I know you’d love to be on the road right now, and I bet I know how you feel about the Saban rule (which prohibits head coaches from recruiting off campus during the spring evaluation period). But how has your staff -- a lot of guys in the NFL game a long time -- transitioned to recruiting?
Lovie Smith: “First off, to go on record, I don’t know why (the Saban rule) is a good thing. I got training camp right now, and I got different things that I’m doing, but to be able to be out right -- especially down south where they’re having games and having padded practices -- why wouldn’t head coaches in college want to do that? It’s just like in the NFL where none of the head coaches can go around and work the guys out. I don’t understand that rule at all.
“What the rest of our staff is doing though is they are out pounding it. They’re doing a good job. Of course, we’re communicating all throughout the day of where they are, who they saw. The recruiting department is here sending us video, so we have a good system in place.
“We have some primary areas. Some we’re going to do a little bit more in than what we did last year. Texas, number one. Texas and Georgia, we didn’t do anything really in those (in 2017). We did a little bit in Texas. We thought we were going to sign someone who ended up going somewhere else. That part has been good, touching all those new areas.”
The main questions people had about you when you got here was about recruiting. Were there a few things that you learned about the cycle nowadays? It feels like some coaches you recruit against really speed this process up, while you guys seem a bit more deliberate and take your time with the process?
Lovie Smith: “Well, I think you just have to take a look at the landscape right now. We didn’t sign any five-star athletes. And the ones that are deliberate… This is what I found. There are enough athletes for all of us to get what we need. We all are looking for something a little bit different. You’re married Jeremy, right?”
Lovie Smith: “Kent (Brown, UI spokesman in the room during the interview), you’re married?
Brown: “Mm hmm.”
Lovie Smith: “We all have three different wives, right? You happy?”
Lovie Smith: “Yeah. That’s what I’ve found. Last year, (people would say), ‘Hey, football is quicker, you gotta get 500 offers out there and get your guys right away!’ No! We have time! In an ideal world, where we are right now, I want to see as much of the guys as possible. We got camps. I know you got to go on some of the guys early on. When you say deliberate, you got to go through the process. Did you marry your wife the first night you met her?
Lovie Smith: “Kent, did you take a little time with yours?”
Brown: “A little bit.”
Smith: “I did too! I did too. Again, there’s time.”
How do you feel about the class of 2018 so far?
Lovie Smith: “I feel good. We’re in position. Last year, before the season started, we wanted about five commitments before the year. I think that’s probably what we had, maybe a little bit more (Illinois had 11 verbal commitments before its first game, 10 of which signed with the Illini). We have a few guys that we’re close on. But with that many scholarships (Illinois expects to sign a class of about 12-17 prospects), you have about three or four (options) and you got to pick the right one. So last year’s class, I think it’s an excellent class coming in. Maybe Kendrick Green is considered a four-star guy, but beyond that, they’re three-star athletes. Most of the draft? Probably three-star athletes.”
You did make one change to recruiting and that was with James Kirkland, promoting him to head your recruiting department. How does his role change and how does the department change with him heading it?
Lovie Smith: “Well, his role changes officially. Unofficially, James was brought in here because I knew James and had a background with him. Last year, about everybody that we signed, James had to watch them and approve them. So it was kind of in that role of director of personnel a little bit then. So in the first year, you come in and get the best group you can together and see how it goes, and then you adjust from there. That’s what we’ve down. Now, I like where we have everybody. Pat Embleton does a great job. So really now James is the director of player personnel, and Pat will be the recruiting coordinator. Then Nate McNeal will be the assistant recruiting coordinator. Again, but we’re all kind of working the same way. Our coaches are very involved. We have a system in place before we offer and before we take a guy.”
Some have just said that you’ve signed a great class and they let Josh Sternquist go and that strikes them as odd.
Lovie Smith: “You can’t just go on titles. James saw everybody. Pat had a whole lot to do with it. Just don’t look to titles. Again, Josh did a great job for us there. (Former linebackers coach) Tim McGarigle (who took an analyst role with the Green Bay Packers) did a great job. But guys move on their own. Other things happen. It’s a new year. This crew we have here, we haven’t missed a beat that I see.”
How do you feel the in-state recruiting is going. I know Coach Butkus did well there last year. But some of the top guys in the state in 2018 have gone elsewhere.
Lovie Smith: “Well, last year, some of the top guys went elsewhere. A.J. Epenesa went to Iowa. Tight end (Jake Marwede) went to Duke. It’s the same thing. We feel real good about we have two good players that we really like right now that are kind of, as we see it, they’re local guys. We have some others that we’re looking at. We’ll sign our share of in-state guys this year, as we did last (when Illinois signe 10 Illinois natives).”
Does the recruiting pitch or how you guys operate change at all after a 3-9 season?
Lovie Smith: “No. No, it doesn’t. It’s the same thing. It’s a process. I think people have to buy into who we are, the leadership, the direction we’re taking the program. They have to believe in the university, the academics. I think now as we talk, we can talk more about the facilities. They’re right around the corner. Our plans for the facilities are right there (points across the room). So, no, we don’t think it changes at all.
“If people thought we were going to go undefeated the first year, it’s a little bit more than just changing a coaching staff. It’s a whole culture and it takes a bit. Most people kind of assume you change a staff then everything is good. When things are bad, (people think) you just change the staff -- the coaching staff in particular -- and then everything is good. (People think) when you’re winning, everybody has to do with the winning. But when you lose, it’s just the coaching staff. It’s a little bit more to it than that, and it takes a little bit longer. The people on the inside kind of know that.”
So you got your full facility plan ready?
Lovie Smith: “(Smiles) I got to watch what I say. We’re getting our facility plan. How about that?”
What’s most important with the facility? Is it the practicality or the flash of it?
Lovie Smith: “It’s all the above. You just look to Northwestern. It’s right on Lake Michigan. That’s kind of flashy. Every team in our conference either have new facilities or are in the process of doing it. I think Purdue and Indiana have new facilities. It’s like everything else. We’re competing against someone. There’s competition there (with facilities), and the guys who come through here, they want to have the same things others do. That’s a commitment to the football program, as I see it.
Have you met Coach Brad Underwood yet? Obviously, Josh Whitman is striving for better for that program too.
Lovie Smith: “Yes. I’m absolutely pumped up about what Brad is going to do. I knew a little bit about him before he got here. Any guy that spent a little bit of time in East Texas (where Smith is from), I’m in favor of. He spent a little bit of time at Stephen F. Austin, and I have good friends at Oklahoma State who knew Brad and his wife. So he’s been great. You’ve met him. He’s jumped right in. I’m a big basketball fan, a big basketball guy, so I’m excited about what he’ll do.”
How much basketball do you get to watch?
Lovie Smith: “As much as I can. As many games as I possibly can. When I was in Chicago, I bought Chicago Bulls tickets -- and not at a discount. So I love basketball. I love sports in general, to be truthful. But I was excited Mark Smith decided to come here. When you come in, that’s what you need, you need a couple marquee guys when you’re not up here to just believe in the university and maybe the coaches. I’ve always been one that if everybody else is looking over here, I’ve kind of looked (the opposite) way. I was always OK with not following along with what everyone else has done and doing my own thing. That’s what Mark said.”
How do you find that in a kid, like what Ricky Smalling and Kendrick Green had?
Lovie Smith: “I think they’re out there. In a room of 10, there’s going to be two that are like that. You just have to find that. Most of the time they’ll come forward and let you know that a little bit. That’s why I say there’s a right place for every one. This past homecoming, Dick Butkus came here. Dick came in here. It took one. Him and his class coming in and said, ‘Yeah, the University of Illinois is down, but we can bring it up.' Things can turn around quickly. That’s how we’re going to do it.”