The News Gazette published the football assistant coach salaries which went before the BOT today. Basically, nine contracts are set to be renewed (with the only one not renewed being Austin Clark who has left for the Miami Dolphins). Everyone was given a raise and a two-year deal. There's a lot we can learn from stuff like this (link to the News Gazette article is here), so let's talk about it.
Let's start with the salary bumps. It's pretty easy because there are three tiers:
- Miles Smith, Cory Patterson, Mike Bellamy: bumped to $315,000 per year, all given two year deals
- Keynodo Hudson and Andrew Hayes-Stoker bumped to $375,000 per year, Bob Ligashesky and Bob McClain bumped to $380,000 per year, all given two year deals
- Gill Byrd bumps to $445,000 (from $300,000) in 2020 and then $550,000 in 2021; Rod Smith bumps to $750,000 (from $700,000) in 2020, then $800,000 in 2021 and $850,000 in 2022.
First off, it makes it even more clear that Gill Byrd is viewed as a coordinator. Let's just call him "co-DC" and be done with it. His official title is "passing game coordinator" (which is confusing because it sounds like he's an offensive coach), but given this salary bump and the way things were structured this season, Lovie worked on the front-7 and Byrd worked on the back-7, meaning the linebackers kind of had three coaches with Miles Smith as their position coach, Lovie more or less running the run defense (front-7) and Byrd running the pass defense (back-7).
Why don't we know that that's the case and why do we have to guess based on salary tiers? Because Lovie is a need-to-know coach, and you don't need to know. That's not combative nor secretive - it's just Lovie's personality. I'll attempt to describe it this way.
Say Lovie Smith and PJ Fleck both encounter a family at Christmas that doesn't have money for presents. The coaches are, I don't know, standing in line at Walgreens and notice an overwhelmed parent. Both coaches decide to help the family, both purchasing their medicine and giving them cash for Christmas presents. They're blessed with their millions, they were moved by what they saw, they stepped in to help. I think both men would do that.
If both situations were to happen, you would absolutely find out about Fleck doing that and would never hear about Lovie doing that (unless someone observed it happening). That's not really a shot at Fleck - I'm just saying that he would be kind enough to step in but he would also see it as an opportunity to teach others about how to live your life (again, he's more megachurch pastor than he is football coach, and that's not really a shot either). There would be some coaching convention, and Fleck would tell the Walgreens story and how he had to step in and that's how you build a culture because it's your actions not your words and blah blah blah put another slogan on the wall. Okay, THAT was a shot.
Lovie, from my observations, is the opposite. He'd help the family out and never tell a soul. Maybe not even his wife. It's just how he is. And that doesn't mean "my God what a humble servant-leader" either - there are many flaws to that personality type, especially for a college football coach. I believe Lovie Smith could improve his recruiting with a little more "we desperately need you" and a little less "if you don't want to play here, your loss". I've made the comparison before that if there was an in-state coaching convention and the coaches are all in the hotel bar, Pat Fitzgerald would glad-hand every coach in the room and Lovie would sit at the bar by himself with the high school coaches unsure if they should approach him or not. Pat Fitzgerald needs you to like him, and that need is very motivating and helpful as a college coach. Lovie doesn't need anything from you, and while that's a great personality trait - the rare, secure man who feels no need to impress you - sometimes that's a problem for a college coach.
He runs his football program like that. Very... secure. He doesn't spend money on hotshot assistants (maddeningly, sometimes). He doesn't step to any podium anywhere motivated to sell you anything. He doesn't really even think about public relations, I don't think. At training camp, he coaches practice, he answers media questions giving out as little information as possible, and he gets on a bicycle and rides back across campus to the football facility.
In my view, that's how he runs his football program. If you asked him to lay out an org chart he'd probably just write the words "people I trust keeping it simple" on the dry erase board and sit back down. From the outside, he's probably going to appear arrogant (anyone who won't answer specific questions and just sticks to "I know what I'm doing and we're going to turn it around" always will), and from the inside, he's always going to create intense loyalty (see: Lance Briggs, Peanut Tillman, Brian Urlacher, etc.). This is just how he runs an organization.
Will it work in the long term? We still don't know. This past season was encouraging, especially standing toe-to-toe with Wisconsin, but 6-7 isn't where we all want to be. Especially when you look over at PJ Fleck and see him winning 10 games in his third season.
We've seen it start to come together, though. This wasn't one of those 6-6 (2-6) seasons of the past. Four Big Ten wins... is four Big Ten wins. In the last 25 seasons, we won 7 conference games once (2001), 6 conference games once (2007), and 4 conference games four times (1999, 2002, 2010, and 2019). Every other season (the other NINETEEN seasons): three or less conference wins. No Illinois fan should ever shake a stick at four Big Ten wins.
The next step: do it again. And improve on it. Lovie got up at one of the bowl press conferences and noted that next year (2020) was the season that everything was pointing towards. And I agree with that. 15 starters return, 24 seniors, an entire roster of Lovie Smith recruits save for James McCourt, Jake Hansen, Doug Kramer, and Jake Cerny. You play 22 true freshmen in 2017 so that you can win 8 or more games in 2020. Otherwise, why do it?
Personally, I was hoping for a few key coaching changes - I haven't been shy about wanting to see Bob McClain go back to analyst while Harry Hiestand is hired as the offensive line coach - but I should have remembered what head coach we're dealing with. This list of coaching contracts means that there will only be one new coach - a replacement for Austin Clark as defensive line coach. "People I trust keeping it simple" lives on.
Which, to me, puts even more pressure on 2020. Just look around the conference. Using SP+, Purdue was 82nd defensively so DC Nick Holt was fired. Illinois was 92nd offensively and Rod Smith just got a raise and a three-year contract. There are some factors there, of course. If Lovie played the PR game, more than just the diehard fans would know that Illinois had seven injured wide receivers by the end of the season. But the point here is that other coaching staffs are making major changes and Illinois is keeping everything mostly the same.
Which, again, is his prerogative. He has to answer for the $4 million contract, and he gets to do whatever he wants staff-wise. If he wants to keep the same nine guys and only replace Clark - if he thinks Gill Byrd making $445,000 is market value - then so be it. It's Year Five now, so many, many wins are expected. Set up the staff however you see fit - pay your son $315,000 if you want - but you'd better be better than 6-7. 2021 is likely a step backwards with all of the players graduating, so 2020 will tell us what you're capable of building.
And all of the pieces are there to build something great. In terms of experience (snaps played), this team will be top-5 in college football. A senior QB with three senior wide receivers. All of the stars from the most recent recruiting class redshirted (Williams, Cooper, Randolph, Coleman, Cumby, etc), so Lovie gets to sprinkle all of them in as second-year players. Luke Ford and Derrick Smith are now eligible. Players will be back from injury (Epstein, Beason, Smalling, etc). And the schedule starts off like this:
It's all there. And this will be the coaching staff (plus one CTBNL).
So now... show us what you've got.