Lovie Smith hire changes everything for Illinois football

By Kevin McCarthy, Sports columnist

Check out former Illini Head Coach Ron Turner’s reaction to the hiring of Lovie Smith here.

Check out Illini Drive’s reaction to Lovie Smith here.

Check out 670 The Score’s Chris Emma’s take on Lovie Smith here.

Illinois is going to fall in love with Lovie.

I know he’s not Madonna — but, I think he can slide by with just his first name considering you don’t meet a whole lot of Lovies.

Smith is headed to Champaign for the next six years and I think “Loviepalozza” has officially begun. He’s going to turn this program around. And he’s going to do it fast.

That’s the speed that athletic director Josh Whitman seems to move at. Within his first hours in office, he dismissed head football coach Bill Cubit. He’s looking for someone who can turn this football program around just as quickly.

One-week-ago-me didn’t think that was doable. Returning Illini football to a state of relevance seemed like a long shot. Trying to return this program to prominence? There’s no way in hell — or so I thought.

Lovie Smith will change everything. Is it going to happen overnight? It already did.

Sure, they haven’t done a thing on the football field yet. But, Illinois football is already somewhere they haven’t been in a long time: the map.

They were talking about Illini football today on Mike and Mike on ESPN radio — that’s a good measuring stick for relevancy. I’m not sure that’s ever happened — at least not in a positive way — for the Illini since I’ve been here.

Why Lovie?

Lovie Smith will bolster recruiting. Since he’s been in the NFL since 1996 and has never held a head coaching position at the college level, some would argue he doesn’t understand what it takes to recruit the top talent.

Guess what? That doesn’t matter.

Smith is as connected to the NFL as any college football coach in the country. He’s worked with Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden, Mike Martz and Ron Rivera — just to name a few.

Smith would be able to make a pretty darn good sales pitch to top players out of Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis — and honestly, players across the country. It would sound something like this, “Do you want to play in the NFL one day? Then come play for me.”

He knows exactly what it takes to get to the NFL level. He knows what coaches in the NFL are looking for — especially on the defensive side of the ball. Outside of Dungy, nobody understands the Tampa-2 defense as well as Smith.

It’s a legitimate fear to worry that he’d struggle to relate to high school players. He’s not experienced in that area. He may need someone alongside him during recruiting to help articulate why Illinois is the place to be.

However, ask anyone who’s played under Lovie Smith and they’ll tell you: He’s a player’s coach. Players loved lacing ‘em up for Lovie.

He has demanded the attention of every locker room he has ever been in. In his own, stoic way, he’s able to lead tremendously well.

Some don’t like Smith’s calm demeanor. He never gets too high — or high at all, for that matter. He never gets visibly angry. He speaks calmly to referees. You won’t see him yelling at his players, either.

When Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff in Superbowl XLI for a touchdown, he didn’t even crack a smile.

It’s different. It’s not what you expect to see from a football coach. But he makes it work.

Knocks?

Lovie Smith has his coaching challenges. When it comes to the offensive side of the ball, Smith is about as sharp as a bowling ball. He just doesn’t get it. Clearly he needs to play more EA Madden football on his XBox.

Chicago Bears’ fans can whine and moan for hours about how poor the Bears were offensively under Smith. He always struggled to find the right offensive coordinator and it ultimately led to his demise with the Bears.

He had more offensive coordinators than Taylor Swift has had boyfriends — OK, overstatement. Nonetheless, it was his downfall in Chicago. He couldn’t hire the right guy. From Ron Turner to Mike Tice, Mike Martz to Terry Shea — his offenses were abysmal.

He also wasn’t made to stand at the podium, although he’s not nearly as bad as Tim Beckman. We can all thank God for that.

It’s just not his personality. He has never handled the media very well and he probably never will. He’s not comfortable up there.

“Rex is our quarterback” was his equivalent of the “lasagna” line, if you will.

Closing thoughts

Maybe I’m a little biased — don’t forget, you’re reading a piece written by a life-long Bears fan who adored Lovie during his tenure.

Whitman was looking for someone who could wipe the Beckman fingerprints off Memorial Stadium once and for all. I think he found the guy.

Illinois football is already back on the map. In due time, the results will come too. Josh Whitman said, “We will win,” in his introductory presser.

I guess he wasn’t kidding.

I’m excited to see what a full Memorial Stadium is going to look like. That should be pretty cool.

Kevin is a sophomore in Media.

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@KevOMcCarthy