Illini players view program bigger than a coach

Players+of+the+Illinois+football+team+enter+and+exit+the+field+between+plays+during+the+game+against+Northwestern+on+Saturday.+The+Illini+lost+the+game+28-10.

Cameron Krasucki

Players of the Illinois football team enter and exit the field between plays during the game against Northwestern on Saturday. The Illini lost the game 28-10.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Athletic director Josh Whitman likes to make the splash hire. In the first few days of his tenure, he immediately fired Bill Cubit and replaced him with Lovie Smith, a grab that won praise. A year later, after firing John Groce, he flew down to Stillwater, Oklahoma, and lured first-year Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood to Champaign. 

Underwood has been successful. Smith, however, has not. While watching his alma mater give up a 35-0 run to Iowa in a loss, Whitman came to a conclusion: Lovie Smith could no longer be the head coach of the Illinois football program. 

It didn’t matter if Smith beat Northwestern. The Sunday after the rivalry game, the five-year Smith era would officially end. Whitman allowed Smith, who he deeply respects, to say one last goodbye to the team Sunday morning.

But now, Rod Smith is the interim head coach. A search for the next full-time coach is on the way. Penn State is on deck. And while the players love Coach Smith, one thing is for certain: Illinois is more than a coach. 

Senior linebacker Jake Hansen has produced back-to-back productive seasons, and he credits and thanks Smith for developing as a linebacker in his system. After leading the nation in forced fumbles in 2019, Hansen has become a better run-stopper, as he’s currently rated as the No. 1 tackler in college football with zero missed tackles. 

Hansen became very close to Smith and expects to keep in touch with him for a long time. However, despite feeling bad for him being fired, Hansen doesn’t let his personal ties get in the way of football.

“We’re playing for the University of Illinois,” Hansen said. “We’re playing for people who support that, not necessarily for people who work for it. It’s a little bigger than playing for a coach.”

While the Smith tenure didn’t live up to expectations, external forces may have played a role in speeding up Smith’s termination.

After a surprising Redbox Bowl appearance, 2020 was lined up to be the best team in the Smith era. Illinois returned 14 starters, which doesn’t include talent added by the transfer portal. Illinois also had one of the easiest non-conference schedules — Illinois State, Connecticut and Bowling Green.

But COVID-19 changed those plans and played a factor in Illinois’ 0-3 start, with Isaiah Williams and Brandon Peters being unavailable to play against Purdue and Minnesota. That start, coupled with the blown Iowa lead, cost Smith his job. But that doesn’t excuse the product on the field, according to senior center Doug Kramer. 

“The pandemic is difficult, but everyone is going through it,” Kramer said. “There are people in a lot worse situation. We were very fortunate to play a season this year.”

It’s been a long time since Illinois has been a consistent winner. Since 1994, the Illini have only produced four winning seasons. Even after a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2001 and a Rose Bowl appearance in 2007, the Illini followed them up with losing seasons, making pundits believe those seasons were flukes. 

Smith’s team showed bright spots, even this year with a thumping of Nebraska. But Whitman believes this program can be better. Smith’s termination is an endorsement for the pursuit of conference titles. Whitman didn’t oversee an $80 million facility upgrade so Illinois can go 6-7 every few years.

“There are a lot of guys who are hungry to win. We just need the right guy to take us there,” Kramer said.

While the team deals with the fallout of Lovie Smith, the team is preparing to take on a red-hot Nittany Lion team in State College with Rod Smith taking the reins of head coach. 

It could feel like a lame-duck session for the coaches, who will likely be on the job market once Whitman hires his next head coach.

 But for Rod, who always dreamed of being a head coach, the Penn State game gives him the opportunity to show his worth, and it could be his audition to the next head coach of why he should stay on the staff. The same goes for the players, who all have the opportunity to come back for another season due to COVID-19.

Disappointment was the initial reaction for many players once Lovie was let go. Lovie was never able to break through and deliver a consistent winner in Champaign. But the players are grateful for the opportunities he provided for him. 

“Coach Smith, I owe everything to him, a lot of my career to him. He’s a great person,” Hansen said.

While Smith was never able to crack out a winning season, beat Northwestern or compete for a division crown, he laid the foundation for a more successful tenure for the next man to lead the Illini. 

“This team is in a lot better shape,” Hansen said. “There’s more talent now than when I came in.”

 

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