CHAMPAIGN - Paul Williams has been in this business long enough to expect the unexpected.
He was one of four assistants to join Bill Cubit’s Illini staff this January. While Williams knew Cubit's stay could be short after the Illini head coach signed a two-year deal to lift his interim tag, and the other three assistants who arrived this winter didn't expect Cubit's tenure to last just three months into 2016.
But Williams, along with linebackers coach Tim McGarigle who also arrived in January, managed to hang on to a job through the transition to Smith. A.J. Ricker and Jeff Hecklinski, who moved to Champaign in January, were not retained.
“It’s the profession,” said Williams, the Illini defensive backs coach. “As long as you’re in the profession, things happen for whatever reason. It is what it is. You have to be positive and work and get to know good people. That’s the biggest thing with the profession.
“I’m level-headed. I’ve been doing this long enough. Things happen, that’s why you network. That’s why you get to know guys. It’s just part of the business.”
Like Williams (who coached under Cubit at Western Michigan from 2005-06), McGarigle owed a lot to Cubit, who gave McGarigle his first assistant coaching job in Kalamazoo.
McGarigle said it was an emotional but “fun” week-long process between Cubit’s dismissal and Smith telling him he would be kept on staff as linebackers coach. It worked out pretty well for McGarigle, the 32-year-old Northwestern grad who owns the NCAA’s record for career tackles. He now learns under Smith (one of football’s most respected defensive minds) and UI defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity to coach under Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson,” McGarigle said. “I mean, those guys are the godfathers of linebacker play. The chance for the linebackers and myself to learn under them is an unbelievable opportunity.”
There won’t be a huge learning curve for Williams or McGarigle either. Smith runs the same defense Mike Phair, who was set to be Cubit’s defensive coordinator and will stay on Smith's staff as defensive line coach, was planning to run.
“It’s funny how some things work,” Williams said.
Butkus returns home
Who was more excited to hear Lovie Smith was hired as Illinois football coach: Luke Butkus the former Illinois football player or Luke Butkus the football coach?
“To be an alum and hear Lovie Smith, I think I was just as happy as everyone else in the state of Illinois when his name was announced,” Butkus said. “Now, as a coach, and being able to work for him, I’m even more excited.”
Butkus, a two-time All-Big Ten selection and former Illini captain, has returned to his alma mater -- again. Butkus left an NFL job in 2011 to join Tim Beckman’s initial staff as the Illinois offensive line coach. That gig only lasted one year before he jumped back (maybe presciently?) to the NFL.
But after three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Butkus couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to Champaign and to return to Smith, under whom Butkus worked from 2007-09 with the Bears.
“To have the opportunity to come back again, I’m very fortunate,” Butkus said. “I know that. This is an awesome opportunity to me, for my family. The fact that I get to do it again, I’m excited.”
How is Butkus different as a coach since he left Champaign in 2012?
“I think I’ve grown a little bit,” Butkus said. “In my travels as a coach, I stole from a lot of good people. I’ve learned good and bad but from those same people I also pushed aside what I didn’t like and that helped form who I am today, the coach I am.”
Hayes-Stoker leaves The Shield
After Lovie Smith’s surprise January firing in Tampa, Andrew Hayes-Stoker managed to stay in the NFL. But the assistant to the head coach position with the Colts wasn’t nearly as hands-on as his previous gig.
Hayes-Stoker coached star Buccaneers wideouts Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson the past two years. So when Smith offered him a chance to return to a more prominent on-the-field opportunity, Hayes-Stoker’s decision was simple.
“Just the increased responsibility in this role was something that was attractive to me,” Hayes-Stoker said. “Beyond the NFL shield and all that, the ability to have more of a role, more of a presence and more of an impact was what drew me to the job.”
The man pitching the job also made Hayes-Stoker’s decision to leave Colts coach Chuck Pagano a lot easier.
“I wouldn’t have come (if Lovie Smith weren’t the coach),” Hayes-Stoker said. “I wouldn’t have left the NFL. I wanted Lovie, 100 percent.”
Hayes-Stoker inherits one of the Illini’s most talented position groups, especially with the return of Scout.com Freshman All-American Mikey Dudek from a torn ACL.
“The primary goal for spring ball is to instill discipline and the fundamental philosophy that we want to have,” Hayes-Stoker said. “A lot of what I want to do is change the mindset around here and the expectations that people have. The way that Illinois has been viewed in the past means nothing to me. It means nothing to the guys on this staff. We want to breathe life into these guys and get them to believe and get them to play faster, get them to play smarter, get them to play more physical. Those are the things we’ll be preaching.”
Ward brings in-state ties
Thad Ward has spent nine years as an assistant coach for a state of Illinois university, six for Western Illinois (2005-10) and the last three for Northern Illinois. Has he learned any secret to recruiting the Land of Lincoln?
“Here’s how it is with high school coaches most of the time,” Ward said. “If they trust you, that you’re going to take care of their players, then they’re going to let you have their players. If you continue to take care of their players, then they’ll keep giving you more.
“You build those relationships with coaches over the years and then you have a great football team.”
Smith tabbed Ward due to his in-state relationships, his Florida connections and an energy that should help attract recruits.
“Recruiting is always about relationships,” Ward said. “It comes down to relationships. You know the people around the kids. You know the kids. You have to be able to evaluate. That’s what it comes down to. We’re going to recruit the best players in the state of Illinois. I’m sure of that. We’re going to get them here, we’re going to get them on campus, and we’re going to get them here and make them really good players.”