CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Lovie Smith’s first public comments since the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests in nearly every major American city started by him reaffirming who he was as a person.
“I'm a 62 year old black man from the south in a biracial marriage,” Smith said in a June 5 interview with NBC Sports Network’s Mike Tirico. “So, MaryAnne and I have seen an awful lot. I get a chance to lead men from all different places, all different nationalities.”
Smith, who became the Illini’s first African-American head football coach on March 7, 2016, said he’d been asked to make a statement similarly to what the public and fans saw on social media since the death of Floyd and the murder charge of now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Smith said on NBC Sports Network’s ‘Lunch Talk Live’ that he’s no longer interested in words, statements or social media posts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I've been asked a lot of times, 'hey Lovie can you give me a statement on what's been going on right now. Can you do that?' It's so much more than that,” Smith said. “A few things that I think we need to acknowledge. And we can't go much further until we do this. Systemic racism exists in our world. We have to acknowledge that before we can go any further. I've seen it. It's one thing to identify problems, then it's how do we change that problem. That's what we've been doing at the University of Illinois. Trying to make the world better but it can't be words.”
Smith’s boss, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman, along with Illinois men’s basketball head coach Brad Underwood and women’s basketball head coach Nancy Fahey were among hundreds of people who marched as part of Saturday’s BLM protest in Champaign.
“The events of these last few days have been heartbreaking,” Underwood said in a university statement “I pray for the family of George Floyd, and for healing to the pain and grief so many across our country are suffering at this time. I became a coach to help young people. And it is my responsibility as a leader to the many young black men in our program that I provide a safe environment where they can be heard and supported while processing emotions stirred from the harsh reality of the unfair world we all live in.”
Smith and Tony Dungy became the first two African-American head coaches to coach in the Super Bowl when they faced each other in Super Bowl XLI. Smith has also been openily vocal about his pride and intention of having a majority of his coaching staff being of a minority race and having the only Power Five Conference program that employs a Hispanic-American (Lou Hernandez) as its head strength and conditioning coach. Illinois currently has seven black assistant coaches, which is tops among all Power 5 Conference programs.
“As these discussions happen right now, we have to really look at ourselves a little bit. The civil rights movement was about eliminating segregation and making this society a more integrated place. I look at what we have at the University of Illinois. We're led by a black chancellor, black head football coach, seven of the 10 assistant coaches are black men, our Director of Personnel, our Director of Man Development, our Director of High School Relations is a black female, our Director of Academics, so to me it's about the platform of putting a model together to see exactly what can happen when you look beyond your normal comfort zone of people and what can get done and seeing people of a different color. But, the record, it eventually comes back to it. I realize that. That's why we're getting in position. We need to do better. We need to do better. The University of Illinois is headed in the right direction. We made progress, we made noise last year. This year is our time to really knock down the door.”
Smith has said he has encouraged his players at Illinois, and also did so during his time as head coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to find ways to engage with the local community activism. Illinois senior-to-be tailback Ra’Von Bonner has been seen on social media demonstrating near his hometown of Cincinnati in a protest rally against police brutality and racism.
Smith has said he and his staff have been organizing Zoom video conference calls with players to allow them to express feelings openly but also so Smith and the coaching staff can inform players on what the next step needs to be in order for systematic racism in the United States to be halted with this next generation of people.
“Right now, I see a lot of people protest. Protests are good. Then what do we do? It's like there's a death and a funeral, and everybody leaves and the next day after the funeral everybody goes home,” Smith said. “What I'm going to insist on, first off, all of our guys register to vote. But that's just a part of it, registering to vote. Be informed. If you don't like what's going on right now, and we in America have acknowledged that we don't like what's going on right now, we have to look first at our leader. The policies that he has in place. Congress, local government, this is how you have true change. And for us, it's going to get back to making sure people are informed. I think we all know right from wrong. We've all been taught that. And I think most of us really do know right from wrong. That's what we've been preaching. We are going to continue to do that with our program. There's diversity. And the only way to make real change is to come together. Diversity does that."