It isn’t often that you see a university proudly announce a two-year extension for a coach who has gone 9-27 in his first three years.
And yet, that’s what Illinois did on Sunday, giving Lovie Smith two more years as he heads into the fourth season of an epic rebuilding attempt. That locks him up, so to speak, through the 2023 season.
I do not disagree with this move. Coaches love being able to tell recruits they’re going to be a young man’s coach for his entire college career.
In other words, not extending Smith would undercut recruiting, which is difficult enough at Illinois.
There was modest progress in this year’ 4-8 mark, including a 2-7 Big Ten record. But that’s partly because last year (2-10, 0-9) was so seriously gloomy.
And as I noted in my column for the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday morning, ``Some will grumble for change, but Smith will return in 2019, barring a major development. The theory is that Smith’s young recruits will grow up next year. The reality is that his $12 million buyout looms large. Even next year, the buyout would be $8 million after the fourth year of his six-year deal.’’
Here’s the other thing. Even if Smith decided to walk away, and there was no buyout, I don’t know where Illinois would go from there. I’m not sure how attractive the job would be to coaches who would have a better chance of success. And a new coach always seems to mean steps backward.
We know he’s a pretty good coach, with a pretty good staff. Deal them a decent hand and they’ll play it well enough. The thing is, recruiting is historically not in the cards at Illinois.
While skeptical that Smith (and just about anybody else) can build a consistent winner there, I am tottally OK with giving Lovie another year to try to get something done with his own recruits.
That said, I am not convinced Smith will restore Illinois football to any major relevance. He was an intriguing hire. He had a good run as the Chicago Bears coach. He brought credibility to a program that was in tatters after the scandal-ridden departures of coach Tim Beckman and athletic director Mike Thomas.
I give energetic young AD Josh Whitman, a former Illlini tight end whose hiring I applauded, credit for that.
I just don’t know how many wins to give Smith moving forward.
If 2019 is not a truly significant improvement—such as a .500 record and a modest bowl trip—bringing Smith back for 2020 is going to be a tough sell, no matter how many years he has left on his contract.
On the other hand, the beauty of the Big Ten is that it is such a cash cow that programs like Illinois can still be on sound financial ground no matter how the wins-and-losses stack up.
They want to win. But they don’t have to win. And that’s a good thing. Because the Big Ten has so many other programs that have a better chance to win.