Lovie Smith Would Bring Illinois A New Kind of Attention

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If rumors of new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman hiring Lovie Smith to head the Illini football program prove true, Whitman’s already accomplished something one day on the job no one else has in eight years.

He has the nation talking about Illinois football for football reasons.

Illinois garnered plenty of national headlines before Saturday’s Lovie Smith chatter, sure, albeit for coaches’ reported treatment of injured athletes.

Any large-scale attention focused on Illinois came for the wrong reasons — and Whitman’s abrupt dismissal of Bill Cubit Saturday morning felt like more of the same.

Cubit’s firing still doesn’t sit entirely well with me. He his interim label removed in November after leading Illinois to a decent 5-7 record amid considerable turmoil. With no athletic director in place, Cubit’s retention was a measure of stability for those players on roster in turbulent times.

A coaching change in March, just as spring practices commence, is just more turbulence. This is a team that already faced a coaching change one week before the 2015 season, when Tim Beckman was fired for the aforementioned reports of athlete mistreatment.

Any Illini not board for Lovie Smith, or any other potential successor to Cubit, should be allowed to transfer free from consequence. If the NCAA is going to permit such abrupt coaching changes, the student-athletes should be granted similar fluidity in such situations.

And as for Cubit and his staff: coaching is a cruel profession. That’s well-established. But to have the interim tag removed, only to be dumped in such a surprising fashion, is a new level in that cruelty.

““Everybody told me I had this year [to prove worthy of the job under the new athletic regime],” Cubit said, tacking on a line that succinctly summarizes the circus-like last few months in Illinois athletics.

“It’s a funny place.”

Alienating one of the team’s top returning players doesn’t seem like a great introductory to the new staff, either.

Alright, so not everything coming of Illinois’ new coaching connection is strictly football-related. And it’s not all positive, either.

However, Whitman perhaps expedited the inevitable. Illinois football’s been a symbol of mediocrity for years. Why endure a year of it, with a lame-duck coach, if Whitman has a vision?

Someone at Illinois texted me shortly after Cubit’s dismissal was publicized. He pointed out Whitman is an Illinois alum; not just an Illinois alum, but an Illinois football alum.

Whitman has additional investment in the strength of Illini football, and, as the UI source described it, a decade to think how he’d map out the program’s resurrection.

Whitman didn’t come to Champaign without a plan, and the immediate surfacing of Lovie Smith as a candidate speaks to that.

Now, Lovie Smith doesn’t automatically nor necessarily make Illinois a contender in the Big Ten West, if he is indeed the hire.

He last coached college football in 1995 as an assistant to Ohio State’s John Cooper. Much has changed in college football in 21 years, and many of the Illini he’d coach weren’t born yet.

But in those 21 years, Smith appeared in a Super Bowl. He’s still beloved in Chicago, the recruiting pool nearest to the Illinois football program.

Adjusting to the many differences between college football and the NFL requires the right staff of assistants, but contingent on that, Lovie Smith could very well flourish as quickly as long-time NFL coach Jim Mora did at UCLA.

The prospects are exciting. When was the last time that could be said realistically of Illinois football?