Iowa Football

Iowa football look ahead: This might be Lovie's last stand at Illinois

The head coach's buyout is now deflating every year, so this would be a good time for the Illini to show progress

Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith watches warm-ups before a 2017 game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith watches warm-ups before a 2017 game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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When you start typing “Lovie Smith Illinois football and buyout” into Google, Google finishes the sentence for you.

 

That’s not good.

That means plenty of people are Googling “Lovie Smith buyout.” This is not a surprise. Going into year four at Illinois with a 9-27 record, you’re going to have a lot of doubters Google the specifics of your contract.

On the Sunday after Illinois’ 4-8 2018, athletics director Josh Whitman extended Smith’s contract by two years. This probably seems like ordering your Corn flakes pre-soggy. That 63-0 Iowa pasted on the Illini last November matched the worst loss in program history.

At the end, the Illini crowd had shrunk to the size of a crowd for a freshman B game. And then two more years for the coach.

Buyouts have become a factor in college football contracts. Smith’s is bulletproof. Smith had four years remaining on a deal that pays him $4 million a year. He also had a $12 million buyout protecting him in case of 63-0 against Iowa. In the new deal, Smith relented on the buyout, but for the time being, the buyouts remain $4 million for 2019 and $2 million in 2020. In 2021-22, the buyout drops to $1 million.

This probably all feels heavily favorable for Smith, who, let’s face it, has struggled to get out of the blocks at Illinois.

But let’s consider the wreckage at Illinois.

— The Illini haven’t finished with a winning record since 2011 and that was 7-6.

— The last Illinois coach with a winning record at the school was John Mackovic, who guided the Illini to a 30-16-1 record from 1988-91.

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— Ron Turner spiked at 10-2 in 2001, getting the Illini to the Sugar Bowl. He then went 5-7, 1-11 and 3-8 before getting the spike.

— Ron Zook got the Illini to 9-4 and a Rose Bowl in 2007. He was fired in 2011.

— Wait, anymore football coaches with the first name of “Ron” out there?

— One week before the 2015 season began, head coach Tim Beckman was fired amid allegations of influencing medical decisions and pressuring players to play hurt.

Lovie Smith isn’t this bad of a football coach. Illinois has gone down a lot of wrong roads. Iowa has had Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz for 40 years. In the same time span, Illinois has had these head coaches: Gary Moeller, Mike White, Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Turner, Zook, Beckman and Smith. Throw in interims and the number is 10.

Smith couldn’t change the past. Is there evidence of gains with his regime? Not yet. And then there’s attrition, among the coaching staff and with players.

More than 10 players left the program in each of Smith’s first two seasons. Illinois had some success with graduate transfers, but most of those have fallen through.

Smith was athletics director Whitman’s first big move at the school. Whitman played tight end at Illinois. Obviously, this is near and dear to his heart.

Until Smith repays that confidence, the conversation is going to be buyouts and hot seats.

Illinois skill players

For the first time since he took over before the 2016 spring practices began, Smith had more than one scholarship to quarterback to work with.

And then earlier this month, the QB with the most experience, M.J. Rivers, entered the transfer portal. Now, redshirt freshmen Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor are the only scholarship QBs on the roster.

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That’s not it, though. Isaiah Williams, a 4-star recruit from Trinity Catholic High School in St. Louis is enrolling this summer. He’s certainly intriguing. The 5-11, 178-pounder had 48 offers, including Alambama, Clemson and Auburn.

For as bad as Illinois was last season, it did finish second in the Big Ten in rushing, with 243.0 yards per game. The Illini have proven running backs with Reggie Corbin (1,085 yards, nine TDs), Mike Epstein (411 yards) and Ra’Von Bonner (395 yards). Illinois also returns four starters on the O-line.

This is the second season with offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s offense. Maybe there’s a bump.

Illinois defense

In February, Smith announced that he would remain defensive coordinator. He took the job late last October when Hardy Nickerson resigned. Smith also announced his son, Miles, will be Illinois’ linebackers coach this season.

On May 20, defensive end Bobby Roundtree suffered a severe spinal injury in a swimming accident Saturday near his home in Florida. According to an Illinois news release, Roundtree remains recovering. No word on his continuing his career.

Roundtree earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2018, when he recorded 66 tackles and led the team in sacks (7.5) tackles for loss (12.5) and pass breakups (7).

With Smith choosing to remain defensive coordinator, he’s taking responsibility for a unit that allowed 508 yards a game and finished 128th (out of 130) in the nation in total defense last season.

Super hot, possibly relevant take on this game that’s 100-something days away: When the hot seat rankings come out, Smith will be No. 1 or 2. OK, super hot and super obvious.

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Hawkeyes Look Ahead

Nov. 23 Illinois at Kinnick Stadium

Week before: Minnesota at Kinnick

On the horizon: At Nebraska (Memorial Stadium)

For Illinois

Week before: Bye week

On the horizon: Northwestern at Memorial Stadium (Champaign, Ill.)

Illinois Fighting Illini

Game: Nov. 23 at Kinnick Stadium

Coach: Lovie Smith (9-27, 4th season at Illinois)

2018 record: 4-8, 2-7 in Big Ten West Division

Scoring offense: 26.0 points per game (11th in B1G, 93rd nationally — USC was 91st at 26.1)

Total offense: 408.7 yards per game (8th B1G, 86th nationally — LSU was 69th at 402.1)

Scoring defense: 39.4 points allowed per game (14th B1G, 124th nationally — Bowling Green was 125th)

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Total defense: 508.3 yards allowed per game (14th B1G, 128th nationally — Connecticut was 130th, dead last in the country, at 617.4)

Series: Illinois leads, 38-34-2.

Last meeting: In a two-minute span in the second quarter, Iowa DE A.J. Epenesa forced, recovered and returned a fumble for a TD, recorded a sack and blocked a punt. Iowa scored on its first play following the blocked punt. The touchdowns were 1:59 apart.

Everyone should’ve gone home after that. Iowa won 63-0 and you could hear members of the Illini band making evening plans for most of the fourth quarter.

Super early, totally unofficial spread prediction: I’m sticking Iowa plus-24 on this. Illinois fans will be tweeting about Smith’s buyout before the end of the first half.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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