Dienhart: Lovie Smith, Illinois excited about opportunity

@BTNTomDienhart

Dienhart: Lovie Smith, Illinois excited about opportunity

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Lovie Smith speaks in calm, even tones. Each word seemingly measured and given thought before being uttered.

Tuesday was a big day for the freshly minted Illinois coach as he introduced his new staff, a collection of football minds that is tasked with trying to make the Illini relevant. Smith knows what’s on the line. He knows why he’s here: Illinois football is broken. And, Smith needs to fix it.

“Are the players excited?” Smith asked. “Absolutely. “They want show what they can do for their new coaches. New eyes have no bias.”

The work begins April 1. That’s when Smith will kick off spring drills at 5:30 p.m. All the talking, hand-shaking and back-slapping will be over. It will be time to begin molding his new program, a program that unbelievably is on its third head coach since Aug. 28, the day Tim Beckman was fired and then followed by the doomed Bill Cubit.

While Smith, who turns 58 in May, is a veteran who has been a head coach with the Bears and Buccaneers, the college game is a new dynamic. He last worked at this level as defensive backs coach at Ohio State under John Cooper in 1996, spending the previous 19 years in the NFL. A lot has changed since then, especially from a recruiting standpoint.

But Smith brings a fresh perspective to the job, which can help. And, his NFL pedigree certainly will open doors from a recruiting standpoint. This is a guy who has worked at the highest level of the game. He can flash the “shield” He has coached in the Super Bowl. No doubt, that will get the interest of high school kids.

“We have gotten a great response from players we have reached out to,” said Smith. “They are watching us. We have momentum going and we have to keep it up.”

Make no mistake about it: This is about recruiting. Everything in the college game is about recruiting. Talent procurement is Job No. 1 for every coach. If it isn’t, he won’t be employed for long. The lengths to which coaches will go to get the best players is epitomized by no one better than Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, who has taken the art of self-promotion and salesmanship to another level.

But don’t expect Smith to be an over-the-top carnival barker running satellite camps across the southeast and having snarky Twitter exchanges with coaches. That’s not who Smith is. And, if there is one rule in life, it’s this: Be who you are and embrace your strengths.

Smith’s strengths: He has a fatherly persona, a warmth and genuineness that will play well in living rooms. Couple that with his smarts and impressive resume, and blue-chippers figure to sit up and pay attention. Once Smith has their attention, it will be his job to impress by winning ball games in Champaign.

This could work. New Illinois A.D. Josh Whitman is gambling on it. Go big or go home, right? That’s the approach of the bright, young aggressive A.D., who is a bit of a gamble himself as a 37-year-old. They are in this together, as Whitman’s tenure will forever be tethered to how Smith performs.

“Look, I am excited by this opportunity,” said Smith.

Winning consistently has been elusive at this school. Coaches come … coaches go. But the roller coaster of Illini football remains a constant. For every Mike White and John Mackovic, there has been a Lou Tepper and Tim Beckman. When will the madness stop? And, the question that has nagged partiers on Green Street for years: Why can’t Illinois football be like Wisconsin or Iowa?

Why not, indeed.

Smith knows how desperately this proud school needs to be relevant in football once again. This is a new beginning at Illinois … yet again. But, the feel of this start is unlike others in recent Illini history. There is a credibility and stateliness to Smith. He’s a pro’s pro. This has fans excited. This has the nation talking about Illinois football in a positive nature.

“My focus will be on the entire team,” said Smith, who had an extensive background on defense. “I like our staff. This is the group I envisioned assembling when I got this job. Look at them.”

There’s offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, offensive line coach Luke Butkus, special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Bob Ligashesky, linebackers coach Tim McGarigle, wideouts coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker, d-line coach Mike Phair, running backs coach Thad Ward and secondary coach Paul Williams. It’s a nice collection of NFL and college experience. And, it’s a group that is diverse, with five African-Americans among the nine assistants.

Smith’s new staff was fanned out on the eighth floor of the Illinois press box, nattily attired in blue golf shirts with orange collars and a block “I.” Who can hit? Who can run? Who is impressive? And so the questions went on this day.

They all said the right things. McGee has watched a lot of film. And, he likes what he sees. It took about five seconds—maybe two—before McGee was asked to compare Illinois QB Wes Lunt with one of his former signal-callers when McGee was OC at Arkansas: Ryan Mallett.

“They both are big, strong, tall quarterbacks,” said McGee. “But the comparisons go beyond their size. They both are quick learners.”

Lunt will need to be a quick study this spring and fall if the Fighting Illini hope to make Smith’s debut a success. Lunt appears to be a nice fit for what McGee wants to do on offense. At Louisville last year, McGee’s attack threw the ball a lot. And the 2016 Illini figure to sling it often with Lunt working with a nice collection of wideouts, including the return from injury of Mikey Dudek. But what about the line?

“We will see,” said Butkus, the o-line coach with the most famous last name in football. “I can’t wait to start working with those guys. Then I will have a better understanding.”

Defense? Nickerson also is waiting to be impressed.

This is going to be fun. And, for Illinois’ sake, hopefully a success.

***

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