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Lovie Smith says it’s not about age but about being willing to learn

Entering the second year of a rebuild, the Illini have taken to their coach’s style.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO – Lovie Smith spent his Monday at a hotel 2.2 miles from Soldier Field, the stadium that was his home through nine seasons, 81 wins, 63 losses, and one Super Bowl appearance with Rex Grossman as his QB. The 2004-12 Bears head coach was fielding questions at Big Ten Media Days for the second time as the coach at Illinois, the state school two hours south in Champaign.

Smith’s first season at Illinois was bad, but it was always going to be. He took the job in March 2016, after new athletic director Josh Whitman made firing Bill Cubit his first order of business. Smith took over a team that had gone 5-7 and averaged four wins over the previous four. He was too late to the gig to recruit a single player in the class of 2016. He had a compressed offseason. Illinois went 3-9.

Smith has a rebuilding job in front of him. His approach has been pro-style.

I asked Smith what he’d learned in the last year about the difference between coaching 18-to-22-year-olds and 22-to-40-year olds.

“I just don’t think there’s a big difference in players that wanna be coached, is what I’ve learned,” Smith said. “Not learned; it’s what I thought. When I was in the NFL, guys wanted to be coached like they were in college. What I found is that the top players, they play like that on Sundays, but through the week, they want you to coach them, give them information, teach them.

“If they know you know what you’re talking about and you can help them, they listen to what you have to say, because you have teachers coming through. You listen to your teachers, and that’s what I’ve found. College athlete and NFL athlete, that perception of they have it all and they don’t want anyone to help them, that’s false.”

Illinois v Nebraska
Mike Dudek, one of Illinois’ most exciting players in a long time, is finally healthy
Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images

College football’s got a lot of yellers. Smith is not one, his players say.

Christian DiLauro, a senior offensive lineman, has played for three Illini head coaches: Smith, Cubit, and Tim Beckman, whom the school fired amid player treatment concerns.

“[Smith] has that NFL background, so he kind of treats us more as we’re grown men; expects us to be able to do the little things on our own, without policing us as much as we’ve had in the past,” DiLauro said. “Now he will, if you’re messing up — like the minor things, like not showing up to things on time and stuff like that — you know, he’ll step in and he’ll police it and make sure that you know he knows what’s going on. He’ll talk to you and sit you down and have that one-on-one conversation and get you going on the right track, or let you know that you’re going down the wrong path.”

Smith’s players speak about him with unusual reverence for a coach who’s only been on the job for one year and gone 3-9.

“His coaching style’s very relaxed,” receiver Malik Turner says. “It’s very easy to understand what he’s trying to get across. His point’s very clear all the time. He’s very consistent.

“He’s a great leader for us to follow, and not just with his background, but just being around him and understanding who he is and hearing stories that he’s had to tell. Building that relationship with him, it’s great to be behind a man like that, and a coach.”

The Illini have no guarantees, but they’re sort of interesting now.

Smith’s first team was all-or-nothing, relying on big plays for nearly all of its success on both offense and defense. In Bill Connelly’s big Illinois preview, he projects about four wins. This is a long rebuild.

It should be a lot more fun to watch, though. Garrick McGee enters his second year as the Illini’s offensive coordinator, and he’s got an enjoyable dual-threat QB, Chayce Crouch. The offense, which worked at a glacial pace in 2016, might be able to speed up a bit. Receiver Mike Dudek, who went over 1,000 yards as a freshman in 2014, is healthy after missing the last two years with plural ACL tears. His good health is one of the feel-good stories of the long CFB offseason.

The Illini, as bad as they’ve been, are already likable when you talk to them.

How the program gets back on the map, according to Turner:

“Nobody really sees the stuff that we do off the field or behind the scenes or before the season. So I think knowing that, it just has to be what our product is gonna be, what we put out on the field. And once people see that, I think that enthusiasm will come back. Nobody can really see that right now, but we’re working really hard.”