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Illinois Football: 10 Coaching Candidates to Replace Lovie Smith

Lovie Smith, Illinois Fighting Illini

Lovie Smith, Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois is the latest Power 5 college football job to open, as head coach Lovie Smith won’t return to the program in 2021. Smith took over in Champaign in 2016 and finished 5-19 in his first two years. However, the Fighting Illini showed improvement with a 4-8 mark in 2018 and jumped to 6-7 last year. Illinois went 2-5 this fall, giving Smith a 17-39 overall record in his five-year tenure.

Who could replace Smith at Illinois? Here are 10 names to watch in the coaching search:

10 Coaching Candidates to Replace Lovie Smith at Illinois

Bret Bielema, New York Giants Assistant

Could a former Big Ten coach be of interest for Illinois? Bielema – a native of Illinois – has coached in the NFL for the last three years after his dismissal at Arkansas in 2017. He went 29-34 with the Razorbacks from 2013-17 but went 68-24 at Wisconsin from 2006-12.

Troy Calhoun, Head Coach, Air Force

Calhoun is a longshot to leave Air Force, but his name popped up in the search at Colorado last fall. The former Air Force quarterback is 101-71 at his alma mater and has just four losing records since taking over in 2007. The Falcons went 11-2 under Calhoun’s direction in ’19.

Marcus Freeman, Defensive Coordinator, Cincinnati

Freeman is a coach on the rise and has been instrumental in helping Luke Fickell build Cincinnati’s program over the last few seasons. The Ohio native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2010 and later landed at Kent State (2011-12) and Purdue (2013-16) before Cincinnati. Freeman joined the program as defensive coordinator in 2017 and is regarded for his work on the recruiting trail. The Bearcats have finished first in the AAC in scoring defense for three consecutive years.

Clark Lea, Defensive Coordinator, Notre Dame

Lea’s name has popped up in the search at Vanderbilt, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get consideration for other jobs. Notre Dame’s defense has emerged as one of the best in college football under Lea’s direction and critical to the team’s playoff run in 2020. The Tennessee native also has stints at Wake Forest, UCLA, Syracuse and Bowling Green as an assistant.

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Lance Leipold, Head Coach, Buffalo

After a successful stint at Wisconsin-Whitewater, Leipold jumped to the FBS level in 2015 at Buffalo. Leipold went 7-17 in his first two years but has guided the Bulls to 29 wins over the last four seasons. Overall, Leipold is 36-32 at Buffalo with two MAC East titles and two bowl trips. Previously, Leipold went 109-6 with six Division III titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Sean Lewis, Head Coach, Kent State

Lewis is a rising star in the coaching ranks and has compiled an impressive resume in just three years at Kent State. After playing his college ball at Wisconsin, Lewis eventually landed on Dino Babers’ staff at Eastern Illinois in 2012. He worked as an assistant under Babers at Eastern Illinois, Bowling Green and Syracuse before becoming the head coach at Kent State. The Golden Flashes finished 2-10 in Lewis’ debut but improved to 7-6 in 2019 and finished 3-1 in ’20. Lewis has brought big-time improvement to a tough job and is one of the top offensive minds in the Group of 5 ranks.

Tom Manning, Offensive Coordinator, Iowa State

Manning doesn’t have any experience as a head coach but is a name to watch for openings the next few years. The Ohio native spent time as an assistant in the NFL with the Colts and in college with Mount Union, Toledo and Iowa State. Manning returned to Ames in 2019 after spending ‘18 with the Colts and guided the Cyclones to an average of 34 points a game in ’20.

Jeff Monken, Head Coach, Army

Monken is an Illinois native and has assembled an impressive resume over two stints as a head coach. From 2010-13, he went 38-16 with two FCS Playoff trips at Georgia Southern. Monken left for Army in 2014 and proceeded to go 6-18 in his first two seasons. However, Monken brought big-time improvement starting in 2016. The Black Knights went 8-5 that season and won 21 games over the next two years. With an 8-2 mark this fall, Monken is 48-38 overall at Army.

Todd Monken, Offensive Coordinator, Georgia

Monken is an Illinois native and was previously the head coach at Southern Miss. After inheriting a mess, Monken went 1-11 in his debut (2013) but improved to 3-9 the next year and then 9-5 the following season. Monken also has experience from stops at Eastern Michigan, Louisiana Tech, Oklahoma State, LSU and in the NFL with the Buccaneers, Browns and Jaguars. Monken was hired as the offensive coordinator at Georgia prior to the 2020 season and helped the offense average 31.3 points a game.

Jay Norvell, Head Coach, Nevada

Norvell has ties to the Big Ten as a Wisconsin native and a previous stint on the sidelines in Madison (1989-94). After spending time as an assistant at several jobs, including Iowa State, Nebraska, UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona State, Norvell was hired as Nevada’s head coach in 2017. The Wolf Pack went 3-9 in his debut but improved to 8-5 the next year. Nevada is 24-22 under Norvell’s direction and has posted three consecutive winning records.