It's tough to form any sound analysis of Lovie Smith's hiring at Illinois, given that Smith has never been a head coach in college football and hasn't been an assistant in college since 1995.
There are reasons to believe he can be a success — name recognition, NFL ties and years in the industry — and reasons to believe this isn't a great fit, like a lack of recruiting and past struggles adapting on offense. But Illini fans should be encouraged by one development: Illinois is going to actually try.
Of course the Illini wanted to be good before, when they were coached by Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, but there was no reason to believe the university was willing to do what it takes to win.
Beckman was paid just $1.8 million per year, on par with some mid-majors.
Beckman never finished above .500 in his three seasons, and he was decimated by rivals in recruiting. Yet Illinois never fired him based on performance, only choosing to after it surfaced that he abused players.
Since that firing occurred right before the season, Illinois logically tabbed offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to be the interim coach. But after a 5-7 season, and without an athletic director or chancellor, Illinois chose to make Cubit its permanent head coach, giving him a paltry two-year contract for $1.2 million per year. That's AAC or Mountain West territory.
Said the interim athletic director: "It's not ideal, but for now, I don't think it'll put a dagger in the heart of the program."
That is almost impossibly apathetic. It prompted The Champaign Room to proclaim, correctly, that "Illinois doesn't care about football."
So when Illinois hired new athletic director Josh Whitman, most expected him to ride with Cubit for a year, because that's what Illinois tends to do: the boring, predictable thing. Instead, Whitman did something different, firing Cubit on March 5, his first official day as Illinois' athletic director.
Firing a coach on your first day is bold. Doing it on March 5, after the coaching carousel is done and spring practice is nearly underway, is even bolder.
The traditional Illini couldn't have pulled off what happened next; what quality coach could they pry away without paying more than $2 million?
So Whitman went bigger — $21 million over six years — to get Smith, plus a reported $4 million a year for assistants, almost twice what was listed for 2015 Illinois assistants in USA Today's database. That would move Illinois from near the bottom of the Big Ten in assistant salaries to near the top of the conference.
If Illinois continued to pay coaches like it did in the past, like the $400,000 Cubit got as coordinator, the Illini probably could have only offered Smith a coordinator from, say, the MAC. Instead, Smith reportedly hired Garrick McGee from the ACC's Louisville for $900,000 per year, with some other big names reportedly in the mix.
This is no slow build. It's simply deciding to use resources that were likely there all along.
Ever since Ron Zook received an extension in 2007, Illinois has hardly raised its head coach's salary, despite skyrocketing revenue coming from the Big Ten.
|Year||Coach Salary||Revenue from conference|
|2007||$1.055 million||$18.8 million|
|2008||$1.505 million||$19.2 million|
|2009||$1.505 million||$20 million|
|2010||$1.505 million||$22.8 million|
|2011||$1.75 million||$24.7 million|
|2012||$1.6 million||$25.4 million|
|2013||$1.7 million||$27 million|
|2014||$1.8 million||$32 million|
|2015||$916,000||$34.1 million (projected)|
It's like a European soccer team suddenly giving a damn, as one Illinois fan wrote on Reddit:
This is strange. It feels like we are a second- or third-tier European soccer team that just got bought by a Russian billionaire, and now we can buy whomever we want. I like it!
The administration just gave out the biggest contract in school history to the most exciting head coaching hire they've ever made. After years of begging the school to shut up and put their money where their mouth is, the school finally did. Over 170 season ticket packages have already been sold today. The ticket office phones have not stopped ringing all morning. The major Chicago papers had Illinois football as their cover sports stories all weekend. In March.
Smith still has to prove he can recruit and get something out of a weak roster. However, Illinois is trying to be good now. That's a step in the right direction.