Asmussen | Lovie's not going anywhere, but his Illini program must

Asmussen | Lovie's not going anywhere, but his Illini program must

Lovie Smith isn't going anywhere.

He said as much during his Monday press conference. Two days after the worst loss in school history (actually tied with the 63-0 loss to the University of Chicago in pre-TV/Internet 1906).

The question was asked: Has your resolve about staying here changed?

"Absolutely not," Smith said. "When you lose a game, it's disappointing. We had hope for this season to be able to do more."

Smith has three years left on his original six-year, $21 million contract.

Good deal for Smith, who was unemployed at the time Illinois came calling. Not so good for Illinois, which would owe him $12 million if it fired Smith today and $4 million after next season.

With one game left in his third year, Smith is 9-26 overall and 4-22 in the Big Ten. No winning seasons and no bowl bids.

Compare Smith's start to the recent Illinois head coaches. Ron Zook struggled in his first two seasons, but went 9-4 in Year 3 and led the Illini to the Rose Bowl.

Ron Turner went 3-19 his first two seasons, but turned the program in the third, going 8-4 with wins against Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State. That team scored 63 points in the MicronPC.com Bowl, the same number Smith's defense just gave up against the Hawkeyes.

Even beleaguered Tim Beckman made a bowl in his third season. Smith will fall short of Beckman's three-year mark of 12-25.

Where is the program now? Smith said that's a question for next week.

"You look at the season, we have four wins this year," Smith said. "That's reality right now. We have an opportunity to finish with a good taste in our mouth."

Raising their voices

Right now, the taste is bitter for most Illinois fans.

Calls to "Monday Morning Quarterback" on WDWS were not positive. Loren Tate and fill-in host Jim Dey found themselves dealing with a disenchanted public.

For some, Saturday's low-effort loss to the Hawkeyes was the last straw. Illinois went into the game needing two more wins to qualify for a bowl game. That thought, in hindsight, seems laughable. Illinois never had a chance.

The tiny crowd (announced as 33,313) was more black and gold than orange and blue.

What would Smith say to the fans?

"There will be better days when we'll have a product on the football field where everyone would want to stay for a lot of different reasons," Smith said.

There is no "Lovie Smith Show" this week. Good move. The calls and questions would not be kind, even in a polite place like Champaign-Urbana.

To his credit, Smith has changed somewhat this year when it comes to dealing with fans. He attended all of the Illini Quarterback Club luncheons held every Friday before home games, after going to just two a year his first two seasons.

Smith has become more attached to the place and the program.

But he is having trouble connecting to high school coaches in the state. The current recruiting class has just four from Illinois. The top players are going elsewhere.

Closing time

The season ends Saturday in Evanston, where the outlook is considerably brighter.

Pat Fitzgerald, a one-time star linebacker with the Wildcats, came home and has taken the team on an unexpected journey.

The Wildcats are good. Really good. Much better than Illinois.

While the Illini will spend the holidays at home, Northwestern is on its way to its first Big Ten title game. The school sold out its allotment of tickets lickety-split.

No matter what happens in Indianapolis (the East winner will be a big favorite), the Wildcats are on their way to another bowl. Fitzgerald will have gone to the postseason nine times in 13 years as head coach.

After Saturday, reality sets in for Illinois. Recruits have to be convinced 63-0 won't happen again. Not an easy assignment.

Smith also has two positions to fill on his staff. Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned during the season, with Smith taking over the duties.

And don't forget about secondary coach Donnie Abraham, who walked away before the start of the season.

"We'll hire someone when the time is right and pick out the right person," Smith said.

Smith has decisions to make about the rest of his staff. The offensive side appears safe. Rod Smith and his assistants had a rough time against the Hawkeyes. Not the first time that has happened to an Iowa opponent.

The offense has generally been a positive in an overall disappointing season.

The defense is setting records for ineptitude. A major overhaul is required, either with the people in charge or the guys on the field.

Youth and injuries are excuses for the problem. But not the reason. The blame falls on a system that doesn't work in college with the level of talent on hand. Relying on their own player evaluations and acquisitions, the staff has failed. In a big way.

Maybe it can get better in a hurry. Maybe the team will go from four wins to eight in one season. Recent proof suggests that it is possible at Illinois.

I was here covering those teams, and the feeling is different. In 1999 and 2007, Illinois had strong returning leaders and a sense that success was coming soon.

Today? Not so much.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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