Somehow we’re already here. Lovie Smith, Illinois football coach. Assuming yesterday was real life, we saw athletic director Josh Whitman, in his first day on the job, fire Bill Cubit and land a needle-moving replacement in former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith. It was an unprecedented, unbelievable first day. Remember March 5, 2016. It was the day Josh Whitman walked into the office for the first time, made a beeline for “the button,” and hit it with a hammer.
Official word can’t come soon enough. Spring football can’t come soon enough. Recruiting season can’t come soon enough. Football season can’t come soon enough. Smith’s arrival will send a surge of energy through Illinois football that hasn’t been felt in years. Illini fans have gotten by with fantasies about what could become of their program. Whitman needed only a few hours to build something real worth thinking about.
Lovie has tremendous experience. Coaching the Chicago Bears — just one of his many successful professional stops — he grew to be familiar with the community Illinois so sorely needs to tap into. He coached the football team most Illinois fans watch on Sundays. He coached that team to a Super Bowl, building a superb defense and overcoming the quarterbacking of Rex Grossman. After years where not much changed, Lovie’s message began to fall flat, his teams crept back toward mediocrity, and he was fired. A lot of the staleness that hindered the tail end of Lovie’s career in Chicago does not apply to college football. Too much changes from year to year. Most recently, Lovie coached a young, developing Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. They were competitive, but undermanned, and went 6-10. Smith’s firing this offseason was met with criticism.
But everything happens for a reason.
Amid a picked-over crop of college coaching candidates, Smith stands out as someone unexpected, someone very qualified, someone proven, and someone that will resonate on a personal level with a lot of fans and prospects who really wouldn’t have cared which off-brand coordinator the Illini brought in.
Furthermore, it is very important that Lovie Smith is African-American. It feels right, Illinois having a black coach. Most of the players on the team are black. A large portion of high schoolers from Chicago schools are black. More than half of Division-I football players are black, according to a New York Times article from December about the glaring lack of black coaches in the college game. For those players, Smith will be able to connect with them more deeply on a very personal and pervasive aspect of their lives. That’s not only good for recruiting, it’s good for sports as a worthwhile part of life. Smith will be the 12th black head coach in college football. He will be the first black head coach for either football or men’s basketball at Illinois.
Can Lovie win? Can he recruit? Those are Day Two questions. We’ll figure all that out as we go. But months after a confusing hire, in which apparently bad interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk reached a two-year agreement with Bill Cubit — that’s an objectively bad number of years for a coaching hire, by the way — Whitman took a stand against dumb moves. He admitted at his Saturday presser that Cubit did nothing wrong. And he’s right. He also said both he and Cubit were put into a bad situation through no fault of either of them. He was right. But he had the power to allow both parties to move on from a bad situation. And he executed that power in sweeping fashion Saturday. Illinois the football team did not get better by firing Bill Cubit. Illinois the program did. It got better by admitting it had a problem, which is the first step to solving problems. If the Smith deal happens — if it doesn’t there will be hell to pay — that will improve the Illinois football program. It’s worth noting that Whitman’s first presser as official athletic director wasn’t lip service about crafting a program, or improving an image, or general platitudes about how to make things seem better than they are. It was about what he is doing, already, to make things better than they are.
We’ve seen new regimes before, and recently. We saw a confident athletic director who was leaving a great program he built in Cincinnati tell us he knew what he was doing, and that we were going to have championship standards. We saw energy from the coaches he hired. We saw excitement and expectations. We saw “New Era Beckons” T-shirts. All we want to see at this point is good teams. And while it’s hard to answer the call to buy in when we’re still asking for our money back from the last guy, it’s hard to deny that Whitman’s first day was explosive, decisive, and full of hope. It was surprising, and yet it was profoundly logical.
After five years of nothing but talk, Whitman started his tenure with strong actions. If you’re a fan who’s grown cynical, it has to take you aback. For a program whose predictability has been matched in recent years only by its incompetence, a surprise like yesterday is exactly what was needed.