At least Illinois is trying. That was the thought that hit me when I heard the Illini fired its head coach after only seven months on the job and hired Lovie Smith.
Before we get to my initial thought, let’s back up a bit and explain what happened at Illinois over the last decade — though the Illini are about as bad as it gets historically for major conference programs.
Ron Zook was hired in 2005 after he was fired following a disastrous run at Florida. The hiring wasn’t beloved, but it wasn’t mocked like Zook being hired today would be. After all, this was before Zook worked at a bank before getting back into coaching.
Zook had some recruiting cache having stockpiled the Gators with national championship-caliber talent, and with Ron Turner having run Illinois into the ground on the field and on the recruiting trail, it wasn’t too outlandish to think Zook would be an improvement.
Initially things looked good from a recruiting standpoint. In Zook’s first full class the Illini cracked the top-30 in the rankings—the previous two seasons hovered near 50. In fact, the 2006-2009 classes averaged 26th in the nation. For a program with only 18 bowl games IN ITS HISTORY, that’s not too bad.
The problem with Zook, as we all now know, is he isn’t a good head coach. Aside from 2007 when Illinois went 9-4, Zook’s teams failed to crack the 7-win barrier in every year, including three seasons with three or less wins.
After beginning the 2011 season 6-0, Zook and Co. lost six straight, which culminated in him getting fired before the bowl game, ending the Zook era in Champaign.
If only the Illini were lucky enough to keep Zook. In his place entered Tim Beckman, a coach who would become famous for being fired after it was discovered he was a grade-A asshole.
Beckman led his bastardized version of the Junction Boys, which resulted in no wins of note, though was successful in eliminating all hope for an already beaten-down fan base. Beckman did improve the win total each year, going from two to four to six. However before he could hit delectable bowl-eligibility, he was fired a week before the start of the 2015 season after his douchebaggery was exposed.
Enter interim coach-turned-full-time-coach-turned-fired-coach (all in less than a year!) Bill Cubit. The Beckman scandal cost several people their job, and the last one seems to be Cubit, through no fault of his own. It was simply time to break free from the anything-Beckman-related.
This brings me back to my initial thought that at least Illinois is trying. New AD Josh Whitman needed less than a week on the job to spark interest in the program.
The Illini are among the most unproductive members of the Power 5 conferences, and that’s with being a state school of a fairly populated state. They have little to go on in terms of tradition and now have to compete with Jim Harbaugh: Twitter Warrior, Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer, perhaps the best coach in college football.
The odds are long Illinois is ever any good, but dammit they’re trying. Smith might be a beautiful disaster in the Bill Callahan mold, but he knows the state and has instant credibility. That means something.
Illinois isn’t getting Smith on the cheap, either. He signed a 6-year deal with $21 million and has a sizeable amount of cash to play with for assistants, which puts him in play to hire some decent names (Louisville OC Garrick McGee is being mentioned, and he was paid close to $900,000 last year).
The Big 10 is in the midst of a coaching Renaissance right now, and Illinois clearly wanted in on the action. That should be commended. For a program that has so few marquee moments on its record, swinging for the fences in one of the more competitive eras in history is worth applauding.
I don’t know how the Smith hiring will unfold. The list of NFL coaches failing in the collegiate ranks is long, but at least they’re trying to be competitive, and after the Tim Beckman-Ron Zook crap sandwich, that’s a step in the right direction.