Patience still the word as Lovie tries to put fight back in Illini

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And now, what are we to make of Lovie Smith and his third stab at getting Illinois back on the rails?


One of the perils of sportswriting is skirting the thin line.


Write something too positive and you risk being called ``a homer.’’

Write something too critical and you risk being called . . . things that aren’t printable in a family newspaper—and aren’t in good taste on the World Wide Web.

Do neither and you’re boring.

Which brings me to Lovie Smith, now entering his third year of trying to wake up the long-dormant Illini football program. [membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click Subscribe Now!

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Positive: The former Bears Super Bowl coach brought much-needed respectability and stability to a program trying to emerge from the scandals and other disasters wrought by coach Tim Beckman and athletic direcitor Mike Thomas.

Give a lot of credit to Thomas’ successor, energetic young AD Josh Whitman, for bringing in a proven coach and winner.

Critical: There hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer about as Illinois has lost 19 of 24 in Smith’s first two years. And while it’s encouraging that recruiting has picked up and young players will benefit from learning on the job, the actual upside remains an open question.

For all that Lovie accomplished in the NFL, we don’t really know how he’s going to translate that at the college level. That’s especially true at Illinois, which is much more of a risky-business program than its fans and alums realize.

That’s even more true when you look around the Big Ten and count how many schools have a leg up on Illinois—in terms of recruiting, fan support and—yes—coaching.

There’s a legion of proven top guys at proven top places—The Big Four (Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, James Franklin, Mark Dantonio) in the Big Ten East, for starters. At least three guys in the Big Ten West—rising star Paul Chryst, aging-but-still-tough dean Kirk Ferentz and perfect-fit Pat Fitzgerald—also are top-notch.

Now throw in the wave of young guns who already have proven themselves elsewhere—Scott Frost, Jeff Brohm and P.J. Fleck. All signs point toward this trio accomplishing a lot in the near future.

If 11 outside athletic directors conducted a draft of those 11 guys, would Lovie Smith go higher than 11th? Depends on the ADs.

That’s not to say Lovie’s not good. It’s saying, ``We don’t know.’’

Note: I have seen his name on Hot Seat lists. Not happening. He will get a chance to let this thing play out into the 2019 season, if not beyond. The guy is not going anywhere unless he decides to leave—and he won't.

But let’s remember that Illinois is a strange and unpredictable place when it comes to football.

Since Ray Eliot departed many generations ago in 1959, only two Illini coaches have compiled winning career records. One (Mike White) left under the cloud of scandal. The other (John Mackovic) bolted for Texas.

More recently, Ron Turner, who endured a first two years (3-19) that was similarly barren to Lovie Smith’s 5-19, seemingly had Illinois in position after reaching a bowl in his third year and winning the Big Ten in his fifth year. He fizzled into three straight losing seasons and was gone.

Same deal with Ron Zook, who went 4-19 in his first two seasons and went to the Rose Bowl his third year. After being the toast of Champaign, the Zooker was gone four years later.

Even stranger, Zook went 7-6 and went to bowls in each of his last two seasons.

Recapping: The first coach to take the Illini to back-to-back bowls in 29 years was rewarded with. . . a pink slip.

Since then, Illinois has had six losing seasons.

As my longtime readers know, it’s always complicated at Illinois.

Chalk up Zook’s dismissal to two things: An Illini Nation that was uncomfortable with Zook as an ambassador of their school. And the strange world of icky AD Mike Thomas.

If they had only known that Thomas would come up with Beckman, who made Zook look worthy of being a United Nations ambassador.

So what should we expect from Lovie Smith’s third year? Not the bowl trips enjoyed by the two Rons.

As Phil Steele put it, ``last year 16 true frosh earned starts. . . When those Frosh are Juniors, Illinois will have a better shot at a bowl.’’

In a year, the Illini will have a better shot at a bowl?

The gambling world's over/under for wins this fall is 3.5. Beyond the two nonconference cupcakes, the best shots seem to be a trip to Rutgers and a home game against Maryland. If it was my last dollar, it would be on the under.

Yup. It’s difficult to be an Illini fan. Even in the third year of the celebrated new coach.

So what should Illini Nation make of Lovie Smith? Here’s my take: He’s best viewed as an orange-and-blue Moses. He might not get Illinois to the Promised Land. But he’s a good choice for getting the Illini through their football desert.[/membership]