At his very first Illini Football Media Day in 2016, Lovie Smith roasted me, in a playful fashion, in front of the entire room. He asked all the media present if I have any friends, as he responded to my question about his relationship with his good friend Charles “Peanut” Tillman and his recent visit with the team.
Tillman, like Lovie Smith, is a man of great integrity and he deserves to be the face of the Chicago Bears franchise, as he’s the best defensive back they’ve ever had. The short answer to Smith’s question is yes, on this planet, there are people who would in fact refer to me as their “friend.”
Although most likely none in that specific room at that specific time. Typically, media from central Illinois don’t really like us “carpet bagger” media from Chicago, but that’s another topic for another time. Smith’s having fun at my expense was enjoyable at the time, as I totally understand his exceedingly dry sense of humor.
I had a good laugh from all of this, and I hope others did too.
What’s unfortunate however, is that it was all downhill, at least in my eyes, from there. That repartee, this presser, that era of good feelings which preceded his first season at the helm was the high point of the Lovie Smith era.
His first talking season, the salad days before we actually saw his Illinois teams play, was the high water mark of his regime.
Smith ran a clean program and he had a lot of integrity. Character was his best overall asset. “Lovie Smith led the Illinois football program with unquestioned integrity during his nearly five years of service,” said Athletic Director Josh Whitman in a statement.
“I have tremendous respect for Coach Smith and will always be grateful to him for providing a steady, experienced hand at a time when our program required stability. His unshakeable leadership, never more needed than during this pandemic, will be forever remembered.
“Nonetheless, based on extensive evaluation of the program’s current state and future outlook, I have concluded the program is not progressing at the rate we should expect at this advanced stage in Coach Smith’s tenure. To achieve our competitive objectives, I believe new leadership of the football program is required.”
Last season the Illini were finally mediocre under Smith, and mediocrity was as close to being good as they ever came. The huge upset win over Wisconsin was special, and the late season upset at Michigan State was fun and exciting.
They also had a really nice early season win over a very solid Western Kentucky team in year two. Lovie went 4-1 vs Rutgers.
Some nice facilities got built too.
How much time do you have?
Neither the author nor the reader wants this to be a 1,000 words, so we’ll try to summarize efficiently. Smith was 17-39 overall and 10-33 in the Big Ten, 6-32 against league teams not named Rutgers.
Brandon Peters is not a Unitas Award candidate, or anything close, but he was far and away the best player Smith had at the most important position the whole time he was in Champaign. Smith kind of had a Ron Turner level interest in recruiting, and that’s definitely not a complement. This less than exceedingly strong interest showed in the results. Recruiting rankings never got any better than the Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit or late Ron Zook eras.
Most of the time, Smith’s teams weren’t fun or entertaining to watch. While he did land a fair amount of talent, it was mostly in the transfer market, and getting those guys once it hasn’t worked out elsewhere is not the same as getting them initially.
Despite his reputation as a defensive guru, no Lovie Smith team ever played great defense. They didn’t really play even mediocre defense. If they could take the ball away they could compete, and if they could take it away and score, they could win.
Unless they did those things, it could often get brutal. Smith’s much venerated Tampa 2 cover scheme just didn’t translate well here, or it doesn’t hold up well today.
The lowest of the low has to be the LOL Hat game last year, when the Illini got trucked by a Northwestern team playing its 4th choice at QB, its sixth choice at RB (not a joke, I’m being literal) and an OC who everybody knew would get canned the next day.
Smith’s best Illini team took on Pat Fitzgerald’s worst ever Northwestern team and Illinois still got utterly destroyed at home.
Smith treated this contest like it was a week 17 NFL game where his side had already wrapped up home field advantage in the playoffs.
With a bowl berth secured, he rested a lot of starters.
Many of the guys who did play were disinterested and it showed. Illinois could have had their first winning conference season since the Rashard Mendenhall era, and that guy’s NFL career is already long over. They also could have easily gotten a win in a rivalry where they have been absolutely dominated lately.
The team has just not been the same since this day, one that showed Smith just doesn’t get the true meaning on college football.
We’ll have a listicle with coaching candidates (don’t get too excited, it’s nothing to get your hopes up about) later today/tonight.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News Now. Banks, 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 WGN, Sports Illustrated, Chicago Tribune and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.Follow paulmbanks