Q&A: BTN analyst Howard Griffith talks Illini, Lovie Smith

Big Ten Network analyst and former Illini great Howard Griffith talks with Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner about Lovie Smith, expectations for the Illini, recruiting and his son Houston's transfer to IMG Academy.

Big Ten Media Days starts Monday and we're six weeks away from the start of the season. What do you think of the Lovie Smith hire and what type of impact do you think he can have on this Illini program that has really struggled to get a footing for a while?

Howard Griffith: "I like the hire. I think one of the things when you talk about bringing in a guy like Lovie Smith to an institution like Illinois is -- what has Illinois been lacking for the last 20 years? That's consistency and credibility. I think he gives you that instant consistency and credibility. Now, you have a head coach who wants to be there, have a long-term deal. Now, it's just a matter of continuing to build upon it. Now, you got to recruit. That's where it all starts. Nobody's going to go out and win the Big Ten Championships or think that they're going to win the Big Ten Championship this year. But they have to continue to make steps and strides each and every year, so that they can put themselves in the position to where they can compete not just in the Big Ten West but also compete to get to Indy and have a chance to win the Big Ten outright."

It's clear that Lovie Smith was hired because he's a heck of a coach. He's proven that in the NFL. But he is the first African-American coach of the two revenue sports here at Illinois. There's also the first black chancellor and the offensive and defensive coordinators are also black. What's that mean for Illinois?

Griffith: "It's taken a long time. In the span of six months Illinois has come a long way. But I think what it means ultimately is that the kids that are on the campus right now or the kids that are thinking about going to Illinois, seeing guys in those positions, you can look up to them and think, 'Yes, I can be a chancellor at the University of Illinois. I can be a head coach. I can be a coordinator. Illinois is a place that it's a viable chance for me to be there because they already have people in place. So if I'm good enough, I can do that.' I think that's really the significance. It's taken a long time to get to this point. A lot of other institutions in the Big Ten had already taken that step. Illinois had not, but I think they made a great call being able to get a guy like Lovie Smith in the position. Now, you look at the chancellor and you look at the coordinators, it's a good sign. I think if you're looking at Illinois, you're going to watch the program I think athletically and academically continue to grow and prosper."

How much patience should Illini fans have and what is Lovie's path to success at Illinois?

Griffith: "I think you have to have quite a bit of patience. I think what's he got a five- or six-year deal, whatever it may be? I think clearly after Year Three, you're going to get an idea of where the program is going. You'll have a pretty good idea. But I think you have to have patience. I think when you look at it, it's a roster that has to be built into a roster that really can compete on a week-in-and-week-out basis even if they have some injuries. I think when you look at teams that are on the bottom half of the Big Ten, what do you see? When you look at the roster, it's not a lot of depth. So I think if they continue to recruit, they'll be able to build that depth. That's going to be important, because when you have depth, when you have your twos and threes that can legitimately push your number one player -- whether it's your running back or quarterback or defensive tackle -- that's going to make everybody much better.

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1682540-joey-boese-building-..."I think one of the other keys is having a great strength and conditioning program. I'll go back to when Zook was there for a moment when they went to the Rose Bowl. Lou Hernandez was really the catalyst behind that, the strength and conditioning coach at the time. You could've taken that Ohio State team and taken their uniforms and put them on the Illinois guys and at that point, you wouldn't have been able to tell the difference because they were well-conditioned and they physically looked as good as anybody. By the time they got to the end of the season, they still looked strong. It's easy to have that look early in training camp, but what happens once you get into late November and December, what do they look like? I think they're heading in that path. They hired a great guy and that's part of it.

"But also, you got to continue to build the facility. You got to continue to do that. The commitment has been made from the coaching side. Now, you have to continue to build as far as it's concerned with the training table or the nutrition department and all of these different things that I think most people don't get an opportunity to see. Illinois is a little behind them, and that's OK. We're not saying Illinois needs to be doing what Michigan or Ohio State are doing to be able to compete. That's not really realistic because the resources aren't the same. But if they're maximizing all the resources and have all the things in place to do what they need to do as a program, they'll be able to compete. To me, that's the way I look at it. Coaching is good, but I look at everything else around them that's going to take them to the next level when I study these other programs and what they have. ...When you start to build that success as a program, what Lovie will be able to do, all the other things that have to go with it will start together as well."

Hardy Nickerson's here. Did you ever hit Hardy when you both were in the NFL?

Griffith: "Yeah, I'm not sure if I hit Hardy or Hardy hit me. You're talking about a guy, he was in Tampa. He was really, really the staples of that defense. He was one of the guys. He brought around Derrick Brooks at the weakside linebacker. He was always an elite player at the middle linebacker position, so it was really fun to watch him and play against him. He was always one of the best in the game. Now, he's going to have the opportunity to teach some of the linebackers that are going to be coming to Illinois and helping him get better. I think that will plus as recruits look at him because he's played at the highest level, and now he's got his son there, who's going to be a great addition to Illinois as well. I'd have to go back and look at the film, but I'm pretty sure he was hitting him."

I think that side of the ball (defense) could be strong because last year they were pretty good and took a huge step forward. But the offense is where I'm concerned. You mentioned depth. That seems to be the huge concern on offense, especially with Dudek out again.

Griffith: "Yeah, and you're going to need some inexperienced players obviously that need to step up and be able to play at a high level week in and week out. I think they'll be better in the offensive line. I think that's going to be a position to get better. I think if Lunt can play with confidence, and they can keep him upright and he can stay healthy, that gives them a huge opportunity. Now, with Vaughn, there may only be one or two places he couldn't start in the Big Ten right now. You talk about a running back that has his kind of ability. When I watched his high school tape, it was off the charts. I think he's going to have a huge year for Illinois.

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1684937-illini-preview-offen... "But they're going to have to have some guys step up and take the pressure off him because you just don't want to be playing a team and just know that you can just put those extra guys in the box and be able to take away the run. That's why I think if Lunt can have success in the passing game, that'll really open up the run game and if they can play offense where they're not turning the football over., you know, punts are OK. Change the field position and let your defense roll out there and they're able to go out and make some stops and take the ball away. I think that's the recipe for success as this team tries to continue to grow throughout the season."

Obviously, you have a son who's being recruited very heavily. This doesn't have to apply to Houston, but what does Lovie have to do to get top recruits to come to Illinois?

Griffith: "Lovie is going to do everything he can do as a head coach. Honestly, when it comes down to being able to recruit, you have to get Lovie to the table. Right? You have to get them. Everybody is focused on Lovie Smith. You hear people say, 'Well, he's just even-keeled. He doesn't get excited. How can players get excited to talk to him?' I got to tell you, it's just the opposite. I think players really enjoy talking to him and see where he can lead the program. It's incumbent on the assistants coaches to get him to the table. That's where the biggest thing has to be. You have to have assistant coaches that can do a great job of recruiting so that Lovie can close. He can close, but you got to get him to the point to be able to close. That's the part I would watch if I'm looking at, 'OK, how's recruiting going? What's happening? What's going on?' because I don't think you're ever going to hear privately or publicly a recruit not connecting with Lovie immediately. That's just his personality. I think it's going to be important for the assistants to do a great job of getting Lovie Smith in the position to be able to close.

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1687250-time-to-worry-about-... "Listen, now one of the things they're going to be able to tell kids is, 'You can play. You'll be able to play right away.' When you come into a program that's normally what happens is the head coach is telling younger guys that they'll have a chance to play because he's going to be recruiting them, so he has a vested interest in these guys he's bringing. It's not that he doesn't care about the juniors or the seniors, but he's going to put more energy into the guys he recruits. Naturally, that's just how it works. These are guys he's going down and sitting in their living rooms and talking to their parents. To answer your question, it's more pressure to me facilities-wise and assistant coaches being able to put Lovie Smith in a position to be able to close because he's not going to be able to go out on the road (as much). He's got to rely on those guys to get things done."

What went into your family's decision for Houston to transfer from Mt. Carmel to IMG Academy in Florida for his last two years of high school?

Griffith: "Well, one of the things is Houston had a goal to have an opportunity to have the option to be able to early enroll. That wasn't going to be an option at Carmel, so from our perspective, he was either going to leave now or he was going to leave in January. Really, the thing happened, it happened so quick. We went and visited the campus last Saturday as a family and really looked at all the academics, looked at what they're doing athletically. All of this stuff is next level. It's not just about being able to go out and play football because that's not what it is either. It's one of the top boarding schools out there. The Ivy Leagues are spending a lot of time there recruiting golfers and tennis players and football players out of there. Northwestern just got a player, a linebacker from there. Although people look at it and just say, 'This is just a football decision,' it really isn't. He is a 16-year-old who made a decision with the help of his parents. He's going down this road to go into a situation that actually has more rules than he has at home. Down there, they have to be in their rooms at 9:15. Lights are out at 10:15. You're not walking off the campus. You're not going anywhere. You've got class. You've got athletics. That's kind of what it is down there right now. Yeah, do they have a strong sports focus? They do. But I think he's going to have an opportunity to grow as an individual because it's not an easy decision to leave the family and leave Carmel when he did. 

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1687290-houston-griffith-hea... "Now, we all felt that this was the best path for him to go in. Does it happen lightly? No, it didn't. Do the coaches get upset about it? Absolutely. I'd be upset if I was a coach at Mt. Carmel and my player left. But one thing I would never do? I would never question the players' character and what type of person he is and calling them selfish and doing things like that because it didn't work out. You have every right to be mad. You should be. You should be upset. But I think it's also a teachable moment that you have a clear understanding to why the young man decided to make this type of move. It's not a knee-jerk reaction. A lot went into this in a two-week span. From my perspective, one of the things that's disappointing me is that I know you're upset as a coaching staff, but when you start to bad-mouth my kid, that really tells me really what you were ultimately about as a program. As long as a kid is doing what the program wants him to do, 'He's a model student.' But now all of a sudden, 'He's selfish; he's self-centered.' all of this stuff. It's good for him because I told him, 'You're going to be in a situation where you're going to have to make some tough calls. You're going to have to call coaches and let them know that you're not going to go to their university. You're going to have that telephone call. He had the call with Mt. Carmel, but I think ultimately it should've ended with Carmel having a clear understanding to why this was done. Because the kid like Houston who people have spent time around, to start to question his character and who he is, to me is asinine. I think you have, if you're in the business of educating people -- which you are -- don't start taking shots at him when he's not there anymore. That just doesn't make any sense. What it ultimately did is told him he made the right decision."

Wow. Well, you can't  please everybody and you got to do ultimately what is best for you. Howard, do you wrap up Houston every once in a while just to remind him who's better still?

Griffith: "(Laughs) No. I got no shot with this kid right now. We were messing around, and I'll tell you, we were messing around wrestling the other day, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, I'm not going to be able to win this battle much longer.' I'm going to have to go back in the gym. He's a good kid looking forward to his opportunities and watching him grow as an individual. He had a great time at Carmel and he's got a lot of great friends there and a lot of great memories. But right now, that's in the rear-Iview mirror and he's excited for the opportunity at IMG Academy."


Illini Inquirer Top Stories