On the surface, Lovie Smith returning to the college ranks to coach Illinois might seem surprising. When you step back and really think about it, though, it’s not surprising at all.
“If you look at the landscape right now, Jim Harbaugh last year, Pete Carroll at one time, Jim Mora, Nick Saban – there’s been quite a few coaches that have coached in the NFL and gone back to college and really enjoyed the experience,” Smith said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “Before I came to the NFL, I was in the Big Ten as a secondary coach. I loved my time being around young people. I of course stayed in tune to the game when I was in Chicago. Of course I watched the University of Illinois quite a bit. I thought it was a program that could be a factor for Big Ten championships, so when they contacted me, of course I jumped at the opportunity.”
On the plus side, Illinois is in the easier Big Ten division, the Big Ten West, meaning it won’t have to play Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan every year. On the down side, Illinois has gone 17-32 over the last four seasons, including 6-26 in the Big Ten. There’s also the question of Smith embracing recruiting in the manner of, say, Jim Harbaugh, who has sleepovers with recruits.
“Well, I don’t know exactly what Jim Harbaugh does, but I just know I feel comfortable selling myself and selling our program,” Smith said. “The part I like about football in general is the relationships you build. That’s what recruiting is about – you selling your product and getting people to trust what you say. I’m going to be me. I feel pretty confident that I can convince young men to be a part of our program. Our program is going to take off. We will win.”
While Illinois has struggled mightily in recent years, many feel the program is a sleeping giant. There are plenty of quality football players in Chicago, St. Louis isn’t far away, and Smith has ties to Texas and Florida. Throw in a guy who has coached in a Super Bowl, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a national power.
So, how many wins can we expect from Illinois this season?
“It’s hard to put numbers on it,” Smith said. “I’m just saying in time, we’re going to win. We’ve started the process right now. I’m getting to know our football team. The cupboard isn’t bare by any means. We’re going to continue to improve it, and in time, (we’ll win). I don’t know exactly how long that’ll be, but I don’t see it being very long.”