Lovie Smith is on his way to rebuilding Illinois football
He’s bringing all of his experiences — NFL coach, growing up in Texas, a star defensive player — in hopes of resurrecting the orange and blue
In a small town in Texas, a 15-year-old Lovie Smith stood nervously, his inordinately cool resolve now teetering between fear and total panic. His heart beat wildly inside his chest, waiting for his mother’s response. It was his fault.
At Big Sandy High School, he was a sophomore football phenomenon, an all-state defensive end and linebacker on the brink of leading his high school to three consecutive state championships. He was a dominating presence, intimidating rivals with unrelenting physical force, leading to 11 shutout games and holding opponents to just 15 total points in his last year.
But that all seemed so far away.
Lovie waited for his mother to say something, anything. His stomach balled itself into small knots. He was prepared to be grounded. Or scolded. This was their only car. The thermostat had to be turned juuuust right, and he’d turned it too hard. It snapped.
They were headed to the laundromat; the piles of laundry were already in neat piles at the door. He looked at the laundry, then back at his mother. He’d just told her what had happened. And now, he waited.
What Mae Smith finally said would define him in many ways, and his approach to adversity.
“You cannot mope,” she told me. ‘You don’t have time to mope. You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself in this world. When something bad happens, you do something about it.’”
The star football player stood still as his mother strapped the laundry onto his back. She did the same with his two sisters before strapping on her own load for the mile-long walk. “When a roadblock comes up,” she told him, “you find another way.”
A long, long way from perfection, the Illinois program
Smith, hired in March 2016, is in the midst of finding his way and ultimately a strategy that will address the mammoth challenge of reviving the University of Illinois football program.
With five head coaches over the last 10 years, the program has been smothered under the crushing weight of mediocrity, scandal and the search for legitimacy.
Together, former Illini head coaches, Lou Tepper (1992-1996, 25-30-2), Ron Turner (1997-2004, 35-57), Ron Zook (2005-2011, 35-51), Tim Beckman (2012-2014, 12-25) and Bill Cubit (2015-2016, 5-7) did not create a strategy for success. No road map for growth. Much less a compass for navigating up, and out, of the inevitable valleys.
Although Turner led the Illini to the Sugar Bowl in 2002, and Zook led the squad to the Rose Bowl in 2008, there hasn’t been much in the way of a proven improvement. They’ve had six losing seasons in the last eight years.
Now that same program is so heavily entrenched in a losing battle to maintain solvency and relevance, and it faced an additional layer of challenge in the year before Smith’s arrival.
Former athletic director Mike Thomas would fire head coach Beckman after reports surfaced of bullying, player abuse and mistreatment, sparking the hashtag #BanBeckman. Players recounted their stories to CNN and The Associated Press, detailing incidents of being bullied back onto the field before their injuries were healed, being ridiculed, tackled and even subjected to threats that their scholarships would be taken away.
Two years into a five-year contract, and a loss of $3.1 million to Beckman, he was fired. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was named head coach. Cubit finished one season and was fired by new athletic director Josh Whitman on his first day on the job.
Whitman’s hiring came after former athletic director Mike Thomas was fired as a result of a separate investigation involving allegations of racism from several members of the women’s basketball team.
Clearly the university’s athletic department was far from an ideal situation for any new head coach. Their football team was routinely excluded from any conversation of real contenders. It would be a tough sell to get a coach of the caliber and composition to accept the challenge of reviving the ailing program, even if that new head coach had a proven record of success in the pros, and let’s say, even a trip to the Super Bowl.
It would take more than mere skill, or even ingenuity, to weather the storm raging in Illini land. It would take someone with a steady hand, and a calming presence — and yes, a stellar record of achievement — to dismantle the paradigm of dysfunction and forge a new path that would position the Illini to compete, and to win.
Four days after Cubit was fired, Whitman announced that former NFL head coach Smith, fresh from a stint in Tampa Bay, would be the man to forge the path ahead for the Illini. The former Chicago Bears and Buccaneers coach signed a six-year, $21 million contract.
“This is a great academic institution,” Smith said. “The reputation academically is here. And I always looked at the University of Illinois and saw a lot of potential. I wondered why the university could not be a consistent winner because everything else is in place. It’s a great area to recruit in; it’s near Chicago. In my initial conversation with Josh Whitman, I just thought it was a great opportunity.”
But his start has been rocky with just three wins, heading into week 11. Add to that injuries to starting quarterback Wes Lunt and backup Chayce Crouch. Top wide receiver Malik Turner was taken out on a stretcher in week 8. Add to that an ESPN report that Smith is already “miserable at Illinois,” and might abandon ship after just one year.
Smith simultaneously addressed and dismissed those allegations via Twitter.
“MaryAnne and I are incredibly happy in Champaign. We love this university and this community.
Undoubtedly, it will take more than momentum, and certainly more than one game, perhaps several seasons even, to rebuild the program. It will take much more to move from promise to prominence, to be a serious contender in the competitive realm of recruitment, to claim a spot among the powerhouses, and to be a part of the college-to-NFL pipeline.
Creating space for the orange and blue on the recruiting map
It’s no secret that the Illini have had to compete with nearby powerhouses to recruit and maintain top talent. Ohio State, Michigan State, and then of course Michigan, with former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh at the helm, all compete for the cream of the crop.
In fact, the 2016 NFL draft took three Illini players after being shut out in 2014 and 2015. Add to that uphill battle, the recent SB Nation Power Rankings listing the Illini squad at No. 80 out of 128, a tier 6 position.
But Smith is not deterred. “We were ranked as the last team in the NFL when I got to Chicago,” he said. “In a little over a year, we were in the Super Bowl, so it really doesn’t matter to me about rankings. Nobody really knows what we’re gonna be and we don’t mind being in that underdog role.”
Before Turner’s injury, he told The Undefeated that Smith’s presence will help lead the team closer to victory. “I just know he’s behind us every step of the way. A coach like that believing in you gives you a lot of confidence.”
They’ll need confidence, Smith said, for what he has on the agenda. “No matter where you are, there’s a rival you need to beat,” he said. “For us, that’s Northwestern. We need to beat Northwestern and win a Big 10 championship. That will put us in position to win a national title.”
“We’ve got a ton of respect for the Illini program, the university, and for the young men, their coaches and players,” said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “This is a rivalry built on respect and I’m sure it will continue to be that way.” The Illini end their season Saturday at the Wildcats’ Ryan Field in Evanston on Saturday.
The new Illini head coach said that there’s a certain way the Illini want to win football games. “Offensively, I believe in a running game. You have to be able to run the football to win. The number one factor to determine if a team wins or loses is the turnover ratio. No one puts more of an emphasis on ball security on the offensive side,” he said. “Defensively, the number one goal is to take the ball away. We have a basic philosophy and we practice those techniques every day.”
Smith is looking to build the Illini squad and amass the pieces, through recruitment, to create the depth needed for the style of play he envisions. “We have a profile of what we’re looking for in every player. I think one of my strengths is the ability to identify guys who can play ball. At the college level, I have a little more leeway in who ends up on our football team.”
Making the switch: College vs. Pros
So much of the job, as compared with the professional ranks, involves recruiting. “It’s a 24/7 job and it’s just as important as the football part of it. That’s the adjustment I’ve had to make; it’s more involvement with parents,” he said. “But I’m a people person. I love talking to people and letting parents know what we’re gonna do for their sons.
“Some people feel like they know me from my time in Chicago. That can convince some people right away. Others might take a little bit longer. Eventually word will get around on how we’re doing things.”
Former Chicago Bears player Major Wright came into the league under Smith, and later played for him in Tampa Bay. He said that the pieces will come together for Smith to solidify the Illini program. “They’re going to see the kind of coach he is, the type of person he is, and it makes you want to go fight for him. He makes you want to run through a wall for him. Once everyone gets that, the team will definitely start rolling.”
Brian Urlacher, 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and 2000 Rookie of the Year, played his entire career under Smith and said he will be an effective leader, on and off the field. “It’s gonna take some time, maybe a couple of years, but I think he’ll get it figured out. He’s such a good football coach. He understands. He knows how to motivate young men. He knows how to teach them to be men, which I think is gonna go a long way in college.”
“After one year, you start to get a really good feel for what you can do and what you cannot do schematically,” said Fitzgerald. “Along with knowing your personnel and knowing your program. The college game is very different. Rules are different. The QB being more involved in the run game makes the game very different than the pro game. And Lovie’s a terrific coach. Very competitive. I root for him in every game but one. I’m sure he’s making a great impact on those young men.”
“I think one of the keys, and what Lovie does so well, is building relationships with players,” said Tim Jennings, former Chicago Bears player who also played under Smith at Tampa Bay. “At the collegiate level, you’ve got to reach the younger players, your freshmen and sophomores, as they’ll eventually become your juniors and seniors; those who are already leading, and that will help lead the next wave. That’s how your program grows.”
“In the NFL, we’re all kinda at that level. You’re not gonna get faster or stronger. All you can do is maintain,” said Wright. “But the things coach taught us, like how to learn defense, how to read an offense, how to work with offensive personnel, and the terminology of offense and defense, and how to put yourself in position to make a play, applies at the collegiate level and NFL.”
“Last year, I started rookie QB Jameis Winston and rookie LB Kwon Alexander,” Smith said. “They’re the same age as the players we have right now. So the football part isn’t that much different.”
Fitzgerald and Smith both mention the pageantry of college football, the excitement of the fans and the energy that the marching band brings to the moment. “There’s nothing like the college game-day experience, Smith said. “The thrill of it all and the pride it brings can’t be matched.”
Recruiting Pitch No. 1: ‘We have an NFL Dream Team, join us’
The NFL factor cannot be underrated. Smith’s ability to attract NFL coaches, some who are former players, who will be able to identify and recruit future NFL talent and cultivate an NFL mindset, are essential to move the program into the national conversation of collegiate contenders who fuel the NFL pipeline.
Smith’s plan to turn the tide for the Fighting Illini relies heavily on three principles: 1) coaching players into men, on and off the field 2) building the program, play by play, game by game, season by season and 3) bringing together an NFL Dream Team to lay the groundwork.
“We know that not everyone is gonna go to the NFL, but that should be your dream.” he said. “If your dream is to go to the NFL and you have NFL coaches that know what it’s like on a daily basis to train and prepare for a game, that should be attractive to players who are really serious about football.”
His newly assembled 10-member coaching staff brings 56 seasons of combined NFL head coaching and assistant coaching experience, the most in college football in 2016, beating out UCLA (44), Michigan (41), Nebraska (32) and USC (30).
It’s a decidedly impressive group of NFL insiders, assembled to funnel their experience into creating a culture of players who are prepared to compete at the highest level.
Defensive coordinator for the Illini Hardy Nickerson played in the NFL for 16 seasons and served as assistant NFL coach for three seasons. Run-game coordinator Mike Phair had been an assistant NFL coach for seven seasons, and special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Bob Ligashesky was an NFL assistant coach for 12 seasons.
Wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker served as an assistant coach in the NFL for five seasons. Offensive line coach Luke Butkus was as an assistant NFL coach for eight seasons. Smith, of course, brings 19 seasons of NFL coaching experience, 11 as head coach and eight as an assistant NFL coach. The Illini’s offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was an assistant NFL coach under Tom Coughlin for two seasons.
“Knowing that we have Coach Smith and coaches that have been in the NFL who know what it takes is huge. And if they see it in us, I know other people will see it in us,” said defensive lineman Chunky Clements. “It makes us more confident to just play our game, and trust in the process.”
Recruiting Pitch No. 2 — It goes way beyond football
On the practice fields at Memorial Stadium, the Fighting Illini run drills in the four pockets of the field. Nickerson is on one end, McGee the other. Smith patrols the length of the field, making brief stops along the way to assess, advise and direct, it seems.
“We play all sorts of music here,” Smith said. “It’s not about tolerance, it’s about acceptance. What you learn is that you end up liking something you didn’t know you’d like. And it’s like that with people in life. Being on a team forces you to get to know the guy next to you and that’s a great thing.”
While Smith has George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Parliament-Funkadelic on his current R&B playlist, he also claims Elton John and Eric Clapton as his faves. And he admits, he’s getting into rap. “Being around so many young folks, you don’t really have a choice,” he chuckles. “But there are some messages in rap music.”
It is this level of acceptance, along with a team of NFL heavy-hitters, and a recipe for building young men, that Smith hopes will attract top talent. “I think that’s one of my strengths, to identify guys who can play ball. At the college level, I’ve got a little more leeway with who ends up on our football team.”
“If anyone asked me to identify someone from the NFL who would be great at coaching college football, it would be Lovie Smith,” said Tony Dungy, former NFL head coach, in a statement on the Illini website. Dungy, recently an inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Smith’s mentor, said, “He’s going to have moms and dads very excited to have their sons play for him and grow as people.”
Recruiting Pitch No. 3, that Illini Pride runs deep
Under Smith’s direction, the Illini game plan is not bound by mere sportsmanship, but necessarily intertwines manhood and leadership.
That comprehensive approach is part of the Illini pulse.The entire football coaching staff, draped in Illini gear on a sunny afternoon, are all family men. All are married with children, many of them with small children, a few of whom are running along the outskirts of the practice field.
The ability to lead a family, to prioritize, plan and work toward goals are the same skills used on the field, Nickerson said. The Illini’s defensive coordinator is a four-time NFL Pro Bowler who played for Tampa Bay when Smith was their linebackers coach. “When you have a family,” he said, “you gotta lead. [In coaching], you lead like it’s your family, because it is.”
In this family, there are dreams of the 2017 NFL draft. Senior players such as defensive linemen Clemens, Dawuane Smoot, quarterback Lunt, and linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr. top the list. Nickerson is the defensive coordinator’s son, a senior transfer from Cal, and ranked fourth in the inside linebacker slot for the 2017 draft prospects. And sophomore running back Ke‘Shawn Vaughn was named to the 2016 Doak Walker Award Watch List, one of only 76 running backs in the nation.
In his debut season as head coach, Smith said he is relying on players like wide receiver Justin Hardee along with defensive lineman Carroll Phillips and offensive linemen Austin Schmidt, Christian DiLauro and Joe Spencer.
“We’re working on our depth,” said defensive coordinator Nickerson. “We’re looking to develop those players that are in a secondary role right now, so if those guys are called upon, they’ll be ready.”
Indeed, there is talent on the Illini team. The former NFL head coach and his staff must be able to cultivate that talent into a cohesive body of work, while at the same time building reserves to reinforce the team’s strengths and addressing the lack of depth that they’ll need to win.
Collegiate roots lead to NFL harvest, and back
It was 1983 and Smith had taken his first collegiate coaching position. The job was at his alma mater, Tulsa, for $18,000 per year as a linebackers coach. Mae Smith, a Texas native and lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, made a phone call to her son. “She told me, ‘Lovie, I had a dream that you are going to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.’” At the time, Smith said, he didn’t think of the idea in a serious sense. “Every mother thinks that their child is going to be something special.”
So he went on with life, honing his coaching acumen at the collegiate level, refining his quiet approach to domination. He would leave Tulsa for Wisconsin (1987), then Arizona State (1988-1991), followed by Kentucky (1992), serving as linebackers coach at each stop. From there, he’d move on to Tennessee (1993-1994) and then Ohio State (1995) as a defensive backs coach. In between each stop, he said, his mom would call and remind him of the dream she had. Still, he didn’t think of it actually materializing.
But then another call came. It was the National Football League. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired him as a linebackers coach. It was then, Smith recalls, that he started thinking, maybe she’s onto something.
After four years with the Bucs (1996-2000), he’d move on to the St. Louis Rams as the defensive coordinator (2001-2002) helping to lead the team to a Super Bowl appearance before being promoted to assistant head coach (2003). And then, Smith said, he got the call from the Chicago Bears for the head coaching position. That same day, Mae Smith called her son. “Lovie,” he remembers her saying.“Do you believe me yet?” Smith chuckled. “I told her, ‘Yeah, but you were off just a bit, it’s not the Cowboys.’”
The Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay, a look back
As head coach for the Chicago Bears, Smith would make history with 81 wins during his nine seasons, the third most in Bears history. The Bears would make two NFC championship same appearances (2006 and 2010) and a trip to the Super Bowl in 2006 where Smith, along with Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts, would make history as the first African-American head coaches in a Super Bowl. As head of the Bucs, Smith tripled the wins from 2014 to 2015.
But in the end, both teams would release him. “I’ve had a lot of tough calls, disappointments,” Smith said. “Getting a call from the Chicago Bears with a 10-6 record, and they say, ‘Hey, we’re going in a different direction,’ to Tampa Bay becoming available and after just two years, the unexpected, when I thought I had it going the right way.”
“It hurt me to see him leave and we didn’t know why,” said Wright, who was brought into the league by Smith while serving as head coach of Chicago Bears. “We were playing great ball at the time and for them to let just let him go, it kinda killed us, killed our spirit. The guys around me had gotten acclimated to the defense. And with us going 10-6, next year we had a lot of promising things. But I had to adapt to it. I had a job to do.”
“In the conference we were in, in the league we play in, it’s hard to win 10 games,” Jennings recalled. “It hurt a lot of guys. But in this business, that’s just the way it is. Ownership tries to roll the dice and you see, ever since then, it’s gotten worse.”
Urlacher, who retired before Smith’s release, said, “I can’t put my hands around it. I never have. Maybe the GM [general manager Phil Emery] didn’t like him. The GM pretty much fired himself right after he fired Lovie cause he didn’t know what he was doing anyway.”
But in Tampa, Jennings said, there was no model of leadership like Smith had on the Bears, in veteran players like Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs.
“In Tampa, Coach Smith had to do a lot more. He had to be more hands-on,” Jennings said. “Tampa expected a whole lot from Lovie. They put so much on his plate, so much responsibility to orchestrate everything from top to bottom, who you want to come here, and if you get the guys you want to come, then we expect something to happen quick. I just thought he didn’t get the time that he expected to turn that program around. It was like, ‘we need this to happen now.’ But it wasn’t as fast as they expected, so I guess that’s what made them go in another direction.”
“Tampa wasn’t a veteran team,” Wright said. “So coach had to adjust his coaching style to his players. He had to emphasize coaching points over and over and over again, but in Chicago you know, everybody already got it.”
Despite it all, Lovie said, he doesn’t look back. He always remembers the lessons from his mother. “ ‘You have to move on. Quickly. You don’t mope.’ My mother said most of the time when something bad happens, something better is coming along. There’s a reason and there’s a why.’”
Responsibility and action
As a young boy in Big Sandy, Texas (population 1,358), Smith began amassing the character and skills to master — and soon coach the game. He would climb the collegiate and professional ranks, setting records and making history: 1) as the first African-American head coach for the Chicago Bears, 2) as one of the first two African-American coaches to play in a Super Bowl, and now 3) as the first African-American head coach at the University of Illinois. Add to that, his hiring of an African-American defensive coordinator, Hardy Nickerson, and an African-American offensive coordinator, Garrick McGee, to help rebuild the program and attract new talent.
Smith said he was intrigued by the chance to build a program from the ground up, to assemble the pieces needed to elevate a program from potential to prestige, to bring in the right coaches to lead, and to identify the right players to carry out the vision, and for young African-American players to see someone who looked like them on the college sidelines.
“For me to be in a position for other young African-Americans to see what we’re doing is a powerful visual. It’s bigger than football. It’s about opportunities for people to see that their dreams and goals can really come true.”
Chancellor Robert Jones, the first African-American chancellor at the state’s flagship university, is more evidence of that growth and opportunity.
“Every day I wake up,” Smith said, “I realize I’ve been blessed beyond my wildest dreams. I don’t take anything for granted.”
Although Smith and his wife are settling into the college town of Champaign, they still consider Chicago home. Smith said he is troubled by the national headlines and the violence in many of the city’s neighborhoods.
“Like everyone else, I try to figure out what can I do to help the situation,” he said. “I think for some of us, we’re in a position where we’re trapped a little bit. It’s not always the choice to live in a certain area. And to be able to get out of it can be hard sometimes. That’s why when you have an opportunity to help someone have a better life, it’s your responsibility to do it,” he added. “But it’s not just one answer to solve all the issues. With anything, you have to keep acknowledging every day and trying to find a way to make it better.”
Smith said he encourages his team to be men of influence through the political process, to become involved with their communities, no matter where they live, and to be a voice for the issues that concern them. “I want our men to have an opinion on who they’re gonna vote for and why. I want them to do their research and understand the process. If you’re silent, you’re saying you agree with whatever is going on, so let your opinion be known.”
In the face of diabetes, which would claim his mother’s sight and eventually her life, Smith could not be silent. He has a brother and sister who are also diabetic. “When you’re affected by something personally, you want to do something. For diabetes to take my mom, I had to do something.”
The Lovie and MaryAnne Smith Foundation was initially geared toward diabetes awareness and prevention, in conjunction with the American Diabetes Association. But the couple recognized a means to help those in need through educational assistance in the form of scholarships. “My scholarship at Tulsa is what really made a difference for me and opened up so many doors,” Smith said. “The motto of the foundation is, ‘We Start It, You Finish It,’ and it helps high school, college and graduate students.”
The Quiet Storm
During the course of the interview, Smith’s demeanor is unlike what you might expect of an NCAA football coach, certainly not a former NFL head coach. He is not loud. There is no tension in his voice, no hostility in his tone, no yelling at his players or his staff. He is resoundingly calm, reassuring in his assertions and poised on the task at hand: creating a new identity for the Fighting Illini football program. He is unscathed by what some might call an insurmountable challenge: rising above a decade of mediocrity and scrutiny to elevate the program, build the brand, oh … and win.
His calm is real. His even-keeled nature, his level-headed stance on the sidelines and what we’ve seen in Chicago and Tampa Bay and throughout the college ranks is authentic.
“He’s a master of controlling his personality,” said Garrick McGee, offensive coordinator. “He gives this team, his coaching staff and this program the same person every day, no matter if it’s going well or bad. He’s the exact same. It’s a great benefit to us.”
But surely, something has to occasionally rub him the wrong way, right?
“Oh, it’s definitely inside of him,” McGee said. “But he knows how to handle a crisis, how to keep his cool. He doesn’t really get mad. But if he’s disappointed in someone’s actions, for instance, he kinda slows down and forces you to listen to what he says. It’s a strategy that works where most people yell.”
Smith said his father was a calm man. He mentions the even disposition of his friend and mentor, Dungy. He talks about Tom Landry’s calm presence on the Dallas sidelines. “People think you have to scream and yell to be a disciplinarian, in order to show a burning desire to win. You don’t. I’ve never thought that I was a show. You have to remain calm and always be thinking ahead. You can’t just fly off the handle. There’s no room for that. When young men make a mistake, they want you to give them an answer. Yelling and screaming at them isn’t an answer.”
Next Stop … the Olympics and beyond
One of these days, perhaps when he has put the whistle and the clipboard down, Smith will scratch off the Olympics from his bucket list. He said his favorite event is the 4×400 track and field relay and that he was delighted when the Americans won last summer, both the men’s and women’s teams.
“Isn’t it something?” He pauses for a moment, reflecting it seems. “Isn’t it something how we can have all of these divisive issues in our country but when the Olympics comes along, we’re all pulling for our teams? And, it doesn’t matter what sport,” he added jokingly. “It could be synchronized swimming and we’re all like, ‘Hey, did we win that?’”
But with another two years until the 2018 Winter Olympics, Smith will have to wait. Not to mention, he has more than enough to keep him busy in Champaign.
“It’s all about what you have right now and what I have right now is bringing me complete happiness.”