Is it really a surprise that Lovie Smith reportedly is "miserable" in Champaign? Aren't you miserable watching this team? I'm sure miserable covering it. Misery loves company. Welcome, Lovie!
Adam Rittenberg's report on Lovie's "especially sour" situation in Champaign certainly made waves in Champaign the last few days. Rittenberg cited "several industry sources" have said Smith is "miserable in Champaign" and that "the rebuilding job is much greater than he anticipated." The juiciest part of Rittenberg's blurb in a much longer ESPN Insider column speculated a question of whether Lovie will be "one and done." Though a titillating question, even Rittenberg says that's unlikely.
Many Illini fans have attacked Rittenberg the last few days. Yes, he is a Northwestern alum. But you know what Northwestern does? Churn out great reporters from a great journalism school. Rittenberg is a very good reporter, and I personally have a lot of respect for him. There's a thought among UI fans that national writers "have it out for Illinois." Several national reporters have this reputation (Pat Forde comes to mind), when in actuality that just isn't the case. Sure, sometimes Illinois is the butt of some jokes -- but, honestly, they've brought that on themselves in recent years.
Rittenberg joined me on my radio show yesterday. Here's what he said about the report: "Here's the thing, and if I had to bet on it today, I think Lovie Smith is your head coach for at least another year, maybe beyond that. But my job in that column which runs every Saturday night is to report what I hear. And I was surprised to hear it last week, not from one person, but from multiple people that it just isn't going very well down there, which is obvious. This is not your typical coach situation, and it wasn't from the start. You guys know. The hiring wasn't typical. The timing of the hiring wasn't typical. It's something that coaches wondered from the very beginning, 'Is this going to be a long-term situation.' If it does and it works out, it's going to be great for Illinois. But so far, it's been really rough. And the one thing I do know is that the challenge has been steeper than anyone anticipated coming into that program. That's where they are right now. Who knows where they go from here, but that's what the chatter is right now about Illinois."
Listen to my entire conversation with Rittenbergtat the podcast below. Skip ahead to the 42:00 mark.
Was this worth reporting? In this reporter's eyes, absolutely. If I had that kind of legit chatter -- and Rittenberg knows what is legit or not -- among coaches about one of the offeseason's most high-profile hires and a big name in the Big Ten, I'd report it. Does it hurt Illinois? It sure doesn't help. But Rittenberg's job isn't to worry about that. His job is to report.
Lovie Smith's job Monday was to respond. He did -- twice. Lovie didn't read the report prior to his Monday press conference, but sports information director Kent Brown did, and Brown was told Lovie would likely be asked about it before Monday's weekly press conference (watch the video above). Lovie's response was fine. Maybe it wasn't as definitive as some fans wanted, but it seemed pretty truthful, which isn't always his strong suit in press briefings. Lovie said he wasn't happy -- because his team is losing -- and that no one should be happy right now. He didn't comment on the possibility of a one-and-done.
Lovie responded more definitively on Twitter on Monday night via Twitter. Lovie rarely sends out his own tweets. They usually come from others on the DIA payroll, but these were well-crafted.
Do the tweets mean he'll be here for the next five years? No. But they at least extinguish the conversation for now.
Both coordinators were asked yesterday about how the struggles this season have changed their perspective on their challenge ahead.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said: "I learned that there were some of these games that even though we didn't play well and turned the ball over, have not executed technique or made mental errors, but there's a few of these games that we could have won anyway. If we wouldn't have tried to beat ourselves and the other team on the same day, we can get ourselves in position to win some of these games. We had a collapse in the fourth quarter against Nebraska. Nebraska's one of the best teams in the country. We had a Purdue team out here. Minnesota, that score ended up where it ended up, but that game in the third quarter was a seven-point game. What I've learned is that if we can develop like we need to develop and we can coach the kids to be passionate, do what they're coached to do and play hard, then we'll be in position to win these games."
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson answered the question more directly: "I think we knew what the task was going to be. We understand that and we're working every day to make this program what we want it to be. That's ongoing, day to day, starting with coaching up the guys who are here and then the recruiting process and all that. I don't think there's anything we didn't know coming in. We're just working hard to make it what we want to be.
"When you're not winning it gets frustrating. Our expectation is that every time we set foot on the field, we want to win. We expect to have a positive outcome. So, yeah, it gets a bit frustrating without getting those wins. But at the same time, we're building and we got young guys who are getting reps, getting experience. Those experiences are going to pay off as we go down the road here."
Again, this isn't positive chatter to combine with a 2-6 season heading toward 2-10. Illinois just lost a commitment from DB Antwan Collier and may lose another (Carmoni Green is looking around and drawing a lot of interest, and Olalere Oladipo just visited Penn State though he followed that up with another trip to Champaign). The best thing for Illinois moving forward? Lovie hits the road full-bore recruiting at the end of the month. Lovie will do well in schools and living rooms. And as Rittenberg's story states, he should be enthused once he brings his own recruits in. He just won't have a team made with a majority of his recruits until possibly 2019.
Why is every coach surprised at what they inherit at Illinois? Do none of them research the job they're about to take? I guess Lovie admitted he didn't watch much film of the 2015 team. That never made much sense to me unless he wanted to stick his head in the sand.
Let's get to the core of the matter: Lovie isn't likely going anywhere in the short-term. Why? While Illinois has a buyout of about $19 million on Smith contract, Lovie himself has a buyout of about $4.5-6.5 million. Lovie is rich but not that rich. He would need another head coaching job -- and that employer's deep pockets -- to buy that out. Lovie probably isn't getting another college head coaching job after one season. And will the NFL bang down his door with that price tag up front? I doubt it. Retreads happen all the time, but rarely does a coach get three chances as a head coach. I guess you never know, but the likelihood seems small -- especially for a coach whose defense is antiquated according to some in the NFL and a coach who has struggled to find offensive success in a league that continues to grow more and more offense-centric.
Lovie may be miserable. But he signed up for the job -- and signed the record contract -- to build Illinois out of that misery.