Feb 09, 2019

If someone were to archive every post I've written in the last 10 years, and they were to give each post a tag, the tag with the most posts would probably be "football coaching staff consistency". It's the one thing I've harped on forever. In my view, the way to rebuild Illinois football is to install a coaching staff, install schemes, and change nothing for five full years.

I've proposed this in several different ways. I even suggested a dart board. Here's a paragraph on that theory. If you've read it one of the 38 previous times, just skip to the next paragraph.

I'm named head coach. I set up a dart board with a list of offensive coordinators and their offense. I have someone throw a dart - it lands on Warren Ruggerio and his Wake Forest offense. I do the same for defense and it lands on Jake Dickert and his Wyoming defense. I hire both two men. I tell them to assemble their own staffs. I tell them that they're getting five-year contracts and that they'll be running that same scheme (and recruiting to that scheme) for five full seasons. Even if things look awful after three seasons, they keep their jobs. Five years to recruit players to a scheme, play them in the scheme, be patient as they perfect every little nuance of the scheme. And at the end of those five years, I'm telling you, I'm winning a lot of football games. I don't really need to recruit that well - I just need to find players that fit what I want to do (and, obviously, I need to keep them around because we're totally going 1-11 the first year).

Look at Northwestern. Do you think Mick McCall is some in-demand offensive coordinator running the greatest scheme ever, constantly pursued by the blue blood programs? No. In fact, every other year, there's a big movement among the 29 Northwestern fans to see him fired. Same for their defense. Is Northwestern constantly fighting to hang onto Mike Hankwitz and his defense? No. So how are they able to consistently win with average recruiting and average coordinators running average schemes? Well, the the last time they hired a coordinator, George W. Bush was president. Do one thing, perfect it, recruit to it, never change. It's so simple.

Iowa has done this. Wisconsin has done this. Illinois has changed everything as quickly as possible for 15 years hoping to land on just the right formula. Which is why I've always promoted consistency. Don't say Schultz is the answer and then Petrino is the answer and then Beatty/Gonzales are the answer and then Cubit is the answer and so on and so on. Please, for the love of God, land on something and stick to it. Recruit to it. Develop players in it. And then hopefully win with it.

To me, this also includes hanging on to other assistants. As many as possible. Give me ten years of the same grizzled offensive line coach running the same players through the same drills. In my mind, consistency is what breeds success. I think that's why you saw a breakout season from the offensive line this year - the third year under Luke Butkus. This thing is meshing. Excited for what's next.

+ Luke Butkus to the Packers
+ Two coaches remain from Lovie's original 2016 coaching staff
+ Lovie hired his son
+ There is no defensive coordinator
+ Thad Ward and Nate McNeal left for Temple

Let's start with Lovie hiring his son. As I mentioned on Twitter, when Donnie Abraham left in August and Miles Smith was promoted to full-time assistant in his place, the press release discussed it as an interim move. Here's the wording from the press release:

Smith is a 2013 graduate of Lake Forest College and spent the 2014 and 2015 seasons as a defensive quality control coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The youngest son of Lovie Smith, Miles was working with outside linebackers and nickel defensive back in his first season as a graduate assistant coach for the Fighting Illini.

Smith's interim appointment ends Jan. 31, 2019. A full search for a permanent replacement at the position will be conducted at the end of the 2018 football season.

Smith's "interim appointment". A "full search for a permanent replacement" will be conducted at the end of the season. And then we're supposed to believe that this "full search" landed on the coach's son?

There was no full search. That press release lied to us. The head coach eased-in his son as an "interim" and then removed the interim tag, hoping we wouldn't really notice. That's so insulting. If you want to name your son as an assistant, name your son. Kirk Ferentz did it. Jim Harbaugh did it. It happens all the time. But to go to the length of putting out a press release that says "interim" and "full search" knowing it was a lie? That's awful. This fanbase - a fanbase that has remained mostly patient throughout 9-27 over the first three years, I might add - doesn't deserve to be insulted like that.

But the worst part of all of this, to me, is the overhaul of the original coaching staff. Here I am, begging for coaching consistency, and now only Andrew Hayes-Stoker and Bob Ligashesky remain. I get that we had to scramble around and find a coaching staff in March/April after all of the other staffs are complete. It wasn't an ideal time, so you're going to land on some Tim McGarigles who aren't going to last very long. But when you start to make gains in recruiting but the guy who came up with "Littyville" leaves, or when you make huge strides on the offensive line and then the offensive line coach (a former player named Butkus) decides he'd rather be an assistant OL coach in the NFL, there is no consistency. The thing I think we desperately need to get the program out of the cellar - CONSISTENCY - isn't happening.

And that's so disappointing. I really do like this recruiting class, and I really do believe that our offseason additions (those 13 players + the four transfers) are top-35 nationally in "added players who will make an immediate impact next year". And with all of these sophomores ready to junior leap and 18 starters back and a new football facility ready to open this summer, you really can see how there could be some massive momentum come August. And then in 2020, The Most Experienced College Football Team Of The Decade (with something crazy like 500 starts between them) hits the field. It's all right there.

Yet we'll have a new OL coach and a new RB coach and a new LB coach and a new DB coach. And Ward (plus McNeal) are gone from the recruiting side. And Boese is gone from the S&C side. Half of the guys these players interact with on a daily basis will be new. In this massively important season where consistency would be so key, half of everything is new.

The only positive I see is that the defense didn't change. Again, I'm that guy. When you say "this defense sucks - get a new coordinator to change it", I say "please keep it exactly the same until these players graduate so that by 2019 and 2020 it's all just muscle memory". We hired Lovie Smith to build a team around a running game and defense. The running game finally got there in year three but there's still no defense. If there isn't a defense this year, the head coach probably loses his job. So, honestly, it's probably good that it works out this way. The new defensive coordinator who needs to fix the defense immediately or else Lovie Smith loses his job? Lovie Smith.

This whole thing leaves me so depressed. One month ago, when the 4-star linebacker we needed went on ESPN and picked Illinois, I wanted to head to the coffee shop and immediately start writing a 35,000-word preview. Five transfers including superstar Jeff Thomas plus impact four-stars like Williams and Beason and Cooper and academic suspensions like Brown and Boyd returning to the field - this is primed for that breakout season.

In the last month? Boyd is leaving, Thomas flipped back to Miami, four of the ten assistant coaches will be new, and one of them is the coach's son. I'm sure I'll be able to regain the anticipation and excitement (I mean, I was excited for the 2017 season even though it was a near-certainty that we'd be awful), but this last month has put such a massive damper on things. I went from massive excitement to hanging my head in one short month.

I guess that's the one thing that's always consistent.


OrangeBlazer on February 09 @ 01:55 PM CST

Consistency doesn’t work if the scheme or the coaches (or players) are bad. We’ve seen this proven already on the offense. The running game didn’t arrive in year 3 because of consistency. It arrived because we had a horrendous offensive coordinator with a terrible scheme. We replaced him with a better scheme and coach and saw an immediate upgrade. That flies in the face of the consistency argument.

illiniranger on February 10 @ 10:26 AM CST

Saban turns his staff over more than anybody. Bama is fine.

Organizational success is pretty tightly linked with organizational process. Not surprisingly, Saban is obsessed with the process. The coaches change, but the process remains the same.

So anyway, yeah, if processes are good then you should be able to turnover positions and not lose too much. Consistency of process and internal systems are more important than the people (but that doesnt mean the people don’t matter).

DB50 on February 09 @ 04:02 PM CST

Agree totally with this assessment, Garrick McGee was fired because of results. Rod Smith was a huge upgrade for the offense & a solid recruiter. Hardy Nickerson’s defense was porous at best and he couldn’t recruit. Will Lovie do a better job, time will tell but I like his chances.

Bear8287 on February 09 @ 08:16 PM CST

The new defensive coordinator who needs to fix the defense immediately or else Lovie Smith loses his job? Lovie Smith.

This would seem to about sum it up. Hope it works.

HiggsBoson on February 09 @ 08:04 PM CST

So much for that dream of a dynamic DC with modern ideas a couple who could turn things around like Rod Smith did. Lovie Smith was a good DC a couple decades ago. Your mileage may vary, but his defense seems out of touch nowadays.

There were three former GAs coaching defense last year, including Miles Smith. Not coincidentally, all three areas of the defense were a problem. Now we have MS, and probably the other two back. This tells me two things: Lovie doesn't really care about winning and Miles isn't good enough for any of his cronies to hire.

Butkus leaving is going to hurt, and seems to be part of a pattern: Lovie's cronies and family aren't good, but stick around as long as they can -- and the good coaches move on as soon as they see an opportunity. Even Illini football royalty. Maybe it's the hobo beard, maybe it's something else, but Lovie sure doesn't inspire loyalty.

The recruiting class held together better than I feared it might, but the turnover among players and coaches continues.

On the other hand, maybe Illinois makes it back to being a basketball school sooner rather than later

neale stoner on February 10 @ 09:29 AM CST

Seems to me your entire premise is refuted by the first year results after the switch from McGee to Rod Smith. To the extent the premise is valid, I see no reason to panic or pout. The defensive scheme and coaches remain relatively consistent. The offense and OC remain the same. Will things get better or worse if Rod Smith actually gets a couple of his own guys to help him with the offense?

uilaw71 on February 10 @ 11:47 AM CST

Dang, Robert, just when it seemed like you were off the negative train, here you go again.

Your loyal subscribers enjy your insights and UI love. You’re actually quite good at reporting - in particular the human side of Illini stories. So instead of whining about Mikes, sit down with him. Dollars to donuts he’d be eager to address the criticisms.

Does it not tell you something that Shammond committed on the expectation he’d be coached by Lovie? That’s 5,000 words worth of copy tight there.

Eagle on February 10 @ 04:29 PM CST

Lovie had a perfect opportunity to bring in a top notch DC. I bet (in my comments) that he would not miss that opportunity. He has chosen to bet his college career on himself. In the next 10 months it will either start to pay off or blow up in his face. It will be entertaining to see how this plays out but I hope he proves us all wrong.

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