CHICAGO — There’s work to be done at Illinois. Coach Lovie Smith knows that. He knew that when he took the job last year, but the former Bears and Buccaneers coach is encouraged by the difference just a year can make.
“Sometimes you can see some programs where the roster is stacked and it just hasn’t worked, so you can go in there and everything’s in place for you to win right away,” Smith said. “Most of the time it’s not like that. That’s why you have the job and there’s been a [coaching] change. That’s where we were. That’s where we are.
“It’s no fun, losing. And it’s really hard winning. You realize that, especially when you start watching the video and some of the things you’re doing wrong you know you can correct with time. So that’s what gives you excitement in year two. Some of the mistakes we made, we’re beyond that right now.”
And where Illinois wants to be is something closer to what it once was, though younger football fans might have a hard time recalling those eras. This is a program, however, that claims five national titles (all before 1952) and has won the Big Ten 15 times, which ranks fourth behind Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota.
There’s history there if you know where to look, and drawing on that history is part of Smith’s plan for the Illini in year two.
“This year we have decals we’re going to give to our team. They’re going to have a 77 for Red Grange,” he said. “Red Grange in college football means a little bit. Dick Butkus, as a defensive player, means a little bit. There’s history we have behind [us], we have to draw back on that.”
That goes beyond just decals, too, it’s also in the details. When an Illini defender strips the football, that’s not a strip.
“We call that ‘Ricing’ the ball,” Smith said. It’s named in honor of former Illini All-American Simeon Rice who finished his college career as the Big Ten’s all-time sack leader.
“At every position, there’s a great player that has come through our university,” Smith said. “We have to just kind of call on that a little bit.”
Illinois opens the season Sept. 2 against Ball State.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.