Can Lovie Smith Get It Done At Illinois?

Illinois football made a huge splash this week when they hired Lovie Smith as head coach, inking him to a six-year contract worth $21 million. It’s a big-time move by a new athletic director looking to put an irrelevant program on the map. But will it work?

There’s no question Lovie can coach. He was 81-63 in his nine years with the Chicago Bears and reached the 2006 Super Bowl. Critics point to the fact he only made the playoffs three times, but two of the non-playoff years were winning seasons (including a 10-6 year that got him fired after 2012—how’s that working out in Chicago?). And after going 5-11 in his first year of 2004, Lovie won at least seven games every year. He was always respectable.

It looked like the trend might continue in Tampa Bay. After inheriting a bad team and going 2-14 in his first season of 2014, Lovie improved the Buccaneers to 6-10 this year, with Jameis Winston winning praise for his progress. Inexplicably, Lovie was fired in favor of his offensive coordinator, the immortal Dirk Koetter.

All of that’s a track record that should inspire confidence among the Illini faithful. But there are some concerns. The most obvious is that the transition from NFL to college hasn’t proven any easier than the career path going the other way. Coaching in the pros and coaching college ball are two very different animals. There’s a reason only three coaches have won it all at both levels (Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, Pete Carroll) and only a handful, like Jim Harbaugh, have had real success on both sides of the aisle.

The biggest difference is recruiting and it’s fair to wonder how well Lovie Smith will do in that regard. His name recognition and the fact he still has a lot of goodwill in the Chicago area will get him in the door to the best high school players. But is he going to close the deal when Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame are knocking on the doors of the same players?

In spite of the positive things I, and others, would say about his record, there is a strong belief out there that Lovie’s best coaching days are well behind him. Today’s high school seniors were eight years old when Lovie took the Bears to the Super Bowl.

And while I’m no expert, I have to think that the very dynamic of coaching is drastically different. In college there’s limits on practice time. In the NFL you have the players year-round. Can Lovie take defensive concepts that are undoubtedly drastically more complex than anything high school players have seen and condense them so the kids can grasp the schemes?

The concerns I bring up aren’t to cast doubt on Illinois’ decision. This was clearly a slam dunk hire and far better than anything else Illini fans might have dared hope. The concerns are about appropriately assigning expectations for Lovie’s tenure in Champaign.

We have a precedent to work from. Bill Callahan, another head coach who had reached a Super Bowl (2002 Oakland Raiders) got the Nebraska job and from 2004-07, went 27-22. That included a trip to the Big 12 Championship Game in 2006. The downside, if you’re an Illinois fan, is that the Nebraska program was in far better shape than Illinois is right now. The upside is that Lovie was clearly a better head coach than Callahan.

So maybe, all things considered, that should be the expectation. If Illinois can start having seasons of around 6-6 and 7-5, that would be about par for the course. If an 8-4 or 9-3 season with a New Year’s Day bowl bid (i.e, the Outback Bowl) can get mixed in, the hire would be an unqualified success.

It’s not shooting for the moon by any stretch. But for where Illinois football is at right now, it would be a big step up.