Whitman: 'I'm so excited about future of the program'

Whitman: 'I'm so excited about future of the program'

URBANA — He posed for pictures. Shook hands like a politician. Made small talk with orange-clad fans.

And he smiled. A lot.

Lovie Smith had just completed his first recruiting class at Illinois. To celebrate, the entire staff attended an Illini Quarterback Club function on Wednesday night at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.

Smith arrived at 5 p.m. with his wife, MaryAnne. They mingled with the crowd.

The coach easily could have snuck out the back early in the event. It had been a long recruiting season, starting with his arrival in March. The workload really picked up the last two months. Nobody would have blamed Smith for going home to rest.

But he stayed the entire time. Actually, he stayed late, finally leaving closer to 7:30 p.m. The event was supposed to end at 7.

“I thought Lovie did a great job,” said Bob Doan, a longtime Illinois fan and Quarterback Club board member. “He was like a proud papa. He was happy to talk about his kids.”

The reception gave Smith a chance to relax. He dressed the part, wearing a dark sports jacket and buttoned-up white shirt. No tie.

“I think he’s got to understand he’s not in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, where people say ‘You win or else,’ ” Doan said. “Once he gets that sense of how we really feel here in central Illinois — we’re the only game in town — that will help.”

All of the coaches hung out together. Doan liked the sense of camaraderie.

Smith sat in the front of the room at a large table. He was flanked by his assistant coaches. The football support staff filled nearby tables.

A life-sized poster of legendary Illinois coach Bob Zuppke was placed next to the front wall. Zuppke won four national titles during his career and set a high bar for all who followed. Smith needs 128 more wins to catch Zuppke’s school-record 131.

Illini leader

The guy who brought Smith to C-U opened the event.

“What an exciting day for Illinois football,” first-year athletic director Josh Whitman said.

On his first official day on the job, the former Illinois tight end fired Bill Cubit. Less than 48 hours later, he hired Smith.

“I know what a difference a year makes,” Whitman said. “Just about 50 weeks ago, I was standing on this same stage with this same microphone at the end of our whirlwind arrival. You all remember the first couple days on the job what happened. Things have never really stopped since then.”

As a player, Whitman was part of a rebuilding project at Illinois. His freshman year, Illinois was winless in Ron Turner’s first season as coach. Two years later, the team earned a bowl bid and beat Michigan.

“This thing is just about ready to take off,” Whitman said. “I can’t tell you how excited and proud I am of this coaching staff.”

From the moment he hired Smith, Whitman has insisted the program will win again.

“I am so excited about the future of the program, knowing we have someone with his integrity, his values, the leadership he is providing to our student-athletes, to our staff, to our athletic department,” Whitman said. “It makes all the difference.”

Talking points

It has been more than two months since the Illinois season ended with a loss at Northwestern. The 3-9 record wasn’t what Smith wanted.

“What do you do after that if you don’t put a product on the football field that you like?” Smith said. “You go to work to do something to change it. That’s what we’ve done.”

Smith praised his staff of nine assistant coaches. A few days later, he was down to eight when linebackers coach Tim McGarigle left on Friday to join the Green Bay Packers.

“They are great mentors,” Smith said. “They are experts at what they do. Part of our job is to coach football, but recruiting is a big part of it.”

There are layers to recruiting, starting with evaluations.

“We started right away from the moment we took the job,” Smith said.

The coaches and staff identified the prospects and went after them.

Smith wrapped up his part of the event by taking questions from the audience.

He was asked about the feedback from Chicago high schools.

“They know we want to do it with their guys,” Smith said. “That’s getting us in the door. There are a lot of great programs in our state. When we make our move, we want to put it up with athletes from Illinois.”

Another fan wanted to know the traits Smith looks for in recruits.

“There’s a certain profile we have at every position,” Smith said. “We chose these players. They’re exactly what we’re looking for at each position.”

Friendly faces

The QB Club reception was a first-time event. One that organizers hope will grow in the future.

“It raises awareness for what we do,” said Cathy Rector, the upcoming club president.

Club membership is rising.

“It’s doubled because of Lovie,” Rector said. “What we’re seeing is a lot more corporate memberships.”

Club members are happy about the direction of the program with Smith in charge.

“I think we are very excited about where they are going,” Rector said. “Obviously, you have to have a few years of growth to be able to see where they’re going.”

Smith’s first Illinois team finished two games worse than Cubit’s one year in charge. Smith was the third coach in three years, following Tim Beckman and Cubit, both of whom were fired.

Illinois hasn’t had a winning season since 2011, Ron Zook’s last year. He was fired after going 6-6. Vic Koenning took over as interim coach and led Illinois to a bowl win.

Turning a losing football program has been compared to turning a large boat. It isn’t easy.

“You can’t expect a winning program that first year,” Rector said. “He’s got to develop his own team and grow that team. We are expecting great things.”

Rector is an Indiana graduate turned Illinois fan. Her husband, Jon, is from Champaign.

“I never thought I would be the president for a booster club for Illinois.” Rector said. “But it’s such a great thing. You just feel like you’re such a part of the community.”

Starting point  

Earlier Wednesday, Smith and his staff gathered at the Memorial Stadium football offices. For the first time since the mid-1990s, Smith waited for national letters of intent.

Back then, Smith was John Cooper’s defensive backs coach at Ohio State. He was an important part of the program but not the person everyone was looking at.

Now he is in charge. In college. The man who coached 11 seasons as an NFL head coach has replaced free agency with recruiting.

Smith has more control of his roster now. The 2017 class is the first that is his and his alone.

“When you come in new, people want to be a part of building something,” Smith said. “I think these guys feel they’re going to have a big impact on what we do going forward. We think the same thing.”

The coach enjoyed Signing Day. And the responsibility that goes with it. Smith has 25 new members of his “family.”

“If you haven’t gone through a Signing Day, it’s pretty neat,” Smith said.

“To be able to go into the homes ... and then trust us that we’re going to help their son develop. That’s our role. The (parents) handing the baton off to us, continuing the growth of their sons.”

Looking ahead

Smith and his staff already have started working on the Class of 2018. They made offers Wednesday to current juniors.

“That has been the part that is new to me,” Smith said. “All the classes, I feel like, are mixed together.”  

Smith has a long-range plan. Recruit Illinois first. Then, branch out from there. Florida will be a big part of it. So will California. And St. Louis.

Each of the coaches has different recruiting areas.  

“Listening to our coaches,” Smith said, “I would feel comfortable sending my sons to play for them.”

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Moonpie wrote on February 05, 2017 at 12:02 pm

Gosh, Bob -- Lovie Dovie Savior Man stayed the whole time at an event that he SHOULD stay at? That's mighty big of the Messiah Coach, especially considering his first year record.

Well, at least he hasn't jumped ship yet for an NFL job.

MasterOfTheObvious wrote on February 05, 2017 at 7:02 pm

Won fewer games than 2015.

2017 will be as bad, if not worse.

"Great day for Illinois Football?" Having the 12th rated class out of 14 Big Ten schools is not going to move the needle.  We will all read about how 2 stars become NFL players with this staff, but being NFL coaches does not a player development guru make.  NFL players are the best of the best and if they are not great, they get cut.  There is little player development in the NFL, if any. No need to develop when you can cut players.