Four Illinois Fighting Illini Football Coaching Candidates


The Lovie Smith era is officially over at Illinois, and he’ll now get paid ~$2.3 million not to work anymore. So while this is a rough day for him…hey, it’s really that bad! Lovie was a good guy with great integrity and high character, but he was a very poor fit to be a head college coach.

So where does Illinois and their program with a budget of about $115m, go now? If Athletic Director Josh Whitman whiffs as badly on this hire as he did on the Smith hire, well, then his tenure at the University of Illinois will come into question. Football is where the money is in college athletics, and thus, it’s how A.D.s are ultimately judged.

What Illinois needs now is an up-and-coming, young, scrappy and hungry (apologies to Lin Manuel-Miranda) guy who could actually build things up for once.

Given the tweet above, which perfectly and succinctly describes the history of the program over the past three decades, it’s been awhile since someone came to Champaign on a positive career trajectory. To put it bluntly, it’s been about 30 years.

Following the logic laid out in that tweet, the next hire would be Will Muschamp. Uhm, no.

And before we get to who it could actually be, let’s continue to first rule out who it WON’T be. You’ve already heard some rumors that have as much validity as the material in the backpages of The Sun, the Daily Mail or the Daily Mirror on a given Sunday.

You’re going to hear many more yet. Art Briles? GTFOH man.

Jim Harbaugh is not coming. He and his alma mater could indeed part ways soon, but his next gig will be in the NFL, not at a rival Big Ten school. Speaking of conference rivals, P.J. Fleck is always linked to the U of I. job when it becomes open (and it does become open fairly often), because he’s from here.

He could be on the hot seat soon at Minnesota, but his ultimate dream job might be his alma mater. Northern Illinois is struggling once again and the timing could be ultimately right for both sides in a couple years or so.

Fleck’s coaching role model is Pat Fitzgerald, so it would only fit that one day he does for NIU what Fitz has done at Northwestern.

Kevin Sumlin got sacked by Arizona today, and rememember he used the Illini as leverage to get a better deal before signing with Texas A&M. His agent played Mike Thomas pretty well, but the luster is off him now.

And no, just no, please stop, if you’re suggesting Hugh Freeze, Derek Mason, Bobby Petrino and Gene Chizik. Finally, Brent Venables would be ideal, but it would take a special head coaching job for him to leave Clemson. Illini football is definitely not that vacancy. Although they do have some new, nice facilities right now.

Urban isn’t coming either, so don’t even bring that up; please.

Actual Illini Football Head Coaching Candidates

Jeff Monken, Head Coach, Army

A Peoria native, this would be his dream job. He built up Georgia Southern, before then taking Army, when they were at a very low point, and brought them to the edge of national relevance. Yes, he runs a very outdated and unorthodox system, but if his mentor Paul Johnson could make it work in the ACC, at least for awhile, with Georgia Tech in the ACC, Monken could make the system work in the Big Ten.

If you are open-minded enough to consider the triple-option system, then look closer at the Illini roster. Entering the season, Illinois’ strength was the offensive line. The quarterback of the future is Isaiah Williams, a player that many consider a run-first signal caller.

Backing him up would be Coran Taylor, another dual threat QB. They have the elements already in place to be a very run-heavy offense. Given the massive struggles of the defense during the Smith era, ball control and time of possession is their friend.

Rhett Lashlee, OC, Miami

He was in the mix for the Arkansas State job, before it ultimately went to Butch Jones. One thing Illinois has yet to try, in the modern era of college football, is the up-and-coming coordinator hire.

They’ve tried everything else! Most coordinators want to be the head honcho, somewhere, someday and they know that in order to get there it usually means taking a step down from where they’re currently at.

Of course, there is the danger that Illinois would be a stepping stone for this millenial, and he would use this gig as a springboard, but he would also bring exciting, fun, pass-oriented football to Memorial Stadium.


Luke Fickell, Head Coach, Cincinnati

Cincy has been a stepping stone job lately, but he does make $3.4 million per season. If he leaves, he’ll want an upgrade in salary, and having just signed a contract extension that keeps him in southern Ohio until 2026, this just isn’t really plausible.

Even if he has a strong desire to coach in a conference where could go against his alma mater, he has the luxury of waiting for a better job than Illinois. Numerous programs of higher standing than Illinois have shown interest.

Bret Bielema, OLB Coach, New York Giants

If you want Big Ten experience, plus attainability, he’s your man. He was a team captain at Iowa under Hayden Fry and led Wisconsin to Rose Bowls as a head coach. Sure, he flopped in the SEC, but this is the one re-tread name being tossed out that actually sounds like a potentially good idea.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of  “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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