As you’ve no doubt heard, Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith had his contract extended two years today:
#Illini Director of Athletics Josh Whitman announced today a two-year contract extension for Head Football Coach Lovie Smith to keep Smith at Illinois through the 2023 football season.https://t.co/jaLiubLXQJ— Illini Football (@IlliniFootball) November 25, 2018
Of course, the immediate reaction of everyone who isn’t an Illini fan is to point and laugh, and blinding rage is the kneejerk reaction from many Illini faithful. Upon further examination, though, this is a pretty sensible move to make.
Lovie’s contract originally ran through 2021 with a huge buyout in place through 2019. Given the sorry state of affairs when Lovie was offered the job (roster set to fall apart for 2017, not ideal recruiting class for 2016), this made sense to assure everyone including Lovie that Illinois was going to give this rebuild at least four years to happen.
After the expected historically bad 2017 season, Illinois doubled its win total and produced an offense worth watching. That improvement was what we asked for, and at first glance that should have meant no discussion of Lovie’s future took place. Things are on track from a win/loss perspective, and it’s not quite extend-or-fire time yet.
However, the defense regressed to being possibly the worst in school history, serving up more points than any Big Ten defense ever except for the 1981 Northwestern Wildcats (Northwestern needed to put up 8 more to let Denny Green off the hook) and Illinois was absolutely mauled in a number of games, displaying more quit in the Purdue and Iowa games than was ever seen last year. Hideous points and yardage totals, including three 63-point performances, were the defining trait of the defense that was supposed to be Lovie’s calling card. Thus the questioning of Lovie’s future began in earnest during the putrid showing against Maryland. The worst loss in school history (63-0 to Iowa) really ramped up speculation about Lovie’s tenure, with The Champaign Room openly calling for his head in the aftermath.
The end of Illinois’ season started a Lovie Watch among fans. Athletic director Josh Whitman put that to bed this morning with a statement affirming his commitment to Lovie Smith’s rebuild. The two-year extension doesn’t give Lovie a raise, and though the terms are yet to be released, all indications are that the guaranteed money doesn’t change either. The wins should have been enough that Whitman could just continue to let things take their course, but 63-0 and the ensuing backlash forced his hand.
The fact that he felt this was necessary tells me that he did consider firing Smith. Once he decided against it, he had to prove that the AD was 100% behind Lovie and that his contract wouldn’t expire while 2019 recruits are still at school. In return for sticking his neck out for Lovie, Whitman will want to see some changes to the defensive coaching staff. There’s a vacant coordinator spot.
Whitman emphatically picked a lane and elected to double down on 2019. This has always been about 2019; that was always the make-or-break year, and now every single move this coaching staff makes this offseason will be crucial. This doesn’t make it any more or less likely that Lovie gets fired next year, but it does send a message that right now, Lovie Smith has as much support from the AD as it’s possible to get.
In conclusion: I begrudgingly accept that this was a savvy move, and now we wait. Next year, for the first time in five years, THIS is a season that matters.