You’ve been here now for more than a year. How has life been different as a college coach for you?
Lovie Smith: “You know, it’s hard for me to tell you it’s been different. It’s been different that I’m in a new place. But football-wise, I get up in the morning, work out and you do football all day and work around people like (UI spokesman) Kent (Brown). In the NFL, you were kind of in the same situation. Guys want to be coached hard. You have recruiting that’s year-round, but for me as a head coach you can’t go around (recruiting) in the spring, so it’s a similar schedule. So it hasn’t been that different. We’re going to have some guys that come through and watch a little individual video and stuff like that. It’s just coaching football, like I did in the NFL.”
Has anything surprised you about this university or this town/area?
Lovie Smith: “No, I thought we would like Champaign, and we have. I know if I didn’t, I couldn’t say it. I understand that. But we like Champaign. I like where I live, the whole set-up each day. I just went outside and (former Illinois offensive lineman) Austin Schmidt and his lady are running the stairs out there. I love running them every other day. No, I walk them. They run ‘em. I walk ‘em. All of that has been good. You’re just going through the process.”
The university is more than the athletic department, but you are -- whether you want to be or not -- the most recognizable face here. How have you approached that larger role of kind of being a spokesperson for the university to the fans?
Lovie Smith: “I embrace it, more than anything. I mean, we want to sell our brand of ball, our brand of an athletic department. Two weeks ago, I was on campus talking with the fraternities. We need ‘em. We need ‘em in the stands. I can’t wait to talk to the sororities. Just in general, going back to the difference between college ball and the NFL: college life. I make the statement that there’s not a more exciting place than on a college campus on game day. For me, just to be around young people, again I love it.”
Getting to know you just a little bit the last year, you’re more personable than you may have been made out to be in the NFL. But there are many college coaches who are out there and loud. That’s not the way you seem to do things?
Lovie Smith: “No. First off, I’m not the entertainment. I work to get the entertainment that will help make us better. It’s really not about me. This is who I am. The people who are more out there, that’s who they are. Some of the first advice I got was to, ‘Be yourself.’ I don’t look at someone else and say, “He’s doing this, so I’m going to do that.’ Because this is just who I am. When you say I’m personable, I’d be disappointed if someone said, ‘Oh, that guy isn’t (personable),’ because that’s important. I am. But I don’t walk into a room and … you know, some people can’t take idle time in a conversation. I can. If I am by myself, I don’t have to talk to myself. Talking with my wife, she talks more than I do. That’s why we kind of work.”
How’s she enjoying this whole thing?
Lovie Smith: “MaryAnne is from Illinois. Mom is from Chicago. Her 83-year-old mother is there. We’ve got grandkids there, so she can probably make that drive from Chicago to Champaign very easily. We both, the same way, love life around here.”
You entered college football at an interesting time with all the changes going on, especially with the recruiting rules. What have you thought about being a part of that process and what do you think is the most important end goal of these changes?
Lovie Smith: “First off, coming in, Jeremy, my first year there were things that had more of a priority for me than trying to change policy. I was OK with whatever was in place. The longer you’re in it, the more and more you learn. I like the new changes. I like the early signing period. I was in favor of that. The Big Ten giving up two-a-day practices, the NFL has been like. We haven’t had two-a-days in a long time. So some of those changes like that, I think all the changes we’re making is for the betterment of our game, so it’s all go.”
As for the team on the field, I know spring was pretty limited due to numbers. Now, this fall you have so many young guys coming in. You have eight seniors, 13 juniors. As a staff, what impact does that have short- and long-term?
Lovie Smith: “Well, in an ideal world, you want to have 25 seniors, especially when you come in new. But you know what the numbers are. And numbers change. Some guys leave, so the number may get up there a little bit. But when we came in, however many guys we have, we want to bring in good players who fit those roles and keep rolling.
“Even though you mentioned spring we were limited, but what you’re trying to get accomplished in the spring is you’re trying to improve the group that you have. We were able to do that. It’s not like we were going to have a whole lot of hitting and things like that in the spring. You want to teach the fundamentals. In our case of being here less than a year, we just wanted to teach guys more ball, meetings and things like that. The mental work is just as important as the physical work. What they’re doing in the weight room, we made just unbelievable gains in the weight room. So we just kind of love where we are.”
Do you expect a different kind of football next year?
Lovie Smith: “Absolutely.”
Lovie Smith: “Well, first off, just normal growth football. We’d all like to come in the first year and be national champions. It doesn’t work like that. There’s a reason why you want to establish your program. Just for guys last year, we had to figure out names. It was the first time through. Every situation was the first time through. Now, guys know what to expect. What’s training camp going to be like? What’s the offseason summer program going to be like? They know all that.
“For us (coaches), we know what position to put our guys in. Last year, you go through spring ball and it’s not like you scrimmage every day. You have to wait for the early part of the season was kind of your preseason to figure out exactly where everybody belonged. We’re further along with that.”
When you took over, I think most understood this rebuild would take some time. Did you know how big this job was?
Lovie Smith: “When you take over a program, some people take over a 10-6 team. (Pauses and smiles -- editor’s note: The Bears fired Smith after a 10-6 season in 2012.) You got that, didn’t you? Most of the time, that’s not the case. There’s something going on, and you have to start from a spot and start working to improve from there. I didn’t look at the roster to see who was here. I knew it was the University of Illinois and that eventually we were going to get the program up, as soon as we possibly could. That’s where we are. There hasn’t been any surprises or anything like. It’s the Big Ten too. There are good teams in the division. But we’re doing the things we need to do.
“I love our staff. We have guys who know football, and they’re good recruiters. Things that we needed? Facilities. We’re behind with facilities. The University of Illinois football is behind facility-wise. But we’re taking care of that. We have a plan in place to take care of that. Again, we’re trending in the right direction.”
You mentioned 10-6. And with the way the last NFL job (Tampa Bay) ended (after just two seasons) as well, have you scratched that NFL itch? Whether you like it or not -- and it’s probably because you’re respected -- people are always going to connect you going back to the NFL. Have you fully scratched that itch?
Lovie Smith: “Last year, I was supposed to be miserable there for a time (an ESPN report during the fall said Smith was ‘miserable’). Somebody talked to him after the Western Michigan game, I guess. I was miserable (after that game) and every other loss. But when I came here, I made the decision to come back to college ball. I signed a long-term contract. For me, on what’s being said, you can’t go on all that. I’m telling you, I love it here. This is long-term. I made a statement that this is my last job. That’s why it’s important for me about the long-term things that are in place, like the facility. So we can build a program that we just have a good year. We want it to be a solid program for years to come.
“(The NFL) is a part of my past. I coached high-school ball at one time too, you know. So we’re locked up here. This is what we’re going to do from here on. There are some of us who have been in the NFL that like college ball. Loved it when we were in the NFL and love college ball also. That’s me.”
Check back to Illini Inquirer on Wednesday for Part II of the Lovie Smith interview, which focuses on recruiting.