Prior to the arrival of athletic director Josh Whitman, the Illinois Fighting Illini would be heading into year 1 of a 2-year contract for Bill Cubit spending as little money as possible on the coaching staff. Whitman changed all that on day one. So just who are these people?
Head Coach: Lovie Smith
We've been over this before, but Lovie Smith has created unprecedented buzz for Illini football. Hiring a coach in March left Whitman with few conventional options, since that's well outside the conventional college coaching carousel window. However, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been going through coaches every two years since canning Jon Gruden, and Lovie's two were up. Although the tire fire of an organization had added a 2-14 season to his record, Smith still left the NFL with an 89-87 regular season record.
A knock I've seen against Smith's ability to succeed at Illinois is his having spent the last 19 years in the NFL and having no college head coaching experience. This is usually coming from Northwestern fans desperate to believe Illinois hasn't found a serviceable coach, so I've taken it with a grain of salt, but I decided to explore similar situations. What I found was that among NFL head coaches who were subsequently hired to college head coaching jobs, Lovie Smith has the 2nd-NFL head coaching wins, second only to Bill Walsh
Most NFL Head Coaching Wins Before A College HC Gig
1. Bill Walsh*: 92-59 (10-4 postseason)
2. Lovie Smith: 89-87 (3-3 postseason)
3. Dave Wannstedt: 82-86 (2-3 postseason)
4. Bobby Ross*: 77-68
5. John Robinson* 75-68 (4-6 postseason)
6. Forrest Gregg: 75-86-1
7. Mike Sherman: 59-43 (2-4 postseason)
8. Jim Harbaugh*: 44-19-1 (5-3 postseason)
9. Dennis Erickson* 40-56
10. Lou Saban*: 39-42-3 (0-1 postseason; 56-57-4 in AFL)
11. Pete Carroll**: 33-31 (1-2 postseason)
12. Jim Mora Jr: 32-34 (1-1 postseason)
13. Dan Devine*: 25-27-4
14. Bill Callahan: 15-17 (2-1 postseason)
15. NIck Saban*: 15-17
16. Mike Riley: 14-34
17. Steve Spurrier*: 12-20
18. Al Groh: 9-7
19. Lane Kiffin: 5-15
T20: Lou Holtz* 3-10
T20. Bobby Petrino*: 3-10
*Had been a college head coach before their first NFL HC gig
**Only counting his stints with the Jets and Patriots prior to his tenure at USC.
Excluided pre-1970 NFL coaches.
If you project Lovie Smith purely by precedent, Wannstedt, Sherman and Mora are the closest comparisons. Mora has done good work at UCLA. Wannstedt built Pitt into a competitor in the Big East before stagnating. Sherman underachieved with massive offensive talent at Texas A&M. This is too small a sample size to project, especially considering of the three only Wannstedt has a defensive background.
Anyway, you've read tons about Lovie Smith already. So who'd he hire?
Offensive Coordinator: Garrick McGee
At $900,000 a year, McGee's salary makes him one of the highest-paid assistants in the Big Ten. He was hired away from the same position at Louisville, where he'd been since 2014 despite Bob Stoops offering him the OC job at Oklahoma last year. He runs a pro-style offense with a lot of passing. Prior to Louisville he was the head coach of the UAB Blazers, during which time he went 5-19 at a struggling program that would be shut down for the 2015 season. He worked with Bobby Petrino at Arkansas during their brief glory days as QB coach and OC from 2008 to 2011. Other coaching stops include Northwestern with Randy Walker, UNLV, Toledo and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
As a player, he was a quarterback for Oklahoma for two seasons after transferring from Arizona State. Lovie Smith actually recruited him to Arizona State as a player. The Tulsa native has reportedly been a connection with some Alabama talent and can hopefully make the most of Wes Lunt's potential in his senior year. Illiniboard.com has a schematic preview of what you might see from Garrick McGee's offense this fall.
Defensive Coordinator: Hardy Nickerson
Hardy Nickerson put together an impressive career as an NFL linebacker, being named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1990's after being named to five Pro Bowls with the Buccaneers during the decade. His defensive coordinator for the latter half was Lovie Smith.
After his playing career was over, Nickerson briefly served as linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears, but eventually went home to California where he was named head coach of Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, winning back-to-back league titles during his three years there. He coached linebackers with Smith in Tampa for another two years before being hired by Chip Kelly to the same position on the 49ers. That, however, was before Lovie came calling in March, and Nickerson stepped into his first defensive coordinator position with Illinois.
As a disciple of Lovie Smith, Nickerson will surely create the defense in his image. Illiniboard.com has a preview of what that might look like, but it shouldn't be too different from what Mike Phair was going to run this year: a run-stopping 4-3 look. Nickerson has already contributed through his son Hardy Nickerson Jr's transfer from California; the younger Nickerson will immediately start at middle linebacker for the Illini, replacing the departed T.J. Neal. Nickerson also opens recruiting windows in Florida but especially in his native California.
Special Teams/Tight Ends Coach: Bob Ligasheky
The first thing that's important about this hire is that we have a special teams coordinator. Special teams at Illinois have long been a struggle, and it looks like Smith wants that to change. To that end, he's hired former Houston Texans assistant Bob Ligasheky to coach special teams as well as tight ends. With 19 years of coaching experience in college (Bowling Green and Pittsburgh) prior to his 12-year NFL stint, Ligasheky brings a lot of experience and a reputation as a good recruiter. Most importantly, though, is that Illinois actually decided special teams was a big priority.
OL Coach: Luke Butkus
Coach Butkus returns to Illinois, where he was very briefly the OL coach in 2012. It's also where he played and was twice named All-Big Ten as an offensive lineman. It is, of course, also where his uncle Dick's #50 is retired and revered. Butkus worked for Lovie Smith's Bears from 2008-10 and was hired by Tim Beckman in 2012 as the OL coach. Displaying the kind of terrific situational awareness you want a coach to have, he got the hell out of that dumpster fire and left for the less dysfunctional Jacksonville Jaguars. Butkus brings with him professional experience, a great passion for Illinois, and the name Butkus.
RB: Thad Ward
One of the last hires was Northern Illinois Huskies WR coach Thad Ward. A coach formerly of Western Michigan and Western Illinois, Ward has been making recruiting connections in Illinois for years with one of the premier MAC teams and was brought in for his recruiting prowess.
WR: Andrew Hayes-Stoker
A longtime assistant to Lovie Smith, Andrew Hayes-Stoker had most recently served as an assistant head coach for the Indianapolis Colts. He backed up LaDanian Tomlinson on the RB depth chart at TCU and has spent most of his coaching career with Lovie Smith in Chicago (2006-12) and Tampa (2014-15).
DL: Mike Phair
Phair was actually the DL coach and co-DC for Illinois last year, where he coached a highly underrated defensive line that stopped the run well and got quarterback pressure. Phair being on the staff already was quite fortuitous for his former boss Smith, who had Phair on his staff in Chicago and Tampa. With some more talent left to work with on the D-line this year, Phair offers coaching continuity at what may be the strongest position Illinois has.
LB: Tim McGarigle
McGarigle will also be retained. He was actually hired away from Western Michigan by Bill Cubit in December, where he was the linebackers coach under PJ Fleck. He was a graduate assistant at Northwestern following his brief pro career. He is the all-time FBS tackles leader, somehow racking up 545 tackles while playing at Northwestern in the mid-2000's.
Secondary: Paul Williams
Paul Williams was hired along with McGarigle, and is apparently a person.
So with an unusually large sum of money to spend, Illinois brought in Lovie, who assembled the coaching staff outlined above. If Smith can keep this staff together, it should be able to recruit towards a breakout 2019 or 2020 year. For now, we'll have to see what they can do with an experienced though unspectacular roster. Can they help Lovie Smith fight his way to the top?