To say Illinois football fans are starving for sustained success would be an understatement. More than two decades with ho-hum results creates apathy about what’s being served.
New Illinois Athletics Director Josh Whitman set out to change that. Shortly after he was hired in February, he tabbed long-time NFL Coach Lovie Smith to lead the program.
The “Lovie Era” kicks off Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, BTN) when the Illini welcome Murray State to Memorial Stadium. The home team is a heavy favorite against the FCS squad.
Smith returns to college for the first time since serving as the Ohio State defensive backs coach in 1995. He takes over Illinois after spending 11 of the last 12 years as an NFL head coach, including the ’06 season when he led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl.
While nobody wants to say it out loud, many in Champaign view Smith as a savior of sorts. It’s a program that’s finished with a winning record in just three of the previous 14 seasons.
Smith, for one, is ready to turn the page.
“It’s been a long time coming. To get to game week we’ve been through an awful lot getting to know each other, letting everybody know their role. You know, basic philosophy, how we plan on winning football games. Spring ball and training camp – we know a lot more about our football team now,” he said.
Smith is getting used to the student-athlete again after handling high-priced pros since the mid-‘90s. He appears genuinely happy to be back.
“Butterflies, excitement, anticipation for that week. There’s nothing like it; each one is different. For me coming back now, it’s been a long time since I’ve walked in the stadium and there’s a band playing, cheerleaders, just excitement of young people around so there’s a lot of excitement to put it mildly,” he said.
Illinois hired Tim Beckman before the ’12 season. It did not go well.
Beckman posted a 12-25 record (4-20 B1G) in three years before being fired last August following an off-season of accusations that he pressured players to compete while injured. Bill Cubit stepped in as the interim coach last fall and went 5-7.
Smith’s transition has been eased by having senior quarterback Wes Lunt. The Oklahoma State transfer led a conversion to the new offense.
“When you come to a new place there are some positions you would like to have some senior leadership. Quarterback of course is the main one you talk about and Wes Lunt has done everything we’ve asked him to do. He can make all of the throws, he’s intelligent, and he’s a good leader. Our guys look up to him; our personalities mesh. He and Coach (Garrick) McGee have really hit it off well also,” Smith said
Lunt (6-5, 225) completed 56 percent of his passes last season for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns against six interceptions. The Rochester (IL) High product lost leading receiver Geronimo Allison to the Green Bay Packers but Malik Turner and Desmond Cain, who finished second and third, are back.
Middle Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, son of the lone-time NFL standout by the same name who is now the Illini defensive coordinator, leads the Illini defense. The graduate transfer from Cal is a three-year college starter.
This week’s opponent hails from Murray, KY. The Racers reside in the Ohio Valley Conference at the FCS level.
Murray State finished 3-8 in ’15. Its quarterback, senior KD Humphries, threw for 3,777 yards and 22 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He added four scores on the ground.
“Murray State, I don’t know a lot about them. And for me, for the first time around, I don’t know a lot about many of our opponents that we’re going to play. But it’s more about what we do. I really feel that way,” Smith said.
With a fan base thirsty for success, the new coach isn’t the only one that feels that way.