Jim Dey | Whitman's betting big on Smith but hasn't yet shown his cards

Jim Dey | Whitman's betting big on Smith but hasn't yet shown his cards

University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman wants Illini football fans to think he has just shoved all of his chips into the middle of the poker table.

Well, maybe he did, and maybe he didn't.

In announcing that he's extending football coach Lovie Smith's contract by two years — through the 2023 season — Whitman certainly gave that impression.

"We wanted to demonstrate firmly and strongly that this is a direction that we believe in. This is a person we believe in. This is a program that's on the rise," Whitman said in making the surprise announcement of his unbounded confidence in a football coach whose 9-27 record at Illinois is less than confidence-inspiring.

As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Whitman said it's going to take a while for the contract language to be worked out and presented at the UI Board of Trustees' January meeting. By then — well after the signing period that begins Dec. 19 — fewer people will be paying attention.

But Whitman did say the new contract will be "largely the same," meaning perhaps the buyout that is declining — $12 million now, $4 million after next year — won't be increased.

If so, is it really the concrete extension many fans fear, or a Galloping Ghost of a commitment that is as elusive as its namesake?

The difference is significant — ranging all the way from Machiavelli to Moe.

At least, that's how Sports Illustrated college football writer Andy Staples put it.

"If the new terms don't change the buyout ... then this is a phantom extension that won't save Smith if the Illini go 4-8 and get smoked by 63 at Senior Day again," Staples wrote. "If the new deal forces Illinois to pay more than that if the school decides to fire Smith after next season, then Whitman bid against himself ... and someone should hide the AD's office keys from him as soon as humanly possible."

Whatever the thinking behind it, Whitman's announcement provides needed assistance to Smith. The perception was that he was on the verge of being dismissed — the perception now is he's safe as a baby in his mother's arms.

So Smith has something to sell — coaching stability — as he and members of his staff devote all their energy to recruiting.

Then again, Illinois' recruiting opponents have something to sell, too — coaching stability with a three-year record that is way underwater. In other words, why go to Illinois and lose when you can come here (Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri) and have a much better chance of happy success?

Here's another thing to consider that comes under the category of "the glass is half empty":

To this point under Smith, recruiting has been weak, the results obvious on the field of play. Why would it get better now?

Defenders say the team is young. That's true, and it will remain young if large numbers of players continue to leave the program early in search of greener pastures. Is another mass exodus in the offing?

History, of course, is littered with examples of coaches who started out slow and built tremendous programs.

Basketball fans at Duke and North Carolina sought the firings of coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith, respectively. Supportive ADs held fast, and things turned out OK at both places.

Dallas Cowboys fans wanted head coach Tom Landry fired after the 1960 expansion team had a rough few years getting off the ground, prompting team owner Clint Murchison in 1964 to give Landry a 10-year contract extension.

But those are isolated examples — in the dog-eat-dog world of competitive sports, coaches are hired to be fired. Failure is far more common than success, and its cost is high.

The University of North Carolina is willing to eat head football coach Larry Fedora's $12 million buyout ($16 million if assistant coaches are included) to be rid of him.

The University of Louisville owes ousted head coach Bobby Petrino between $12.8 million and $14.3 million. Texas Tech is getting off easy — it only owes Kliff Kingsbury roughly $4 million.

Those names raise another question — if Smith were to be fired, like all but one (John Mackovic) UI football coach since the 1960s, who would replace him?

That is not a subject Illini fans will be wrestling with this year. But it will rise again fairly soon. Despite Whitman's legerdemain, he's playing a weak hand as best he can.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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