Werner: Illini football has rare sense of calm, purpose in 2016

Smoot: 'It's more than this season or bust' for Illinois football

CHAMPAIGN - Since 2009, Illinois has had one season where its head football coach didn't enter the season on the hot seat. That's one of the past seven seasons!

Ron Zook survived an 8-16 record in the two seasons following a 2007 roll to the Rose Bowl with Ron Guenther forcing Zook to change his two coordinators rather than solve the real problem: the head coach. Two 6-6 bowl appearances couldn't save Zook from the man who was hired to fire him, athletics director Mike Thomas.

Tim Beckman seemed on a stay of execution since his 2-10 debut in 2012 but survived until a week before the 2015 season -- and was fired for player abuse allegations rather than his 4-20 Big Ten record.

Bill Cubit survived a 5-7 season as an interim head coach and received a two-year contract from an interim chancellor -- a deal bought out just a little more than three months later by Whitman.

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1701480-preview-illinois-vs-... If it weren't for Whitman's bold action in March, 2016 would be just another Illini football season -- a season again almost solely focused on how the current head coach could simply survive into the next season.

Does Zook need to win eight to please the new AD? Does a bowl bid save Beckman, even though everyone knows he's not the right guy? Can they really fire Cubit if he makes a bowl game under these circumstances?

Finally, Illinois football's focus is on what can happen this season to help the Illini thrive in the future -- three, four or five years from now.

Lovie Smith and the man who hired him, athletic director Josh Whitman bring much-needed calm to Illinois football's long-troubled waters. Whitman and Smith bring much needed long-term purpose to Illinois football.

"It's more than this season or bust or we need to do this or do that or we won't have a coach next year," senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot said. "We know that he's going to be here a long time and that he's going to build something great here."

That's not to say that the 2016 season isn't important. Illinois has a strong senior class that wants to leave a mark. If all goes right -- a thin depth chart must stay healthy -- Illinois has enough to make a bowl game (something that will be difficult next year due to the weak sophomore and junior classes that Smith's staff inherited) and possibly surprise further in a weak Big Ten West division. 

"I think it feels a lot different," Illini quarterback Wes Lunt said. "For me, I'm a senior so what happens after here won't affect me. But I think just the stability of coach Smith and his staff and Josh Whitman, it feels different. I think we're just comfortable. We know it's not life or death this Saturday for our coaching staff or for who plays or who doesn't play. I think that will just kind of give us some ease going into Saturday."

http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1700888-fact-or-fiction-illi... A strong season could propel Illinois into even more recruiting momentum. Though Smith's sell on the recruiting trail already has opened plenty of doors without showing anything on the field yet.

Conversely, a poor season -- three to four wins certainly is possible given Illinois' strength of schedule (nine 2015 bowl teams) and lack of depth --  won't put Smith on the hot seat. Whitman has invested more time and resources (six-year, $21 million contract  that could be worth up to $29 million) into his head football coach than any Illinois athletic director ever has invested. 

A poor season with someone else's flawed roster shouldn't crush Illinois' long-term plans. Missing out on a bowl bid won't change the stature of Smith -- who calls Tony DungyCharles Tillman and Brian Urlacher his friends -- or his celebrity with recruits and their parents

Saturday afternoon's kickoff with Murray State won't teach us much. The Illini are 15-0 all-time against FCS opponents, Murray State is a poor to mediocre FCS team and the Illini probably will keep their game plan pretty vanilla before welcoming No. 22 North Carolina for a primetime matchup next Saturday.

But a crowd of about 45,000 -- more than any opener since 2011 -- will be in a celebratory mood, and not just because of the perfect early September summer weather.

Finally, Illinois fans have a reason for true long-term hope. Finally, their football team's season seems to have true long-term purpose.

"It feels different because throughout the offseason, just the impact that Coach Lovie has brought in, it just feels special," Smoot said. "It feels like we're going to do a lot this season."

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