New Illini athletic director Josh Whitman has shaken things up in Champaign — and that's a good thing
The college football world was stunned over the weekend when Illinois head football coach Bill Cubit was unexpectedly and inexplicably fired on the first day of new athletic director John Whitman's tenure. Nobody quite understood why, without cause for disciplinary action, a college football coach would be fired on what was essentially the eve of the start of spring practice.
A couple of hours later, it made more sense.
Rumors started flooding the Internet and airwaves that former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith was the primary candidate to take over the Illini football program.
There's rarely a good time to make a coaching change outside of the end of a failed season. Often times, things like timing and money come into play and prevent tough decisions from being made.
Whitman is apparently not afraid of tough decisions. In my opinion, he not only made a tough decision, but the correct one.
I've long held that Illinois football could be a good job. I've openly asked why the program has been unable to have and sustain success throughout its existence. To get the honest answer to that question, all I really had to do what look at the list of Illinois football coaches throughout history. It's not exactly a list of "Who's Who," but rather just "Who?"
In college football, name recognition at the head coaching position means so much. Most programs and facilities can stand on their own when it comes to recruiting. The coach makes the program. Some programs sit back and gamble on young up-and-coming coaches, hoping they can build a winner and subsequently a name for themselves. Clemson's Dabo Swinney comes to mind in that regard.
Other programs simply open the wallet and go get the best or most famous guy available, hoping for an immediate return on investment. Ohio State and Michigan have done that in recent years.
Whitman appears to have found a happy medium between the two formulas. Smith is a big name and a big fish. If I were Smith, my resume would consist of one sentence: I led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman starting at quarterback. Smith was a winner in the state of Illinois at the highest level of football.
Name recognition? Check.
But when it comes to building a successful college football program, Smith is undoubtedly a novice. He does have college coaching experience, but never at a level higher than a position coach.
In that regard, Smith is a gamble. Be that as it may, taking a gamble is what needed to happen for Illinois.
The Illinois football program has been shrouded in failure on the field and controversy off of it as of late. Allegations of the mistreatment of players cost Tim Beckman his job less than a year ago. Cubit was mentioned in those allegations, but was not found guilty of any wrongdoing. As a result, he seemed to be the popular choice to take over the program in the face of some dark times.
The problem Cubit was always going to face was the fact that Illinois has never really been a great program. As a result, fear of failure due to tearing down everything and starting over was never going to sway anyone from eventually letting him go — especially given the fact that he was part of Beckman's staff. If Illinois was looking for a fresh start and a total change of direction and attitude, Cubit had to go.
Much like the hiring of Mike Riley in the wake of the Bo Pelini tenure at Nebraska, bringing Smith to Illinois is a total 180 as far as outlook, attitude and morale goes. Some, including the players, will be sympathetic to Cubit's situation and the way he was let go. Some may even root for Smith to fail in the name of karma. When the dust settles, however, common sense will tell you that Smith was the correct choice to guide Illinois football into the future.
For starters, and as previously mentioned, he has name recognition in the state of Illinois. Two coaches in history have led the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance. One was Smith. The other was named Ditka.
Additionally, players love playing for Smith. After losing both NFL head coaching jobs in somewhat surprising fashion, you saw the players he coached lash out in anger in Smith's defense. NFL players loved him. I'm guessing college kids will as well.
Despite the cash cow that college football has become, let us not forget — at the core of what the sport is supposed to be about at the collegiate level — is the development of young men. Athletics build character, and the architects of that building process are the head coaches. Players will often adopt personality and behavioral traits from their coaches. Smith has worked closely with and has been mentored by Tony Dungy — widely regarded as one of the sport's "good guys." He also has started programs and foundations that provide educational and life-skill opportunities to at-risk youth. Parents who send their kids to play for Smith could only hope to be so lucky as to have their son adopt any of his traits in regard to helping others.
Back on the playing field, Smith is a defensive genius. He's had plenty of success as both a position coach and coordinator on the defensive side of the ball. In a conference where defenses have set the tone in recent years, Smith's knowledge on that side of the ball will no doubt yield noticeable improvement in Champaign and have the Illini defense in contention to be the best in the Big Ten quickly.
The Illinois job can be a good one. Champaign is within a seven-hour drive of Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Memphis, Nashville, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Kansas City. Despite producing George Halas, Red Grange and Dick Butkus, it has been difficult historically to convince top recruits and their parents in those cities to make the drive and commit to the University of Illinois. Much of that had to do with who the coaches were.
With Smith at the helm, all of that changes. Recruits will visit because of who he is. Parents will be convinced and players will commit because of who he is. Illinois will have a real shot at becoming a winning program and a great job, again, because of who Smith is.
Sometimes, to get where you want to go, tough decisions need to be made. Right now, the future looks brighter than it has for Illinois football in quite some time, because of who Whitman is.