How Lovie Smith Invigorates Illinois Football
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman had officially been on the job about 48 hours when he fired out this tweet Monday morning.
In one photo, the 37-year-old Whitman—a former Illini tight end who most recently served as the AD at Division III Washington University in St. Louis—demonstrated his social media savvy, his understanding of news cycles and his boldness. He also made a promise that history tells us will be awfully difficult to keep.
The hashtag #WeWillWin, with relation to Illini football, is the kind of declaration that would be made by a man crazy enough to fire his head football coach (presumably) before he drank his first cup of coffee as a University of Illinois employee. In his first set of moves as a Power Five AD, Whitman did what many of his colleagues wouldn't. You don't fire your football coach in March, most ADs would say. It simply isn't done. Whitman did it. He recognized an untenable situation while at the same time realizing he had a unique opportunity. So, he moved to correct the untenable and take advantage of the opportunity.
Will the newly hired Lovie Smith win consistently at Illinois? We don't know. The former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach hasn't coached in college since the mid-'90s, and we'll have to wait and see how much he enjoys recruiting. His schematic acumen isn't an issue. Any coach who has had success in the NFL should be able to adjust to the college game. But the Nick Sabans, Urban Meyers and Jim Harbaughs of the world marry an excellent working knowledge of the X's and O's with a relentless pursuit of the best Jimmies and Joes. That is how a coach wins in college, and Smith will have to prove he can do that.
But "Will Lovie win?" isn't the appropriate question given the events of the weekend. This is: Does Illinois football seem like a more exciting proposition now that Lovie Smith is leading the program rather than Bill Cubit? That answer is obviously yes, and that's why Whitman made his first 48 hours so tumultuous. There is probably more excitement surrounding Illinois football today than at any point since Ron Zook took the Illini to the Rose Bowl following the 2007 season.
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On Saturday morning, the Illinois fan base might have presumed Whitman had lost his mind during the move to Champaign. He gave a vote of confidence to embattled men's basketball coach John Groce, whose team has limped to a 13–18 record this season. Then Whitman fired Cubit, who had shepherded the Illini through the wreckage of the scandal that got previous coach Tim Beckman fired for cause in August and who had been rewarded with the full-time job in November. Whitman didn't care how Cubit's firing looked on the front end because he knew the result he had planned on the back end. That result wouldn't have been possible without some moves that seemed questionable at the time and now seem quite prescient.
Illinois officials had taken a lot of heat for giving Cubit the head coaching job in the first place. Those same officials had also been criticized for only giving him a two-year contract in November.
When last season ended, Illinois had an interim athletic director (Paul Kowalczyk, who got blasted for the above quote) and an interim chancellor (Barbara Wilson). Guess how many good coaches want to go to work for an interim AD and an interim chancellor? That number is pretty close to zero. Given the lack of depth in the talent pool, why would the school spend to hire somebody from outside when the new AD ultimately might want to bring in his own guy? And since Cubit didn't have better options, why give him a five-year deal when you could give him a two-year deal that could be nixed for less than a million bucks? (Remember, the Illini spent $0 on Beckman's buyout because they fired him for cause.)
The move probably hurt recruiting, but the 2016 recruiting cycle was pretty much wrecked by all the other dysfunction at Illinois. Did the Illini kick the can down the road by signing Cubit? Absolutely. But replacing the can wasn't Kowalczyk's responsibility as the interim athletic director. By making the deal he did, he gave the permanent AD the flexibility to hire the coach he wanted instead of being stuck with the coach—and the expensive contract—he inherited.
Whitman acknowledged that fact Saturday. "If coach Cubit had a longer contract, that would have put me as the new athletic director in a delicate situation," he said. Cubit's $985,000 buyout is a lot of money in real-world terms, but it's a pittance for a Power Five school firing a football coach in 2016. LSU was ready to pay Les Miles $16 million over eight years to go away before a booster-led coup was squelched in November. If Texas A&M decides to fire Kevin Sumlin after this season, it would owe him $15 million within 60 days of the firing. So, if you see Kowalczyk, Illini fans, thank him for not sticking Whitman with an albatross of a football coach contract. And what would have happened had Whitman inherited a coach with a five-year deal? "It certainly would have changed things," he said. "There's no doubt about that."
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As awkward as the timing was, Whitman made the best possible move at the first possible chance. We don't yet know if Illinois has hired a great AD—let's see how the Smith hire and the choice to keep Groce go—but we know the Illini have hired a decisive AD. That Whitman clearly had a plan to bring in Smith during his first weekend on the job suggests a few things. One, Whitman isn't afraid to be unconventional. Nobody fires football coaches in the spring unless they crash their motorcycles with their mistress aboard and then lie to their AD about it. Cubit did nothing wrong other than not being the guy Whitman wanted. The timing here is horrible, and hopefully Whitman will take care of the assistants Cubit hired who aren't retained by Smith. They got royally jobbed in this scenario because everyone else has filled out their staffs, but if they receive the paycheck they would have received coaching this season, then they should be able to land on their feet. If Whitman does that, he will have managed to rip off the Band-Aid with a minimum amount of sting.
This move also suggests that Whitman isn't afraid to swing for the fences. When last season ended, the idea of Lovie Smith becoming the football coach at Illinois would have been laughable for a multitude of reasons. As of Monday, Smith is the football coach at Illinois. Had Kowalczyk gone hunting for a new coach rather than giving Cubit that stopgap contract in November, Smith wouldn't have been available. His firing by the Bucs in January came as a bit of a shock. By the time Smith got axed, all the college jobs were filled. By the time Whitman decided to can Cubit, though, all the NFL jobs were filled, too. If Smith wanted to continue as a head coach in 2016, this was his only opportunity. Since the Bucs still owe him $10 million over two years—a mitigation clause in his contract with the team means the Bucs will pay the difference between Smith's new salary and what they owe him—money wasn't going to be an issue, either.
Smith may not have recruited in 20 years, but he can likely get into more doors than Cubit could have. In the area that Smith will recruit most heavily, he'll be able to say, "Remember when I took the Bears to the Super Bowl?" That should go a long way with high schoolers, their parents and their coaches. Smith will still have to prove he can close the deal on National Signing Day, and he'll have to prove this fall that he can adjust to the wide variety of offenses he'll face at the college level.
If he wins, Smith might bolt for another NFL job. That's the risk Illinois must take. But if that happens, it means Smith would be leaving the program in a better place than he found it. That's all Illinois can ask for now. It isn't Ohio State. It isn't Alabama. It's a Power Five school with a fan base that is a lot more interested in the football team than it was last week or last year. That isn't a bad weekend's work for a new AD.
A random ranking
The six-year-old saw a picture of Medusa and has grown very interested in Greek mythology, so I've had to study up on my Edith Hamilton lately. Here are the top 10 Greek gods and goddesses.
Instead of rounding up the latest college football news, this week's First-and-10 will focus on addressing some burning questions as spring practice begins in earnest across the country.
1. What will Alabama's offense look like this time around?
Coordinator Lane Kiffin had to basically build Alabama's offense from scratch in each of his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, and now he'll have to do it again. The smart money says the 2016 version will look similar to the fast-paced scheme Alabama ran in '14 with Blake Sims at quarterback. The difference this time is the Crimson Tide will likely have a more talented thrower taking snaps. Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman and Jalen Hurts are all dual-threat signal-callers, so expect more (intentional) quarterback runs than last year with Jake Coker at the helm. Meanwhile, Alabama must replace its top two tailbacks for the first time in the Nick Saban era. In previous years the top guy would make a smooth—pardon the pun—handoff to the No. 2 guy, but Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry left after his junior season and Kenyan Drake exhausted his eligibility. At 6' 2" and 240 pounds, rising sophomore Bo Scarbrough is the obvious frontrunner to play a role similar to Henry's. But unlike the durable Henry, Scarbrough has been injury-prone. Fellow rising sophomore Damien Harris will also get his chance to earn carries in the fall. The Tide won the national title last season with Henry taking the lion's share of the carries, but they will likely go back to a two-man rotation this year.
2. How does Ohio State replace all that talent?
The Buckeyes could have 14 players drafted this spring, which means plenty of starting jobs are open. We know J.T. Barrett will be the quarterback, but what about everywhere else? Now is the time some of those names you read about on National Signing Day over the past few years could become quite familiar again.
The Fiesta Bowl may have offered a preview of Ohio State's 2016 defensive line. With Adolphus Washington suspended and Joey Bosa ejected for targeting, the Buckeyes went with Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard at the ends and Donovan Munger and Michael Hill inside. That could be the Week 1 line.
The receiving corps is another matter entirely. Ohio State lost five of its six leading receivers from 2015. Every spot is likely open because Curtis Samuel, the lone top-six pass-catcher returning, could transition to tailback. Corey Smith caught 20 passes for 255 yards in '14, but he missed most of last year after breaking his leg against Indiana. He'll be back, but limited, this spring. It's possible Ohio State's most dynamic options redshirted last fall. Torrance Gibson, for example, is a 6' 4", 205-pounder who came to Columbus as a quarterback but who has the athletic potential to be a game-changer at receiver. He'll get every chance to prove that this spring.
3. Can Clemson reload its defensive line again?
The Tigers lost Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Corey Crawford to the NFL last off-season and managed to get better on the defensive line. This spring, they'll have to find replacements for Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and D.J. Reader. And they might get better again.
Defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, who established himself as a potential star with Reader out for the first half of last season, is back. Fellow tackle Christian Wilkins played plenty as a freshman, and Austin Bryant was in the defensive end rotation as a freshman last year. Expect early enrollee Dexter Lawrence (6' 5", 340) to win some playing time inside. Clemson could be just as good up front as it was last season, but entering the 2016 campaign it might be even younger.
4. Is the Deondre Francois era about to begin at Florida State?
With defensive end DeMarcus Walker returning to campus, the Seminoles should be fairly loaded on defense. We know what tailback Dalvin Cook can do. With a dynamic quarterback, Florida State could contend for the national title. Sean Maguire is out for the spring because of a broken ankle suffered in the Peach Bowl, meaning redshirt freshman Deondre Francois will have a chance to stake his claim to the starting job. The competition will likely last into fall camp, but the coaches should have a good idea of what exactly they have in the rocket-armed Francois by the end of spring.
5. Can USC defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze build a group that looks like ones he played with?
As a player under Pete Carroll, Kenechi Udeze helped usher in the Trojans' renaissance. Now, the first-year position coach will try to help USC get back to the top of the Pac-12 from the sideline. He'll get a blank slate this spring because the Trojans don't return any starters from last season in his unit. At 330 pounds, rising sophomore Noah Jefferson would make a fine nose tackle in coordinator Clancy Pendergast's 5-2 base defense. Like Jefferson, Rasheem Green contributed as a freshman in 2015. The 285-pound Green seems to be a good fit for one of the defensive end positions. (The 5-2 is basically a 3-4 with two linebackers at the line of scrimmage, so the ends have dimensions that would be closer to those of tackles in a four-man front.)
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6. How will the Baylor offense look at Texas?
The Longhorns said they were switching to a new offense last spring, but they didn't actually change much. That got coordinator Shawn Watson demoted after a Week 1 loss to Notre Dame and jettisoned after the season. Texas is definitely making a change this year, and the goal of hiring offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert from Tulsa is to make the Longhorns as productive as the team 101 miles north on Interstate 35.
Gilbert never coached at Baylor, but he is well versed in the Art Briles offense. He was a graduate assistant under Briles at Houston in 2005 and worked for Briles protégés Dino Babers (at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green) and Phillip Montgomery (at Tulsa). Still, the question is whether Gilbert can make that offense work at Texas—especially when no one's offense has worked in Austin since Colt McCoy graduated.
So, who will play quarterback for Gilbert? The best bet is redshirt sophomore Jerrod Heard, who started 10 games in 2015. Tyrone Swoopes has one more year of eligibility, and he seemed to grow more confident when the Longhorns used him in a short-yardage running package last year. The wild cards could be early enrollee Shane Buechele, who just arrived from Arlington's Lamar High, and Kai Locksley, who redshirted last season after flipping from Florida State during the recruiting process. Since everyone will be learning a new offense, the two who have yet to play a collegiate down won't face as steep a learning curve relative to the incumbent starter.
7. Will Zach Gentry stay at tight end for Michigan?
Speaking of people who once committed to Texas as a quarterback, Zach Gentry, the 6' 7", 244-pounder from New Mexico, certainly appears as if he has found a home at tight end. And it makes a lot of sense. Houston transfer John O'Korn looks like the favorite to win the Wolverines' starting quarterback job, and Gentry looks like a prototypical Jim Harbaugh tight end. Given the way Jake Butt produced in his first year in the Harbaugh offense and the way Harbaugh's staff at Stanford developed tight ends like Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Coby Fleener, this seems like a smart long-term move. "He's that type of guy who you could split him out, put him down and he's a really good athlete," Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said last week. "I really like Zach, he's really taken the bull by the horns and really liking the position change and really being a team guy that wants the best for the team."
8. Can a hyped freshman unseat the incumbent starting quarterback at Georgia?
Jacob Eason was such an important recruit for former Georgia coach Mark Richt that Richt flew across the country last November to remind everyone—specifically Bulldogs athletic director Greg McGarity—that he was the one who landed Eason's commitment. McGarity fired Richt anyway, and Eason still decided to sign with Georgia. Now, new coach Kirby Smart and new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney must decide whether Eason is ready to take the reins from senior Greyson Lambert, who started every game last year except the Florida game, in which Richt oddly went with third-stringer Faton Bauta and probably cemented his exit. Senior Brice Ramsey, who carved out a role for himself as a punter, will also have a chance to land the job.
"Everybody's expectation is, 'He's going to start, he's going to be the savior,'" Smart said of Eason during an appearance last month on Atlanta's 680 The Fan. "We got two quarterbacks on our team competing for a job. He's the third guy coming in to compete for the job. We want him to get better every day."
9. What is Brady Hoke's biggest challenge in his first spring as Oregon's defensive coordinator?
It might be developing a line that can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and take pressure off Oregon's secondary. With stalwarts DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci gone, the Ducks will look different beyond any schematic changes Hoke brings. Head coach Mark Helfrich said last month that defensive end Henry Mondeaux has emerged as a leader in the locker room. Now, the 285-pound rising junior will have to lead on the field after finishing third on the team last year with four sacks.
10. Will the current Oklahoma State players perform as well in their new uniforms as Dez Bryant and Brandon Weeden did when they played in Stillwater?
That's tough to say, but these Cowboys got a thrill when Bryant and Weeden came to model the new unis.
What's eating Andy?
Florida Gulf Coast punched its ticket to the Big Dance on Sunday by winning the Atlantic Sun tournament. A day later, my bosses have yet to send me back to that amazing dormside beach.
What's Andy eating?
I looked over the sea of blue hair and bonnets, past the hostess stand and into the case where all those slices of pie sat. Then I looked at my watch. I had a plane to catch, but that pie. I cursed myself, but not out loud. The crowd I was surrounded by wouldn't have appreciated any blue language. It was 4 p.m. In almost any other city in America, a restaurant would be deserted. In Sarasota, Fla., that is the start of dinner rush.
But I had to have just one piece of the pie in that case. Yoder's Amish Restaurant has been serving the best pie in southwest Florida since 1975, and it's worth risking a missed flight. So, I chose to wait patiently in line between the clusters of retirees and the groups of Amish people who live nearby and ride their oversized tricycles to Yoder's, which sits at the center of a cluster of Amish stores and across the street from a full hook-up RV park where the snowbirds park their Winnebagos to escape the cold back home.
After what felt like an eternity spent staring at perfect triangles of pie, I reached the stand and was ushered to a table. Here, I faced a second choice. I could have my pie and dash, but the menu in front of me served as a reminder that Yoder's makes some of the nation's best fried chicken. If you read this space regularly, you know it takes special fried chicken to get me excited. Fast-food places such as Popeyes and grocery stores such as Publix fry chicken so well that a place must do it almost perfectly to surpass those plentiful, low-cost options. Yoder's is in that select group.
I ordered a four-piece fried chicken, forgetting Yoder's uses a breed of mutant chicken that could probably hold its own in a fight with a turkey. I worried that if I consumed this massive pile of poultry, I'd have no room left for pie. I shouldn't have fretted. Golden, crispy skin covered thick, juicy meat. Every bite was a pleasure. My stomach, pleased mightily by the chicken, would make room for pie. But which pie?
Lemon merengue was out. It was Thursday, and Yoder's makes those on Wednesday. But did I want something baked (blueberry crumb, double crust apple, pumpkin, egg custard) or did I want a piece of cream pie (banana, chocolate, Key lime, peanut butter, butterscotch)? Given the size of the bird I'd just consumed, I opted for the cream. Chocolate cream sounded good. So did peanut butter cream. What sounded better? Chocolate peanut butter cream.
The reason Yoder's cream pies are so perfect is the cream isn't completely loaded down with sugar. They have enough of a base to feel substantial while packing just enough sugar to sate the sweet tooth. As they typically do, chocolate and peanut butter formed a happy couple. The crust couldn't stand up to a fork, so after a bite or two the entire dish jumbled into a kind of magical trifle. Since I had ordered my pie a la mode (of course), the ideal method of consumption involved taking a small spoonful of ice cream and scooping a bite of pie that included crust, chocolate-peanut butter cream and whipped cream. Each bite was more satisfying than the last.
I'd be willing to live without electricity to eat that every day.