For 1 day last month, Lovie Smith the football coach became Lovie Smith the history professor.
His lesson to Illinois players covered the 2005 Bears, a resilient bunch of guys who reached out recently to remind Smith of that pivotal time in their lives.
“I’m not going to name names, but a lot of people called and said, ‘Hey, Lovie, remember when we did this?’” Smith said Tuesday in a phone interview. “We started 1-3, but then went on a run and won eight straight. Experiences like that teach you an awful lot.”
It taught Smith to keep believing, even when many people wondered why.
Statistics say Illinois pulled off its greatest comeback Saturday by turning a 28-3 deficit into a 37-34 victory over Michigan State. But perhaps an even greater revival, harder to quantify, involved Smith, whose unshakable faith was rewarded with the program’s first bowl eligibility since 2014.
Midway through his fourth year at Illinois, Smith’s career had become as sleepy as his east Texas drawl. An ignominious ending loomed for a proud coach who has spent 36 years in the profession viewing the glass half-full. Even the most eternal optimists would have struggled envisioning the 61-year-old reversing the direction of his tenure after Illinois trailed Michigan 28-0 in the second quarter Oct. 12 on its way to Smith’s 31st loss in 42 games.
Then something inexplicable happened: The Illini scored 25 consecutive points, still losing 42-25, but winning valuable confidence.
“Sometimes when you get pushed up against the wall, you don’t have any option but to come out swinging,” Smith said.
That approach carried over the next week against then-sixth-ranked Wisconsin, Smith’s 24-23 signature victory marked in indelible ink. Three more impressive victories followed for the impressionable Illini, capped by the improbable 25-point rally in East Lansing, Mich., that created as much exuberance as you ever will see from the stoic coach.
Smith embraced athletic director Josh Whitman after Whitman’s hug lifted him off the ground – returning the favor after Smith swept Whitman off his feet when interviewing in March 2016. He smiled while sitting on the shoulders of Illini players. He laughed after getting doused with two buckets of Gatorade, soaking his distinctive Santa Claus beard. He grabbed the microphone at the postgame news conference, grinned wryly and said, “We’re going bowling, it’s as simple as that.”
Anybody who knows Smith knows the simpler the better.
I have known Smith since the day he arrived at Halas Hall on Jan. 15, 2004, to coach the Bears. I remember the joy on Smith’s face the first time he beat the Packers. I saw Smith savor the NFC championship victory Jan. 21, 2007, as snow fell at Soldier Field.
I never have sensed more satisfaction from Smith than seeing him celebrate the Illini becoming bowl-eligible.
“I would say Saturday is about as rewarding a time as I’ve had coaching, for so many reasons,” Smith said. “To see what this team has done in coming back. This group has done everything we’ve asked. The players deserve this.”
And Smith has earned his share of credit. Around the conference, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck has the Gophers 9-0 for the first time since 1904. Indiana’s Tom Allen has the Hoosiers ranked for the first time in 25 years. Ohio State’s Ryan Day has seamlessly succeeded a coaching legend in Urban Meyer. But Smith’s credentials in coaxing the most out of the Illini qualify him as a legitimate Big Ten Coach of the Year candidate.
At halftime of the Michigan game, down 28-7, many of us started speculating about Smith’s exit strategy. Yet he never doubted and his players never quit, outscoring opponents 141-87 in the 18 quarters since. Winning at Illinois no longer was a concept that required a good imagination or memory. Here, finally, was the success Smith promised at his opening news conference, and sustaining it seems more realistic after last summer’s opening of the $79.2 million Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center.
“Our coaches have done a super job when we had one of the worst facilities in college football,” Smith said. “We always knew there were two things we had to do before taking the next step: One, have a state-of-the-art facility – and we’re so grateful to so many people who had faith in us to give money before they saw product on the field – and two, we had to put a better product on the field to show recruits we’re close.”
Resourceful quarterback Brandon Peters, a graduate transfer from Michigan, immediately brought them closer. Peters, who threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan State, keeps beating defenses that dare him to throw the ball in offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s ideal system. Wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, one of three graduate transfers from USC, caught four of Peters’ passes Saturday for 178 yards and two touchdowns, which earned him Big Ten co-offensive player of the week honors.
Safety Sydney Brown, who returned one of his two interceptions 76 yards for a touchdown, was the conference’s co-defensive player of the week. Illinois leads the nation with six defensive touchdowns and 26 takeaways, exactly what Smith had in mind when he took over defensive play-calling duties this year.
“We don’t pay lip service to it,” Smith said of the takeaways. “It’s a systematic way that we go about teaching it. I don’t think it’s just by chance it happens.”
What happens now that Smith has fulfilled his promise? More history awaits.
“I’ve said all along our best team is next year’s team, not this one,” Smith said. “I love what I do. How many coaches in a state get a chance to coach the professional football team and flagship university? We’re just getting started.”