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Is Lovie Smith An Orange And Blue Jim Harbaugh?

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Sometimes, it's not just the privileged few that get the savior they need in a time of darkness. Thumpasaurus leads a roundtable discussion of the Lovie Smith hire at Illinois.

Lovie Smith
Lovie Smith
Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

inquisitive thumpasaurus

Hello, and welcome to a Thumpasaurus roundtable discussion. I'm your host, Inquisitive Thumpasaurus. The Illinois Fighting Illini shocked the college football world this weekend when, in his first day on the job, the new athletic director Josh Whitman fired head coach Bill Cubit and turned around and landed former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith almost immediately. I've invited a panel of special guests to discuss every aspect of this hire. Please welcome to the show Depression Thumpasaurus, Pragmatic Thumpasaurus and Belligerent Thumpasaurus.

sauruses

inquisitive thumpasaurus small
Welcome to the show, gentlesaurs. Illinois basketball seems unlikely to make the Big Dance, but Josh Whitman has brought March Madness to Memorial Stadium. Is the unprecedented timing of a move like this appropriate?

depression thumpasaurus small
well, only at illinois would we fire a coach seven days before the season began, extend the interim coach and fire him six days before spring football starts. now we've had to move spring football back to accommodate this staff change.

pragmatic thumpasaurus small
That may be so, but consider this: the way spring football was scheduled, the players would have run one week of practice, gone on spring break for a week, and resumed practice. I see nothing wrong with moving spring football into a schedule where all the practices can be cohesive. Players were very surprised, but ultimately ---

belligerent thumpasaurus
NO HARM IN PUTTING YOUR TRASH OUT EARLY. ALL ALONG I'VE BEEN SCREAMING "EVERY DAY WE DON'T PUNT CUBIT, A WINNING PROGRAM GETS FARTHER AWAY." TWO HOURS ON THE JOB AND JOSH HITMAN HAS HEADS ON A PIKE OUTSIDE THE STADIUM. GOOD WORK.

pragmatic thumpasaurus small
I agree with the gist of what my belligerent colleague is saying, though I take some issue with his characterization of Josh Whitman. Keeping Bill Cubit was doing us no favors if we were trying to build a winning program. The offensive struggles of the 2015 Fighting Illini showed that the rest of the league had figured out his offense and in three years the plan hadn't evolved. To his credit, Cubit put together a coaching staff and recruited a fairly complete class, but one that ranked 71st in the country according to 247 Sports and was marked by a tremendous amount of transfers, decommits and last-second commitments. Kudos to Bill Cubit for at least filling the roster until such a time that Illinois hired an athletic director and could move the football program forward. Unfortunately for him, that time has come.

belligerent thumpasaurus
ENJOY YOUR BUYOUT, MILLION DOLLAR BILL. I'LL MAKE IT RAIN IN YOUR GENERAL DIRECTION IF IT'LL GET YOU AND RYAN OUT OF TOWN FASTER

pragmatic thumpasaurus small
Bill Cubit's done nothing wrong except not perform well enough to demonstrate that he can lead Illinois forward. The administration should never have let this happen. Josh Whitman all but said as much in his press conference. Anyone in Bill Cubit's situation would have taken the job and would probably even go so far as to promote their son to offensive coordinator for $400,000. Although it's non-traditional to do so at this time, there's never a bad time to take a step forward.

depression thumpasaurus small
i watched josh whitman's press conference and i was listening for the word "ideal" so i could facepalm and be sad. he didn't say it when describing our situation. very savvy.

inquisitive thumpasaurus small
Josh Whitman made a bold move to change the future of Illinois Fighting Illini Football. How does this change the outlook for the 2016 season?

pragmatic thumpasaurus small
To be honest, the win-loss record might not be very different than it would have been had we stuck with Cubit. The schedule this year has six teams on it that won 10 or more games (UNC, Iowa, Wisconsin, MSU, UM and Northwestern), but we're also playing with a very experienced roster. Linebacker depth will be an issue, but we have a solid defensive and offensive line with a lot of starts under their belt, a senior quarterback and some talent at the skill positions.

depression thumpasaurus small
if mike dudek doesn't re-injure himself that is

belligerent thumpasaurus
NOT SURE WHAT LOVIE'S GONNA RUN OFFENSIVELY BUT THE BAR'S SET PRETTY LOW. FEWER YARDS PER GAME AVERAGE THAN MARYLAND LAST YEAR. BRB GONNA SEE HOW RYAN CUBIT'S PACKING IS COMING ALONG

depression thumpasaurus small
well we shouldn't be in this situation, dino babers was supposed to come here in the fall and use this senior-laden 2016 team to win immediately and establish credibility he could use to jumpstart recruiting.

pragmatic thumpasaurus small
Aha, but that's why this is such a great move! Now Lovie can do that same exact thing! The 2015 recruiting class was good enough that there doesn't have to be a massive talent chasm. With the right coach, we still have a chance to build something! Whereas before we were looking at a senior-laden team under Bill Cubit building towards a nonchalant retirement party for Cubes and giving our next coach a roster full of holes, Lovie can take over a fairly complete if unspectacular roster and show what his coaching can do for it.

depression thumpasaurus small
yeah but remember when tim beckman took over ron zook's roster in 2012 and the upperclassmen didn't buy in and it was a mess? we went winless in the big ten...again. the current players were pretty surprised that cubit was fired. and what happens to the players cubit's staff just brought in?

belligerent thumpasaurus
WHAT HAPPENS TO THEM IS THAT THEY GET AN OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY FOR LOVIE SMITH, THE 3RD BEST COACH IN THE HISTORY OF THE CHICAGO BEARS. NOBODY WITH ENOUGH COMPETITIVE FIRE TO PLAY DIVISION ONE FOOTBALL WOULD BE DISAPPOINTED WITH THAT OUTCOME.

inquisitive thumpasaurus small
We've mostly been talking about what it meant to replace Bill Cubit at this juncture, but what of the man who took his place? What we do know for sure is that his name is Lovie Smith, and that is not a nickname. He's 58 years old and was a two-time All-American linebacker/safety at Tulsa. He quickly moved up in coaching, from his own high school as defensive coordinator to an area prep school to Tulsa itself as linebackers coach, all in the span of 3 years. He went on to be a defensive position coach at Wisconsin, Arizona State, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio State. In 1996 he became a linebacker coach for Tony Dungy's Tampa Bay Buccanneers, where the two of them developed the Tampa 2 defense. Lovie moved on to become the defensive coordinator for the St Louis Rams, where he tightened up a league-worst defense en route to Super Bowl XXXVI, which the Rams lost. In 2004 he replaced Dick Jauron as head coach of the Chicago Bears and was eventually fired after missing the playoffs with a 10-6 record in 2012. He left Chicago with three NFC North titles, an 81-63 regular season record and a Super Bowl berth. In 2014 he was hired to take over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as head coach, inheriting a 4-12 trainwreck from Greg Schiano with a fractured locker room and a brand new general manager. After struggling to a 2-14 record in 2014, the Bucs improved to 6-10 in 2015, after which Smith was fired and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was named head coach. Now, Lovie Smith is the head coach of the University of Illinois. What do you think of Lovie's coaching credentials?

belligerent thumpasaurus
I USED TO RAZZ ON LOVIE SMITH A LOT BACK IN THE DAY, BUT THAT WAS MAINLY BECAUSE I LIKE THE PACKERS AND I WAS NEVER SURE HOW THE HELL LOVIE KEPT BEATING THEM.

depression thumpasaurus small
remember back in 2009 when the bears trailed the packers by one score and lovie called a timeout, then made an absurdly hopeless challenge on what looked like a botched fake punt on 4th down? in one play, he wasted two timeouts and a challenge and turned the ball over on downs. that does sound pretty illinois to me.

pragmatic thumpasaurus small
I'll evaluate it like this. When Lovie Smith was introduced as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, he stated his goals. Beat the Green Bay Packers, win the NFC North, and win the Super Bowl. He was taking over for the fired Dick Jauron, who had gone 13-3 in 2001 only to follow it up with a 4-12 campaign in 2002. Improving to 7-9 was not enough to save his job. So, Smith had stated goals and a team with some talent. His first season was a 5-11 debacle where a young Kyle Orton took most of the snaps due to a season-ending injury to Rex Grossman, but this would be his only season worse than 7-9.

  • NFC North: Yes. Won the division in 2005, 2006 and 2010. 25% of his seasons were division championships.
  • Super Bowl: No, but he got as close as any Bears team has gotten since the 85 squad won it all. Lost Super Bowl XL 29-17 in the rain against his mentor Tony Dungy and the Peyton Manning Colts. Rex Grossman may be among the worst quarterbacks to ever start the Super Bowl. Important to note though: one other Big Ten head coach has also been a head coach in a Super Bowl, and that is Jim Harbaugh. That's not to say Lovie Smith is Jim Harbaugh, as Harbaugh has relatively recent experience running a college program, but Harbaugh's profile is much higher nationally than it was at Stanford, and that's not all due to Michigan having a bigger following.
  • Beat the Green Bay Packers: This one is more complicated, because from 2004 to 2008 Lovie's Bears (45-35 in this time) went 7-3 against the Packers (41-39 in this time). Most notably, the 2007 Packers went 13-3 with one loss to a very good Cowboys team and 2 losses to the 7-9 Bears. In 2009, however, something changed. The Bears traded a king's ransom for Jay Cutler, who has the dubious distinction of throwing at least one interception in every game he's ever played against the Packers except for last November's meeting. Though the games were often close, the Lovie Smith/Jay Cutler Bears went 1-7 against the Packers, who were 47-17 between 2009 and 2012. So I could give him a KIND OF on this one, except that the Bears lost the 2010 NFC Championship Game at home to the Packers, bringing his final mark to 8-11. However, Jay Cutler often lost those games by himself, as the Packers wins were never comfortable and Cutler's turnovers often proved decisive. It's hard to blame this on Lovie.
I can't really evaluate what he did in Tampa. The Buccaneers are on their fourth coach since firing Jon Gruden at the end of 2008. This means Lovie has some experience with institutional turmoil.

depression thumpasaurus small
that's great, nothing like a twice-fired nfl coach who's been out of the college ranks for 20 years to lead us to glory.what, was jim mora, jr. available? he got fired from the atlanta falcons and the seattle seahawks.

belligerent thumpasaurus
ACTUALLY JIM MORA JR IS UNAVAILABLE BECAUSE HE'S BUSY MAKING PEOPLE CARE ABOUT UCLA FOOTBALL. THEY HIRED HIM IN THE WAKE OF THE 2011 KRAFT POPOV FIGHT HUNGER SOBRIETY BOWL LOSS AGAINST ILLINOIS. WE HIRED TIM BECKMAN. JUST REMEMBERING THAT MAKES ME WANT TO SWIG SOME POPOV.
POPOV
THE GREAT TASTE OF POPOV VODKA LETS YOU KNOW THAT SHIT'S ABOUT TO POPOV.

pragmatic thumpasaurus small
My depressed colleague makes a good point, but in both cases his firing was somewhat controversial. To this day I don't entirely understand why he was fired after 2 years of a 5 year contract in Tampa Bay after improving by 4 wins between year 1 and 2. Meanwhile, in Chicago, 2 coaches over 3 seasons have gone 19-29 since he was fired and in no season did they match the 10-6 mark that got Lovie fired.

inquisitive thumpasaurus small
So, Lovie Smith has quite a decorated past, but let's talk about his present and future. What does he add to the Illinois football program?

depression thumpasaurus small
not being tim beckman or bill cubit helps
pragmatic thumpasaurus small
Lovie Smith has a reputation not unlike Bill Parcells: short and dismissive with the media, but the kind of coach players love because he treats them like grown men and there's a lot of respect both ways in his locker room. Smith coached three very good Bears teams and only one particularly bad one. The principal thing that Lovie Smith brings right now however is respectability to the long-forsaken Illinois football program. This is a national story. Illinois football wasn't a big deal when the current crop of high schoolers throughout the Land of Lincoln were growing up, but Lovie Smith's Bears were. Anyone in our native recruiting area knows exactly who Lovie Smith is. Fans of Illinois and college football in general have the novel experience of not only reading about Illinois in national news, but being able to say "wow, they did something interesting." This is a statement that shows Josh Whitman's plan for Illinois football is to immediately be high-profile.

belligerent thumpasaurus
NOT TO MENTION THE TRUSTEES THAT I HAVEN'T EATEN YET CAN SHUT UP ABOUT US NEVER HAVING HIRED A MINORITY COACH IN FOOTBALL OR MEN'S BASKETBALL. DO YOU HONESTLY THINK WE SAW KEVIN SUMLIN/SHAKA SMART AND WENT "NAH, TOO ETHNIC, LET'S HIRE TIM BECKMAN/JOHN GROCE"?

pragmatic thumpasaurus small
I was in Michigan filling up my car with gas this morning when the TV screen at the gas pump finished an ad and went to a story about Lovie Smith being hired at Illinois. Unreal. Illinois fans that gave up hope long ago are coming out of the woodwork. I understand that early we're already seeing new season ticket orders in droves.

The approval rate of this hire is incredibly high, and people are excited, whether they be casual college fans, Illini diehard, or any number of my friends.

depression thumpasaurus small


inquisitive thumpasaurus small
I'm sure that's not entirely true. Anyway, do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share?

pragmatic thumpasaurus small
All I ever really wanted from Illinois Football was for it not to be terrible, for it to seem run by professionals and for it to be relevant and have people care. This ticks all the right boxes. Thank you, Joshua Whitman.

depression thumpasaurus small
actually...i'm not doing too badly.

belligerent thumpasaurus
I'M LOVIE'N IT! WOOOOOOO I CANNOT BELIEVE THE STONES ON JOSH WHITMAN. WES IS OUR QUARTERBACK. EVERYBODY PARTY!

discosaur