a program in need bringing in a new air of change.

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