Pick My Post II - 5 Good, 5 Bad

Jul 17, 2020

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This is 100% "I have a thing I'm supposed to be doing but I don't want to do that thing so I'm going to just randomly grab another question from Wednesday night's "Pick My Post" and answer it because I really don't want to do that other thing yet". So, here we go. Gonna try to stick to the same rules and crank this out in 45 minutes (even though I've had 36 hours to think it over which is totally cheating but who cares).

The question:

OK, this will actually be quite difficult to do in 45 minutes so I'd better get going. Let's start with bad.

1. Recruiting

It's not as awful as Negative Norm makes you think and it's not as good as Positive Polly tells you but if we pull back and look at what we thought it was going to be vs. what it is, it's not great at all. We thought the name "Lovie Smith" would finally end ABI (Anywhere But Illinois) for in-state recruits but it hasn't - they still prefer Notre Dame and Iowa and even Minnesota (and increasingly so - we've never been this low with in-state recruiting). We thought "NFL head coach who knows how to get you there" would sell (and it has - at Arizona State), but it hasn't happened here. The roster is clearly better, with much of that credit going to the transfer philosophy, and I did that study a few weeks ago that found that 7 of 10 positions have been improved talent-wise, but still, end of the day, a lot of the $23 million was supposed to bring way more Beasons and Williamses and it just hasn't happened. ABI seems to be gaining strength.

2. PR

Maybe it's just a pet peeve of mine, but the whole "when you need to know, I'll tell you" angle from the staff just doesn't work for me. Especially when it comes to injuries. I get that hiding injuries like it's the NHL Playoffs is seen as an on-the-field advantage, but when you're down to four healthy wide receivers out of 13 (for the Northwestern game) and nobody knows about it, it's a problem. Jeff Brohm got a 100% pass because of injuries last year. Purdue built the story and created the narrative. We learned there were 23 scholarship players out for the Northwestern game one hour before gametime because we'd prefer to hide our injuries from our opponents than let a helpful (and true!) narrative be built.

But it's not just injuries. I don't like that Lovie's agent son (or whoever - one of the assistants, maybe?) runs his Twitter account most of the time. I'm fine with him not being a Twitter guy. Wish he'd just drop in from time-to-time and drop his football wisdom. Instead, his Twitter account retweets things with #tooILL21 hashtags and I'm all "why are we faking this?". Behind-the-scenes Lovie could be a powerful recruiting tool (my observation: nobody has any idea how much he enjoys the process of developing young men who are ready to face the world), but we've whiffed on letting the world see that.

3. 2016 Staff

Speaking of whiffing, I completely whiffed on this one. I was so wrapped up in my "OK, this is the staff, now change nothing for five years" #stance that I didn't see how much the coordinator hires were hurting from the beginning. Yes, it was March, and all staffs had been hired, so filling out that original staff was a bit tricky, but if the 2018 offense and the 2019 defense proved anything, getting away from those original coordinators (especially the playcalling) was a much-needed change. If I'm honest, part of me doesn't even understand why Lovie didn't call plays from the outset.

Yes, those teams were young, but still, we saw the changes once McGee was gone and once Nickerson was gone. Which means starting out with those two running the offense and defense was a false start. There have been some questionable hires for position coaches since then, but I'm more in the "build the staff room you think you need" camp where I give coaches a lot of latitude with those. The big issue, to me, was having to let both of the original coordinators go within the first 30 games.

4. The 2016 Season, Really

There are #reasons. The schedule had eight bowl teams out of the 12 opponents. After the Purdue loss (the McLaughlin doink off the uprights game), they pulled the plug, sat the seniors, and went with a youth movement. The staff barely had spring practices (staff was still being hired) and then tried to scramble to assemble something in the fall.

But still, the 3-9 start to the Lovie era (I thought that season could be 6-6) was a rough way to leave the starting gate. The first game there were nine senior starters on defense. That defense had been a top-25 defense the year before. I get the Year Zero stuff and the "by the end of the year they were only starting three seniors and had moved guys like Harding, Hansen, and Green into the lineup", but still, stumbled out of the gates, have been trying to catch up since. Just look at what Brohm's first year of 6-6 brought him to see what it might have looked like had those 25 seniors won six games.

5. Built A Connection With The Fans

Saved this one for last because it's really the most important thing. We're coming off a bowl game with 16 starters back and transfers eligible and there's (by my observation) very little program momentum to speak of. I'm not even sure ticket sales would have been jumping if Covid didn't happen. I personally don't get it - I was probably headed for an 8-4 season prediction before the non-conference games got canceled - but there's no denying the lack of fan enthusiasm is a thing. It's still just the 14,000 of us from the 2014 Penn State game and maybe a few stragglers here or there. Still no buy-in (and if you believe every group text I'm part of, lots of buy-out cries).

I'm not here arguing whether it's right or wrong. I'm simply saying that it's a thing. The fanbase that sold out the North Carolina game in 2016, ready to jump back in with Illini football, has stayed out, even after Wisconsin/Michigan State in 2019. "Win more", yes. "Shouldn't have lost to Northwestern", fine. But this is more than that. No connection has been made, and that's a big problem.

OK, on to the good. That took 33 minutes so there's no way I'm doing this in 45 minutes. I'll give up on trying to make that happen.

1. Rebuild From The Ground Up

You knew this would be the first thing you'd hear from me. I had talked about it for seven years on the blog (and longer than that on message boards). Just give me one coach who gets five years, no questions asked. Give him the ability to tear absolutely everything to the ground and start over. Put a culture in place, live with the losses, and build something for the long term. I even asked this question during the 2018 IB preview: Tepper, Turner, Zook, and Beckman all went to a bowl game in their third season but nothing was built - is it maybe better if Lovie doesn't get there until his fourth year because he's still working on the foundation?

So this one is personal for me (what's the good version of a pet peeve?). FINALLY, a five-full-years approach. Put in a system and hope for long-term stability. We saw it with basketball - gut job, build a culture - and we possibly started to see it last fall with the four-game Big Ten win streak on the football field. Now, keep building like that. Even if 6-6 was Lovie's peak, at least there's some stability for the next guy to try to climb further up the ladder. Stability is key. All of that "hire an ex-Navy Seal as 'Director Of Man Development'" stuff? I believe it works.

2. Supplement With Transfers

As you probably know, I'm on board with the whole "these players won't even consider you in high school, but the second time around..." thing. A Brandon Peters and a Josh Imatorbhebhe will continue to select Michigan and USC out of high school from now until eternity. But some of them just get completely lost behind the other 4-stars and 5-stars, and bringing those guys to Champaign to play out their final few years can be a long-term strategy. It's tricky, just like Mike White's "build a program with California jucos" was tricky, but with the explosion of transfer from the Transfer Portal, I think we were right to get in there early. The article in The Athletic yesterday even used the term "Transfer Portal U". There are some concerns there - namely, this year's crop isn't exactly Peters/Bhebhe/Betiku/Ford - but it's still a smart way to plug large holes. If there's football this fall, TreSean Smith and Blake Jeresaty will be huge additions to fill huge holes.

3. Play The Freshmen And Then Don't Play The Freshmen

I'm long on time (why do I even care if this isn't a true PMP where I'm timestamped on Twitter?), so I basically just don't want to research this, but I believe the numbers were this. Scholarship freshmen burning their redshirts: 21 in 2017, 11 in 2017, 4 in 2019. Everyone played and then no one played (not even the four-stars).

I think that's a smart way to build a program. When you lean on that first class (and my goodness do we lean on the 2017 class), then you know a dip is coming after they graduate. We saw it with Turner in 2002 and 2003 and we saw it with Zook in 2008 and 2009. So I like that there's this background focus on 2022 and 2023. I think everyone knows that 2021 will be a dip. Maybe it's 5-7 like 2002 and 2008. So then 2022 (and 2023) become everything. Bounce back and we might just have a program here; fall apart and it's just like Turner and Zook (program goes up, program comes back down).

So I think it was smart to approach the 2019 class as "we want these guys to be the core of the team from 2021~2023", not 2020~2022. If you lose this year, whatever, forget it, 6-6 was the peak. But if there are wins and an extension, I'm glad there's seemingly a plan in place for the second phase.

4. Keep Turning Over Rocks

This staff has certainly added players at odd times. Off the top of my head:

  • Immediately offered Doug Kramer (a grayshirt who wasn't going to play football in the fall) a scholarship in the summer of 2016.
  • Added a walkon transfer from FCS Valpo (Donny Navarro) who eventually went on scholarship.
  • Discovered Sidney Brown late in 2019 and the fans learned about him on Signing Day (or maybe the day before?).
  • Found Devon Witherspoon in August, already at his juco in Kansas but having sorted out his academic issues.
  • Found Dalveon Campbell (one of the four freshmen to play immediately last year; injured in the fifth game and out for the year) in June, committed to no one. He's going to play a lot the next three years.

There are others I'm not thinking of. Went the Australian route for a punter. Discovered Palcho after he had missed his junior year of HS football. 6 of the 10 coverage guys on kickoffs last year were walkons. My point: they've turned over a lot of rocks and gotten very creative in filling the final spots on the roster and it's paying off.

5. Unwavering Tortoise

This is similar to #1, but I want to keep making this point. I admire how laugh-at-the-hare Lovie has been through all of this.

Take last year's "I'll do it myself" defensive strategy. How much hate did that strategy receive in January of 2019? We're not even going to hire a DC with all this money? Lovie's that arrogant to think he can fix it himself? GOOD LUCK.

Well, he basically delivered. And no, not just because of the turnovers - stat-wise, too. He changed the defense (bye bye, nickelback - Lovie wants three linebackers on the field at all times) and it worked. From 115th nationally in SP+ Defense (in 2018) to 54th. Most of the discussions I had with people before the season were "just keep the offense where it was at and get the defense up to maybe 75th" and he built something well beyond that. (Now sustain it.)

He has kept that same unwavering approach to everything, and I can appreciate it. I always see the accusation that Lovie is "lazy" or "mailing it in before retiring", but that's not what I've observed. For whatever it's worth, he's very confident in the long-term steps required to eventually win. If you could get him to be honest in a sit-down interview, I think he'd tell you, straight out, that he inherited a low-end-of-the-MAC roster so he had to start completely from scratch with the freshmen in 2017. Now that they're seniors, I think he honestly believes he'll win 8-10 games this year and then at least 6-8, sometimes 9 for years and years after that.

Dino Babers, who could have been the coach here, wins 10 games at Syracuse in 2018 while Lovie is losing to Iowa 63-0 in his 34th game? Honestly, I don't think Lovie even flinched. He's pretty sure he'll round the next bend and Dino will be taking a nap under a tree because tortoise Lovie is so slow. Lovie believes he's building something that will last for a long time and has more confidence in that than any Illini coach I've observed. (Doesn't mean it will work, but I appreciate the "our plan is our plan" side of it. )

Been a while since we saw a long-term plan around here and a half-decade dedicated to fulfilling it. Now, go win those games (both this year and in the future). A five-year implementation of a slow-and-steady plan needs to have a massive payoff.


Brave Illini on July 18, 2020 @ 08:41 AM

I want studs for players, with good character, and good football, with consistency in performance, taking wins as they come. It's as simple as that. There is no reason the University of Illinois cannot achieve that. The more of that we have, the less concerned I am about the head coach's connection and openess with the fans.

SactownIllini on July 18, 2020 @ 11:18 AM

Great insights. I saw this article that may give some insights to how Lovie views speed: https://sportsmockery.com/2020/07/lovie-smith-almost-didnt-let-lance-briggs-play-in-his-defense/

Efremwinters84 on July 18, 2020 @ 12:55 PM

Recruiting (and doing it the right way) is clearly the most important item on this list.

Dickbupkis on July 18, 2020 @ 09:50 PM

Were there really 14,000 of us at the 2014 Penn St game? It felt like less. Maybe that’s because my brother and I were sitting next to some drunk old guys that made it feel like Comiskey Park in the 70s. I know, who am I calling old? Let’s win ugly this year.

John Case on July 19, 2020 @ 10:37 AM

Good article. I think one issue with recruiting that doesn't get considered quite enough is the fact, football is dying in the state of Illinois and throughout the North. Even here in Texas, people are going to be surprised the next 5 years of what they see happen to the player pipelines for college recruiting. The draw of other sports that are skill based(very little skill in football at majority of positions) and a significant demographic shift will start showing up in the participation and attendance numbers from what I see going on.

McAdoo on July 19, 2020 @ 10:17 PM

"My observation: nobody has any idea how much (Lovie Smith) enjoys the process of developing young men who are ready to face the world."

There's a way to sell this as a significant positive in the recruiting battles as well. I'm thinking of something along the lines of a two-minute video that could be posted on Twitter and the other social media outlets, with clips from a couple of his former pro players and then a few of the players that have just graduated from the University talking about what Lovie Smith meant for them. Just throwing out an example, but it would start with a shot of Soldier Field, then go to a clip of, say, Brian Urlacher talking about what he learned about linebacker play under Lovie Smith. Add in another clip or two of former pros (Briggs? Kreutz?) talking about what they learned on the field from Lovie. Then, a shot of Memorial Stadium. A clip of Dre Brown, a clip of Dele Harding; this time discussing what Lovie taught them in terms of leadership, responding to adversity and growing from boys to men. Something like "Under Coach Smith, I learned so many things about football.... But I learned even more about life."

ppbob on July 23, 2020 @ 03:52 AM

There's one BIG problem with the "plan" here Robert.....for "play kids early" to work, you take your lumps and build a strong recruiting staff and program that gives you talent AND experience kin three years. We took the lumps but the assembling the staff never happened, this next year we'll have no foundation unless this recruiting class gets some ready to play recruits. That's not happening.

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