Illinois' struggles to recruit well within its own borders in 2016 are well-documented. The Illini signed more players from Florida than they did from the Land of Lincoln.
Recently-jilted head coach Bill Cubit said this offseason that they needed to focus more on recruiting within the state and build the class from closer to home. But now that Cubit and presumably most of his assistants are gone, where does Illinois go from here in recruiting the state of Illinois, specifically Chicago?
Well, despite his long absence from the college coaching scene, hiring Lovie Smith would be a huge move in the right direction for regaining some credibility with Chicago athletes and their families.
What some outside of the Chicago sports scene seem to be missing in this is Smith's relevancy during his time with the Bears. But for those sports fans and athletes who lived in central and northern Illinois most of their lives, they know Lovie Smith, they remember that 06 Super Bowl runner up team, and they remember the days when Urlacher, Briggs, Hillenmeyer, Tillman, and crew were the gold standard for defense in the NFL.
So how will someone like Lovie Smith not only recruit Chicago as the coach at Illinois, but also regain overall relevancy for the program north of I-80? Here are a few thoughts.
For years growing up, even going back to when Dick Jauron was head coach in Chicago (how's that for a name drop?), I would sit down on the couch at noon on most Sundays during football season, turn on the TV, tune into what was normally FOX, and watch the "Monsters of the Midway" run out of the tunnel.
Maybe not every last athlete in Chicago is a Bears fan, but there's a high likelihood that many of them did the same thing I did growing up. Lovie Smith was in Chicago from 2004 to 2012. So for a class of 2017 high school student athlete who is now most likely 17 years old, they would have been between the ages of 4 and 12 during Smith's tenure with the Bears.
I don't know about you, but those were the years where I really decided what teams I liked (with a little help from the parents, of course, but I'll get to that in a bit). So basically, all through grade school and into junior high, these guys growing up, playing Pop Warner, were seeing Lovie Smith and the Bears on TV 16+ Sundays a year during what really could be considered some good years for the Bears organization.
Are Coaches Forgotten?
For comparison's sake, I'll use the example of the Chicago Bulls in the mid-to-late 90's, a stretch in which they won six NBA titles. When everyone wanted to "Be Like Mike." And even though the Bulls had far more success than the Bears, I can't honestly say I remember a lot of the details of those championship runs.
I remember Jordan, Pippen, Kerr, Grant, Kukoc, Rodman, and a host of other Bulls making big plays. I remember a 72-10 season in which the Bulls were one of the most dominant teams of all time. But I can't point back to specific games outside of the ones replayed in documentaries or on the occasional episode of sportscenter, and give details of what certain guys did.
But even with the star power of Jordan and Pippen, I remembered who Phil Jackson was. Ironically enough, I'm sitting in a hotel in Jackson's childhood home of Williston, North Dakota as I write this. And before you jump my case for comparing Smith, who never won a Super Bowl, to Jackson, who brough 6 NBA championships to the Bulls in a decade, my point is this: The players on successful teams are important and very memorable, but to say that people forget who coached those teams or that they lose relevancy over time is a bit misguided.
If you talk about the Bulls, a lot of names like Jordan and Pippen ever come up before Jackson gets mentioned. And the same goes for a coach like Smith, who initially takes a back seat in conversation to players like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Devin Hester.
But those coaches were integral parts of the success those teams had, and though their names aren't the first to be brought up, they certainly aren't forgotten. That being said, Most of next year's senior class was in kindergarten or first grade when the Bears made that run to the Super Bowl, but still recognize the name "Lovie Smith" when they hear it.
What hurts Lovie's credibility is his less-than-stellar 2-year stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. An 8-24 record certainly tarnished the reputation of the otherwise successful coach, but Smith was over .500 in his tenure in Chicago, and after his first year (5-11), never finished more than a game below .500 in a season.
Lovie was let go from Chicago following a 10-6 season in which the Bears missed the playoffs. In hindsight, Smith went out from Chicago on fairly good terms and many fans didn't understand the move made by the front office. He was replaced by Marc Trestman, and we all know how that went.
So yeah, in a lot of ways, Smith is still somewhat endeared to sports fans in Chicago for the success he did bring to a Bears organization that otherwise had seen some rough years. And to this day, despite his Tampa troubles, he is still well thought-of in terms of his Bears history.
Where am I going with this? Apologize for the long detour down memory lane to get here, but the point is this. After years of Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, years of mediocrity and questionable coaching, Illinois appears to be on the verge of hiring a firmly-established head coach with clout in most Chicago and central Illinois sports circles.
How he uses that clout, though, will be key in re-establishing the relevancy of Illini football among fans and prospective student athletes, especially within the borders of Illinois.
College Football Has Changed
Lovie Smith last coached at the collegiate level in 1995 as a defensive backs coach at (the.. ugh) Ohio State University. That year, the Buckeyes went 11-2 on the season, losing only "The Game" at #18 Michigan and to #5 Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. Worth noting that OSU beat Illinois 41-3 that year in Memorial Stadium. And that Illinois team had Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy.
20+ years away from the college coaching scene is a long time, and a lot has changed since Smith moved on to the NFL. Recruiting nowadays is totally different. New offensive systems have morphed what was once a power run, smashmouth defense league in the Big Ten into one that includes more spread teams. College offenses have become more innovative and unconventional.
As a coordinator with the Rams and as the head coach of the Bears, Smith put together very successful defenses. He coached as a defensive coordinator in a Super Bowl in 2001 with the Rams, and as a head coach with the Bears in 2006. But he wasn't facing spread option attacks or air raid offenses, which are looks he'd see as a collegiate coach now in 2016.
Recruiting Has Changed:
Social media has revolutionized recruiting and recruiting coverage. Smith doesn't even have a twitter account (at least not one I could find). The NCAA rules and regulations on recruiting have likely changed countless times since he last sat in a home with a prospective student athlete in the early-mid 90's. So yes, there would be a learning curve.
Smith has long been an old school type of coach, and I don't see him making any drastic change just to conform to the way things are in college now, but I also don't think he has to. And, at least when you abide by the rules, you can't use a more lucrative monetary deal to land a recruit like you can with free agents in the NFL.
On the other hand, an argument can be made that it may be more difficult sometimes to recruit professional athletes to a team than it is to recruit a high school athlete to a Power 5 college football program.
But one advantage Smith has, is that he's a known commodity. Under Smith, the Bears rarely had any major locker room problems, kept the off-field issues to a fair minimum given the way professional athletes can be, and he had the respect of his players.
While his tenure with the Bears will likely be remembered loosely by those potential recruits, Smith as the head coach at Illinois may resonate more with parents and other family members of those recruits. If the kids themselves don't remember all of the fine details about Smith or have any vivid memories of that Super Bowl run, there's a high likelihood that the recruit's parents' do, especially if they are Bears fans.
To be fair, Smith is a Texas native. He's not one of Chicago's own by birth or childhood. So he can't really claim that he wants these recruits to stay home because it's what he did. But there's no doubt he would understand that with the exodus of talent that took place in 2016, he has to use his established Chicago ties to his advantage.
When Smith steps into the living room of Chicago-area recruits to conduct in-home visits, he won't be some stranger. In most cases, far from one. For a lot of recruits and their parents, it will almost be surreal to have the guy who roamed the Bears' sidelines for nearly a decade sitting on their couch in the hopes that that recruit would come play for him at Illinois.
For that reason, Smith should be able to capitalize on his reputation in Chicago, especially on the recruiting front. He may struggle himself to build momentum recruiting nationally for a while, but that's why his assistant hires will be crucial. If he is able to surround himself with a nice blend of teaching and recruiting assistants, he can focus his energy on the recruiting trail where he already has a built-in advantage.
Here's what Scout National Recruiting Analyst Allen Trieu had to say about the prospect of Smith as the coach at Illinois as it relates to recruiting:
"I think Lovie brings instant name recognition. He's coached at the highest level and in big games including a Super Bowl. That all helps in recruiting. I also think, beyond all the recruiting, he's also a very good football coach. There is already immediate excitement from recruits and fans that he is even a possibility.
His challenges are the same as the previous Illinois staffs, you have to be able to evaluate and then attract the right talent to help the program turn the corner. Also, he has been out of the college game for awhile so he has to adjust initially to the changes in the way schools recruit now."
Winning the Press
Winning over recruits may not be as difficult as some think, but winning over the media may be his biggest initial challenge. For one reason or another, Illinois coaches have struggled to find themselves in the positive press, especially among Chicago media.
But when news of this impending hire started to circulate among major media outlets, including Chicago, it appeared to catch the press off guard. Maybe it was because nobody expected new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman to be so bold and so swift in his move, and as a result are giving Illinois credit for making a quality hire in the university's biggest revenue sport.
Smith had his friction with the Chicago media during his time with the Bears, but in general, he avoided a witch hunt. If he is able to build any sort of sustainable success at Illinois, he could parlay that into positive exposure for his program and rejuvinate the bruised reputation of Illinois football in Chicago.
As great as all of those other metrics are, the ultimate measuring stick of Smith's viability as head coach at Illinois would be his success on the field. A lot of other things have to take place to get him to that place, but Smith's depth of experience and ability to hire a cohesive and experienced staff will give him a better chance to win than most other staffs in recent history have had.
With all that the Illinois football fan base has been dragged through in the last decade and beyond, the Illini faithful are desperate for a conistent winner. And while improvement in recruiting, improvement in staff experience, and a splashy hire will help the image of the program, the program's perception will heal the most if Smith can build a winner.
Progress is great, but it's much harder to be negative about wins, and I think most fans are fully aware of how negative the vibe can be after a loss, whether it was close or a blowout. For better or worse, Illinois fans take losses hard, and in general, I think the fanbase is tired of losing. Many fans are growing impatient, and up until Whitman was hired, were impatient for good reason.
Hiring someone like Smith who carries relevance in the Chicago sports market, is evidence of steps that are more proactive than normal being taken to improve the Illinois football program. Whitman, by his words and his actions, is making it very clear that he isn't willing to settle, and hiring Lovie Smith is making noise nationally, but would be a bold statement in Chicago sports circles.
Win, and reputation improves. And if Whitman makes good on his promise, then "We Will Win."