Everyone, including Lovie Smith, needs to be patient in Illini revival quest

I’m getting more and more interested in the Lovie Smith Experiment at Illinois.

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The man as well as the football. Although the football clearly will play a huge role in what happens with the man.

It’s like a good mystery. Even better, really. A good mystery is pretty much a Who Dunnit? Lovie Smith at Illinois is more like Are They Gonna Do It?

Let’s get this out of the way first: I put the over/under at 3-1/2 wins this year, a shade above last year’s 3-9.

Wins aren’t going to matter as much this fall as the way things play out. The Illini need to keep showing progress and persistence even though they’re likely to be over-matched, especially on defense.

Here’s the big question: Is Lovie Smith all in on reviving Illinois football? Will he remain that way, or will he lose interest?

If he really wants to do this, it could happen. If he finds it too tall an order, though, that would not surprise me.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

There already have been hints that he’s realizing that reviving Illinois football is more difficult than he’d imagined, and that East Central Illinois is not his favorite place to live.

Whether they’re true or not, I don’t know. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they were.

That’s the case against. The case for also has merit, though.

For one, Lovie Smith is very talented at being a head coach. He not only knows the Xs and Os. He’s a leader who inspires his players and who has restored the faith of a fan base that was torn asunder by the Tim Beckman disaster.

``He knows football,’’ senior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap told me at the Big Ten media days. ‘’He’s been around the game for so long, he has a lot of wisdom. He’s the same person every day. There’s not really any panic. A coach who blows his top doesn’t have a lot of wisdom. I think we have the best coach in the country, to be honest.’’

From what I can see, Smith has put together a solid staff of assistants, and he is smartly recruiting in the Sun Belt, where he and his assistants have good roots and connections.

Lovie is not warm and fuzzy with the media, which is OK, I suppose. I’ve never cared for that, but I’ll concede that it doesn’t matter if he wins. Although you would think that a guy who was fired by the Bears after going 10-6 at the end of a very solid nine-year run might wonder if tepid media relations played a role.

One suggestion I’d make: If Smith is not all that into the media stuff, at least let the assistants be more available. Many of them seem eager and good talkers.

Not gonna happen, I know. I merely bring it up for the benefit of the Downstate media, who are very supportive and trustworthy.

Another factor that I wonder about is Lovie’s contract. It’s a six-year deal that reportedly could be worth up to $29 million—and it’s very backloaded.

To recap: It’s worth $2 million a year the first two seasons. It goes up to $3 million in Year Three (2018), $4 million in 2019 and $5 million the last two years (2020 and 2021). There is also a $1 million bonus after three years, and another $1 million at the end of the sixth year (2021). There are also performance bonuses of up to $1 million each season.

Plus, energetic athletic director Josh Whitmanis is building Smith a $79 million football facility that will give the Illini all the bells and whistles to keep up in the football-recruiting arms race.

In other words, Lovie has millions of reasons to be all in. And the people he has hired also are depending on him and the program.

So what’s going to happen this fall? Illinois appears to have decent personnel on offense, especially at receiver and running back. If they’re coached up, they’ll make some plays.

The defense will have a lot of new starters. But when I asked Lovie about that at Big Ten media days, he said they’re familiar with his system in Year Two, and he expects some of them to be quick studies.

``Every great player was once a young player,’’ the coach said. ``Last year, we were really heavy, with seven defensive linemen coming in. We think it’s going to be a short learning curve for them.’’

It’s still likely to be a tough deal for Illinois against at least half of its opponents. On the other hand, there are opponents who aren’t all that far ahead athletically, if the Illini grow up, and Smith and his staff coach them up.

So how’s it going to go? A big key to me is how Illinois deals with its first five games. After the opener vs. Ball, State, there is Western Kentucky, which is coming off an 11-win season that got Jeff Brohm the Purdue job, and knows how to win. The trip to South Florida, another 11-game winner that is now coached by Charlie Strong, looks daunting.

Then comes the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, followed by a trip to Iowa. If Illinois can be 2-3 and cohesive heading into its meeting with Rutgers, take care of business in that one for 3-3, I would tell the Illini to sign up for that right now.

If Illinois really wants to over-achieve, it has Minnesota, Purdue and Indiana on the second half of its schedule.

That said, I have no idea what to expect with Illinois football this fall. There are so many hurdles and question marks that lie ahead.

They start with the only coach in the Big Ten who has been a head coach in a Super Bowl. . . Except for the ubiquitous Jim Harbaugh, of course.[/membership]

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