COMMENTARY: Illini AD’s Careful Wording of Lovie Support Leaves All Options Open

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Among a lot of things, Josh Whitman is a licensed attorney.

The University of Illinois athletics director is well-schooled in the language of legalese and in fact was schooled at the U of I law school on how to word statements so you’re not leaving yourself open for any liability.
So when Whitman was asked this week by both WSJK ESPN Radio 93.5 and WDWS 1400-AM’s ‘Monday Night SportsTalk’ about his thoughts on the status of his head football coach, his language was very appropriately measured.

Whitman was doing a media tour specifically to announce the 2021 season-opening game against Nebraska as part of the Aer Lingus College Football Series in Dublin, Ireland.

“My plan is to stand behind them and give them everything I’ve got to get them going, and I hope all of our fans will do the same thing,’ Whitman said Monday to both local radio stations.

While it’s worth mentioning Whitman’s statement was word-for-word the same to both stations suggesting an idea that he’s stood in front of the morning mirror repeating it with the same cadence, Whitman’s language can be creatively interpreted.

What does Whitman mean by “them”?

The “them” used three times in Whitman’s clearly prepared response is interesting because first and foremost proper names or specifics were not used.

“My plan is to stand behind them” is not an “I will do everything in power to categorically guarantee Lovie Smith will be the Illinois head football coach in 2020.” So, please understand the use of the word “them” eliminates full support for the Illini’s fourth-year coach and equates to a temperate statement of backing for the whole program he’s in charge of.

It can be interpreted that "them" Whitman is referring to means he’s hopeful “all our fans” will support anybody in Illini colors. This includes his head football coach Lovie Smith AND his staff but also, and arguably, more importantly, includes the players on this current roster.

Whitman knows this 2019 roster contains 13 seniors and just 48 upperclassmen and therefore, despite the existence of the transfer portal, logic suggests most of this roster will return to Champaign when spring practices open in late March.

If the athletics director doesn’t show some level of strength six games into, what was considered this summer, a critical season for this Illini program, the players are more likely to stop buying into the weekly plans of this coaching staff. As a former player himself, Whitman doesn’t want that to happen and can’t allow that to happen to his fourth-year head coach. There is a scenario where the Illini (2-4, 0-3 in Big Ten) pull off a massive upset in the back half of this 2019 campaign to symbolize progress for this program.

“We’ve got half the season left to play, and we’ve still got an opportunity to write a pretty significant chapter for Illinois football here,” Whitman said.

Not that anybody in West Lafayette, Indiana was questioning the program building of Jeff Brohm but Purdue was a 12-point home underdog last year to then-No. 2 Ohio State and thanks to perfect execution and some Tyler Trent magic, the Boilermakers left that October night with a 49-20 victory.

A miraculous Homecoming win over a Wisconsin, or at Iowa or at Michigan State added to home wins over Rutgers and Northwestern would certainly qualify for progress and end a four-year postseason bowl game drought. In the third week of October, it may be considered professionally irresponsible for Whitman to not hold out for that hope.

The dollars and sense of Whitman’s placid support

For all the folks who believe the decision to part ways with Lovie Smith at the end of this regular season is just about the $4 million buyout need to be educated on the situation. And I’m happy to do so.

ILLINOIS COACH NAME/POSITION
CONTRACT BUYOUT/GUARANTEED 2020 SALARY
DATE CONTRACT ENDS

Lovie Smith/HEAD COACH

$4,000,000

N/A

Rod Smith/OFF. COORDINATOR

$750,000

Jan. 31, 2021

Robert Ligashesky/ST COORDINATOR

$331,000

Jan. 31, 2021

Andrew Hayes-Stoker/WR Coach

$335,000

Jan. 31, 2021

Bob McClain/OL Coach

$310,000

Jan. 31, 2021

Austin Clark/DL Coach

$275,000

Jan. 31, 2021

Mike Bellamy/RB Coach

$250,000

Jan. 31, 2021

Keynodo Hudson/CB Coach

$250,000

Jan. 31, 2021

Miles Smith/LB Coach

$220,000

Jan. 31, 2021

Gill Byrd/Safeties Coach

N/A

Jan. 31, 2020

Cory Patterson/TE Coach

N/A

Jan. 31, 2020

According to a recent public records request, a review of all the U of I football coaching contracts revealed eight of the 10 assistant coaches (the contracts of safeties coach Gill Byrd and tight ends coach Cory Patterson are ending on Jan. 31, 2020) are on guaranteed contracts for the 2020 season, which totals $2.721 million dollars in addition to Lovie Smith’s buyout.

In all logic the head coach Whitman would hire to replace Smith would cost a similar amount to Lovie Smith’s current $4,000,000 salary and you need to add in another $2.5 million to the assistant coach salary pool for this new head coach hire.

So, in order to make a move on the head coach, the University of Illinois could be spending an estimated total of $13.221 million for a 2020 season that could result in the start of another rebuilding project where a high win total is never expected. One would have to doubt if any of the 12-member U of I Board of Trustees would consider that a sound investment. Maybe a more pragmatic approach by Whitman, who has proven to be a very intelligent administrator, might be bringing Lovie Smith back with a new defensive coordinator for one-tenth of that $13.221 million cost of blowing everything up.

Whitman’s motto: Always leave yourself options

Does Whitman want to make a change with his very first head coaching hire at Illinois? Of course not. He’s made it clear, especially when I asked him directly Monday about the Ireland game in 2021 being a bowl trip, he wants this to work with Lovie. Has Whitman’s latest language ruled anything out? Of course not. And nothing about his answers can suggest otherwise. It’s the perfect legal language giving yourself options in the future. 

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