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CHAMPAIGN — Illinois football has reached 15 bowl games in the last four decades.

Six different coaches — Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Ron Turner, Ron Zook and Tim Beckman — have guided the Illini to those particular postseason games.

All six did so at least once before their fourth season in charge of the program.

Lovie Smith enters his fourth season at Illinois with a 9-27 record, including 4-23 in the Big Ten, and has yet to coach the Illini in a game past November.

But, evident by the two-year extension Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman gave to Smith the day after the 2018 season ended, Whitman is confident in the first coach he hired at Illinois. Whitman reiterated that stance this week when asked about Smith's status.

"I believe in Coach Smith," Whitman said. "If I didn't, we wouldn't have extended (his contract) this last year."

No one on the current roster was a part of the last Illini team to reach a bowl game when Illinois did so by playing in the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl. That hasn't dampened Whitman's enthusiasm, though, for 2019.

"I'm really excited about the upcoming season," he said. "I'm very confident in the staff and these players. They've come a long way from where we were a few years ago. They've put in the work and deserve to be successful."

Even so, attendance at Memorial Stadium, which has a capacity of 60,670, has decreased in Smith's first three seasons. After averaging 45,644 fans in 2016, that number dropped to 39,429 in 2017 and to 36,151 in 2018, the lowest average home attendance mark since 1962.

Whitman wouldn't divulge a specific number of games he'd like to see Illinois win in 2019.

"I'm not going to sit here and throw numbers on the table," Whitman said. "I recognize the records haven't been what we wanted them to be, but we won four games last year, up from the year before. I expect we'll win more games than that this year."

Whitman said he likes the strides Smith and his staff have made on the recruiting trail. That includes incoming four-star quarterback recruit Isaiah Williams, who could vie with Michigan transfer Brandon Peters for the starting job this season. Peters, a former U.S. Army All-American out of Avon, Ind., announced on Tuesday night he would spend his final two seasons at Illinois as a graduate transfer.

"We've brought in some of the most talented recruits that we've seen in this program in over a decade," Whitman said. "That bodes very well for the future. We've seen guys go from being young, overwhelmed freshmen to struggling, but improving sophomores. Now, guys are going to walk onto that field as grown men. We're in that window, whether it comes this year or next year, where we have every right to expect success. Those players and those coaches have every right to expect success. They've done the things that are necessary to win in the Big Ten. I have every reason to believe that the success will start to come this year."

Sports Editor

Matt Daniels is sports editor at The News-Gazette. His email is mdaniels@news-gazette.com.