CHAMPAIGN — Of the 28 college football coaches hired in the 2015-16 offseason, 19 are still in charge at their current schools — Lovie Smith included.
But through three-and-a-half seasons, the Illinois coach carries the least amount of wins (11) and the most losses (31) of that group.
Smith is also the only Big Ten coach hired in the months before the 2016 season who is still at the same school:
— Minnesota fired Tracy Claeys after one season, in part because he supported a threatened boycott by his players to not participate in the Holiday Bowl after 10 teammates were suspended following an investigation into an alleged sexual assault.
— Maryland fired D.J. Durkin a year ago following two investigations into his program, one surrounding the death of former Terrapins offensive lineman Jordan McNair during a summer workout.
— And Rutgers fired Chris Ash on Sept. 29, with an 8-32 overall record four games into his fourth season with the Scarlet Knights.
Smith’s fourth Illini team carries a 2-4 record and sits at 0-3 in the Big Ten heading into Saturday’s 11 a.m. homecoming game against No. 6 Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0).
“Obviously, we all would have liked to have won a few more games,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said during his appearance on WDWS 1400-AM’s ‘Monday Night SportsTalk’ at the Esquire in downtown Champaign earlier this week. “We know we’ve had our opportunities, but what I know for a fact is that our guys, our coaches, our staff, our student-athletes, they are working as hard as they possibly can to turn the corner on this program.”
Whitman said he was “proud of the fight” the Illini showed in Saturday’s 42-25 home loss to No. 16 Michigan. The Wolverines led 28-0 in the second quarter before Illinois got to within 28-25 early in the fourth quarter.
“It’s hard to get down 28-0 in any athletic event, and then to have the internal fortitude, the discipline and the courage to fight back the way our guys did,” Whitman said. “I’ve been in those games. That’s a hard thing to do. For them to do that, I thought, was a real sign of strength and encouragement.”
When Whitman walks through the new $80 million Smith Center on the east side of Memorial Stadium, he said he sees “blankets and pillows on the couches in the coaches’ offices.”
“They’re spending every hour of every day trying to get this thing right, and I know our guys are doing the same thing,” Whitman said. “They’re in the weight room. They’re in the film room. They’re in the athletic training room. They’re on the practice field.
“They’re putting everything they can into getting this thing going.”
If Illinois hopes to salvage the 2019 season, wins against ranked teams will have to happen during the final six games. The Illini play three of their final six on the road, including Purdue on Oct, 26, Michigan State on Nov. 9 and No. 23 Iowa on Nov. 23.
It’s been a struggle for Illinois against Top 25 competition (24 straight losses) and any Big Ten opponents away from Memorial Stadium (2-12 record under Smith).
“I know 2-4 is not where any of us expected to be, but that’s where we are,” Whitman said. “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, and we need everybody to be a part of it.
“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.”