'Sometimes, Divorce Is a Good Thing': How & Why Lovie Smith Turned Illinois Into ‘Transfer Portal U’
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In almost every conceivable way, Lovie Smith’s life is defined by the ideas of loyalty and commitment.
If you were to follow the fifth-year Illinois head football coach as he makes his way around his new office, the recently opened 107,650 square foot, $79.2 million on-campus football facility, you would hear the 62-year-old still constantly reference the coaches in his hometown of Big Sandy, Texas, that helped shape him into the football man you see and hear now.
Smith has remained married to the same woman, MaryAnne, who he met on a blind date in 1978 at a pizza parlor when he was a junior at the University of Tulsa. Smith still contributes money monthly to his former local Methodist church in Texas, even though he hasn’t resided in in Texas for nearly 40 years.
And yet, it was the same Lovie Smith who stood in the second floor lobby of his program’s football palace and touted the virtues of divorce.
Not a marriage divorce, mind you. Lovie and MaryAnne got married a month after that first blind date while they were still undergraduate students at Tulsa and have been together for nearly four decades. No decommitment needed there. Three children later (one of which is now on Smith’s staff at Illinois), Lovie and MaryAnne Smith couldn’t be happier. You wouldn’t know it from his personal life, but Lovie Smith happens to be a big proponent of divorce in his professional life. In college football, we now refer to that kind of divorce as the transfer portal.
Transfers having an impact in college sports and particularly in the massive revenue generating endeavors such as football and basketball certainly isn’t a foreign concept, as players have been moving from program to program for several decades. However, since its inception on Oct. 15, 2018, the transfer portal has been a tool for college athletes and coaches to make the transition a more streamlined process than before. No longer can a coach ban a player from signing with a conference or rival program, no longer do coaches wanting to recruit the transfer need to ask for permission from the former university to talk to the player. Coaches can now easily scroll through a database to find what was always assumed would be the supplemental parts needed to fill inefficiencies of the team's current roster.
“I don’t see it as a negative, I see it as a positive,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said in May 2019 from the Southeastern Conference spring meetings in Destin, Fla. “We’ve had very few [players] that've gone in it. You're talking about someone like myself, who transferred, you know? So I spent two years at a place I really loved at Middle Tennessee.”
Born in Rainsville, Ala. and the son of a high school coach, Pruitt left his starting defensive back role at MTSU to finish his college career at his dream school—the University of Alabama. Pruitt played in 12 career games for the Crimson Tide under head coach Gene Stallings before beginning his own coaching career.
“I left there not because I was not happy or because I wasn’t playing. I left there because I had a dream of doing something else,” Pruitt said.
But what if the initial purpose of the transfer portal was flipped on its axis. What would happen if it became the primary recruiting tool for the rebuilding and reloading of a large football program? Smith and his staff at Illinois are bound and determined to figure out the answer to this question.
Why Illinois And Its ‘Moneyball’ Recruiting Approach Prioritizes The Transfer Portal
Four years ago, Lovie Smith would’ve likely never anticipated he’d need the transfer portal beyond occasional graduate transfer plug-and-play athletes to fill a certain need on his depth chart. Before the Santa-like beard grew on the head coach’s face in Champaign, Smith was under the impression—like everybody else involved in his hiring on March 6, 2016—recruiting doors would instantly open before he could tout those three magical letters: N-F-L.
The transfer market has been somewhat condemned as “free agency,” but Smith rarely used that option during his successful time in pro football. In 2006, only one of Smith’s defensive starters in Chicago came via the free agent market as the Bears rode that defense to the franchise’s most recent Super Bowl appearance.
After being an assistant and head coach in professional football from 1996–2015, his own boss at Illinois stated his NFL ties would lead the way to unprecedented recruiting success with high school talent.
“There’s not a living room in America that’s not going to open their doors to Lovie Smith and his staff,” Illinois director of athletics Josh Whitman said before introducing his first coaching hire.
And while those front doors of houses of program-changing recruits might have initially opened for Smith and his primarily NFL-based staff of assistant coaches, they closed just as quickly when results on and off the field didn’t initially occur. In his first three seasons, Illinois won just nine total games and four Big Ten conference games, resulting in his five years of recruiting classes falling short of initial hopes. In five recruiting cycles, Smith’s Illini program has signed just five four-star high school prospects and none who resided in the state of Illinois.
“The lack of on-field winning (including .285 Big Ten win percentage) combined with the lack of success at the NFL draft (five total NFL draft picks through four years) is hard to ignore,” said John Garcia, Sports Illustrated’s Director of Football Recruiting. “The old mentality of recruiting was to be able to contribute and win in college while the new one focuses more on the development toward the NFL. Illinois hasn't been successful on either side of that coin.”
Smith quickly began to learn in-state talent wasn’t yearning to get that scholarship offer from the Illini and previous staffs didn’t make the necessary inroads for immediate recruiting success.
“In my 13 years of coaching I haven’t had a relationship with U of I at all,” Plainfield North High School head coach Anthony Imbordino told The Daily Illini, the university student newspaper. “U of I hasn’t really come up as much as you would think to the schools that I have been to in the Chicagoland area.”
Imbordino was the head coach of three-star 2020 wide receiver Marcellus Moore, who has Olympic-style track speed and was a first-team All-State selection on the football field, but ultimately chose Purdue.
From 2016 to 2020, Illinois has turned in overall class recruiting rankings of 73rd, 46th, 54th, 53rd and 88th, according to 247Sports.com. And it's this last 2020 recruiting class that proved to be the most frustrating to loyal fans and skeptics of Smith’s tenure. Just 13 signees from a high school, prep school or junior college program, and after playing with around 80 scholarship players the last two seasons, Illinois had plenty of open spots. Not one four-star or five-star signee. Not a single signee from the state of Illinois and Smith said they offered and missed on 19 in-state products.
“The combination of the accelerated calendar, technology and the ability to research options without visiting all hurts the local and semi-local appeal -- not to mention the simultaneous success of area programs beyond the first tier like Missouri, Northwestern and Purdue. Each has splashed more than Illinois in the last four years in the win column and in the draft.,” Garcia said when explaining the lack of in-state success for Illinois. “In speaking to a nationally-coveted Midwest native today, he said it would take a leap of faith from a blue-chip recruit or two to generate offseason momentum for a program like Illinois.”
The Illini’s final recruiting ranking, according to 247Sports.com, fell one spot below Western Michigan and two spots above Northern Illinois. On the second day of the early December signing period, Smith was forced to try to justify the low numbers of his fifth recruiting class.
“We knew this particular class would be smaller in numbers with our use of blue shirts before this past season and the low number of seniors who are finishing their collegiate careers,” Smith said on Dec. 19. “We have planned all along to keep a few spots open should the right transfer fit occur in the spring or summer after the success we had with this in 2019."
And that final comment by Smith was all you needed to know about the Illini’s recruiting philosophy going forward. Of course, Illinois was going to continue to attempt to attract the best prep talent possible but it would be the first and only program determined to find its primary source of talent from disenfranchised and discarded players out of the transfer portal.
“Ultimately I think most kids who are thinking about transferring or putting their name (in the portal) are just looking for a change or something different,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “More than anything, what they might see with Illinois and (Lovie Smith) is an opportunity to play and develop.”
Clearly the early philosophy of bringing in highly-touted high school recruits was being somewhat deemphasized in lieu of what some inside and outside the Illini program are referring to as the ‘Moneyball’ approach of actually holding back scholarships to attract transfer players. Suddenly, Illinois was being promoted by its own head coach as sacrificing roster spots that normally go to highly acclaimed high-school athletes to instead be earmarked for a player from land of misfit toys commonly referred to as the transfer portal.
Coming into this upcoming season, Illinois will have 15 scholarship players on its roster that have come from via a transfer from a FBS or lower level FCS school. That number is the second-most among the 60 Power 5 Conference programs (Rutgers will have 20) and just one of nine programs currently with a double-figure number of transfer players. Of those nine programs, only three of them have gone through a head coaching transition and all nine but one (Utah) recently have seen the program flounder near the bottom of its respective conference for several years.
“When it comes to young adults making decisions compared to teenagers finishing high school, there is more logic to gamble on Illinois,” Garcia said. “Let's be honest, most transfers are coming from either more well-established or more competitive programs. Ninety-nine percent of grad transfers are gambling on playing a significant role at their final stop and most transfers weigh playing time high on the priority list as well. So Illinois's lack of top internal talent, yet good (Big Ten) competition, makes for an attractive option and a coach with NFL experience running the show is more of an appeal to the more mature recruit.”
For Transfers, Why Illinois?
During a practice near the end of his freshman season, Oluwole Betiku said he was told by his position coach at Southern California that he was “the biggest five-star bust he’d ever seen” and it was then that the Nigerian native, who hadn’t played more than a few years of competitive football before signing with the Trojans, knew he needed a new place to play.
"It was a scary decision. Going into the portal after the injury and not having film, a lot of people told me it was the wrong idea. Coaches passed up on me and they canceled my official visits because I didn’t have film. I’m really grateful to Coach Lovie (Smith), (former defensive line) Coach (Austin) Clark. They gave me an opportunity to come here and they believed I could play after they watched my practice film,” Betiku said at his Pro Day workout at Illinois on March 9.
Brandon Peters’s journey to Illinois as a former Mr. Football selection out of Indiana, who had high expectations upon his arrival at Michigan, was much different.
Peters agonized over his decision to leave Michigan so much so that it nearly became too late for him to receive any interest from Power 5 schools. By the time July 2019 rolled around, the graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining wasn’t seeing the immediate interest from major Power 5 programs. Despite starting four games, including a bowl game for the Wolverines, Peters wasn’t seeing much opportunity for a potential starting role from outside Mid-American Conference programs.
“As someone who used to cover Michigan recruiting exclusively, I actually loved Peters as a recruit,” said Brandon Brown, content manager at SI’s Wolverine Digest. “He’s big, pretty athletic and can make all the throws. With that said, his demeanor and voice were always a bit of a concern and I think that played out a bit at Michigan.”
With the 2019 campaign being critical for Lovie Smith to show improvement, Illinois could and had every reason to offer Peters more than a legitimate chance to start under center. Just short of six months following Peters’s arrival for fall camp at Illinois, the Illini football program is using a fourth-and-17 scramble play of the 6-foot-5 quarterback as a symbol for the 2020 season.
“The journey’s been everything. I never expected to do this well, honestly. Coming in just like a month before the season started, everything played out amazing,” Peters said after the Redbox Bowl. “The guys on the team really helped a lot through this process. I feel like I have a solid home now.”
The transfer market being a source of immediate success isn’t exactly a foreign concept to historians of the Illinois football program. Some of the Illini’s best and most noteworthy players in the 1980s and early 1990s included quarterback Jeff George (transfer from Purdue), quarterback Tony Eason (from American River Junior College in Sacramento, California) and wide receiver David Williams (from Los Angeles Harbor College) coming from either rival Division 1 programs or the junior college transfer process.
However, the transfer player had never—until 2019 under Lovie Smith—been a major factor in the Illini’s recruiting philosophy.
FBS/FCS TRANSFER PLAYERS ON POWER FIVE CONFERENCE ROSTERS
Rutgers - 20 - NEW COACH
Illinois - 15
Arkansas - 13 - NEW COACH
Oregon State - 12
Utah - 12
Florida State - 11 - NEW COACH
Tennessee - 11
Texas Tech - 11
Maryland - 10
TCU - 9
Mississippi State - 8 - NEW COACH
Indiana - 8
Colorado - 8 - NEW COACH
Florida - 7
Louisville - 7
Arizona State - 7
UCLA - 7
Boston College - 7 - NEW COACH
Miami (Fla.) - 7
Virginia Tech - 7
South Carolina - 7
West Virginia - 6
Ohio State - 5
Oklahoma - 5
Southern California - 5
Oklahoma State - 5
Oregon - 5
Virginia - 5
Georgia Tech - 5
Iowa - 5
Minnesota - 5
LSU - 4
Nebraska - 4
Baylor - 4
Kentucky - 4
Arizona - 4
North Carolina - 4
N.C. State - 4
Pittsburgh - 4
Kansas State - 4
Wake Forest - 4
Alabama - 3
Georgia - 3
Notre Dame - 3
Texas A&M - 3
Ole Miss - 3 - NEW COACH
Northwestern - 3
Duke - 3
Purdue - 3
Texas - 2
Auburn - 2
Michigan State - 2 - NEW COACH
Iowa State - 2
California - 2
Michigan - 1
Penn State - 1
Syracuse - 1
Clemson - 0
Wisconsin - 0
Stanford - 0
Washington - 0
Washington State - 0 - NEW COACH
Is The Transfer Portal As a Primary Recruiting Tool A Viable Plan For Program Sustainability?
Plenty of blueblood power programs have utilized the transfer market to find the one missing piece to a championship run. LSU fans no longer have to ponder what its offense, flanked by touted skill position recruiting victories, would look like if piloted by a highly successful quarterback. Joe Burrow turned the hypothetical into reality by winning the Heisman Trophy, national championship and No. 1 overall draft pick triple crown after transferring from Ohio State. Oklahoma has found itself in the College Football Playoff each of the last two years thanks to the leadership of a transfer quarterback (Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts) from a Power 5 school.
The current plan Illinois has for the transfer market isn’t to paint around the edges. The transfer portal is the plan. When the Illini lined up for the 2019 season opener last September against Akron, Lovie Smith’s program had six starters (Betiku, Peters, OL Richie Petitbon, LB Milo Eifler, WR Josh Imatorbhebhe and WR Trevon Sidney) at five different positions and eight total transfer players in the two-deep ready to contribute. Those six graduate transfer starters for the Illini had already accumulated 127 wins, five conference championships, three College Football Playoff appearances, three New Year’s Six bowl games and a Jan. 1 bowl game in their tenure with their previous school.
The end result for the Illini in 2019 was a nationally recognized upset over then-No. 6 Wisconsin and the program’s first trip to a bowl game in five years. Instead of trying to use that momentum to attract high school talent and wean itself off the transfer market, Lovie Smith’s Illinois staff has doubled down and received seven verbal commitments from FBS or FCS transfers, with at least five being immediately eligible for the upcoming season. Not even a coronavirus global health pandemic and in-state quarantine mandates could stop the Illini from making the transfer market its primary source of recruiting.
When the calendar flipped to May during the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois already had five transfer commitments from FBS or FCS programs but just one high school verbal pledge for the 2021 class.
“We have to get it done that way,” Smith said about signing transfers on a media conference call in late March. “And I think we will get it done that way. Again, you’re thrown curveballs daily and you adjust from there. We’ll make our recruiting work still. We’re going to have to see how it goes on the other end and who will be available. We do still believe in the graduate transfer market is what I’m going to say.”
In this current month, Illinois has increased its 2021 verbal commitment total to five, but still none of those pledges are prospects from inside the state border and none of them are rated higher than a three-star recruit, according to 247Sports.com.
Outside of the Illini program, skepticism still exists in how to approach the transfer market to a program’s advantage. The idea of simply banking every offseason on blueblood programs at the top of the college football world having talent bottlenecks at certain position groups that need immediate attention is still seen as a risky proposition.
“I look at some of these guys that other teams pick up and then I go back and I look at their résumé,” Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards told The Athletic last May. “And I go, ‘Why would you want a guy with not a lot of production? You might as well go get a freshman guy and build your program.’”
However, many assistant coaches on the recruiting trail, or who are monitoring the NCAA’s transfer database, are slowly convincing their head coach bosses on becoming more open to the idea that the transfer portal can be a major recruiting tool instead of just a supplemental piece.
“For programs that are behind in recruiting for whatever reason, spotting transfers to start and provide depth to your program may be the only way for a coaching staff in a highly competitive power conference to survive when you’re not able to sign four or five recruiting classes before judgement is handed down from your administrative bosses,” a former Power 5 coordinator said to Illini Now/Sports Illustrated.
According to 247Sports.com, 15 of the top 20 state of Illinois prospects in the 2021 recruiting class have already verbally pledged their services to a programs other than the Illini and of those 15 in-state recruits, 12 have committed to programs outside the state lines.
Given that stumbling block inside the state, is using the transfer portal as a primary piece of recruiting like Lovie Smith and his Illini staff are doing something innovative and possibly ahead of its time? The answer may simply depend on your demographics and the culture of in-state recruiting in your local area.
“What I didn’t know was programs like Illinois or Oregon State were intentionally doing this. Here’s what I did know. I’ve always thought it was a great idea to hold back at least a few, if not more, scholarships for transfers,” a former Power 5 coordinator told Illini Now/Sports Illustrated. “I think for places in talent-rich areas, there may be kids who think they want to get far away from home but then they get to where they signed and things get really tough. Suddenly now they’re hundreds of miles away from home and they’re not playing and wouldn’t it be a shame if their top local choice from a few years ago didn’t have any spots left on its roster?”