Open jobs are only so open as long as no one else actually wants them. Good open jobs rarely, if ever, are.
When Josh Whitman somewhat sloppily fired Bill Cubit and then hired Lovie Smith to be Illinois’ football coach, this had “genius” or eternal pariah written all over it.
Wins will end up deciding which way it goes, but Whitman is doing what any CEO taking over a new company would, which is evaluate the inherited employee pool already having told a few of his buddies he’ll find a place for them.
In this case, Whitman probably took the gig “officially” just long enough to make sure Smith was on board so no open search laws were violated.
Whitman probably feels like he did what he had to do, because Illinois hasn’t had any juice about it as a football program in a long time, and Smith comes relatively cheap considering the experience. The NFL coach to college thing seems to work out well, anyway.
But lost in all the weirdness of players finding out on social media and Cubit being retained after a mostly “meh” 5-7 season after the abrupt timing of Tim Beckman’s firing is that Whitman made a tough, if cosmetically ugly, but right call.
Look, when you walk into a place and you know that the wrong people are in certain places, you have two choices:
1. Don’t shake anything up and simply let the incumbents keep the jobs they have until the point of no return;
2. Make a very controversial decision to make immediate changes that won’t go over well with a lot of people.
Most people take the safer, first route. As an athletic director, especially at major programs, how and who you hire often defines your legacy. Sitting on Cubit and watching tens of people show up to Illinois games as it languished around mediocrity long enough to where a change had to be made would have looked less ruthless on paper, but prolonged the program’s success.
Cubit retained the job sort of by default, in spite of an uninspiring season in Beckman’s stead because there were bigger fish to fry in the athletic department, and a full-scale search just wasn’t going to happen. It was sort of a, “well, I need a date and you’re here, so come on I suppose.”
It’s not meant to be crass, but typically, a coach boasting a 56-54 career record as an FBS (or Division 1A) coach with zero division titles wouldn’t be someone high on a list for a major program like Illinois. Why? Because Illinois can get people like Lovie Smith, not theoretically.
Smith brings with him an 89-87 career record (don’t get after me about the irony of the two game difference), but in the NFL, which is an entirely different animal. He’s been to one Super Bowl and has always been known as a guy who is extremely well liked by the majority of his players.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has nine years in the toughest media market in Illinois, Chicago, and knows the state much better than, if, say, he’d taken a gig with the San Francisco 49ers.
The first year could be tough, and incoming recruits who were dead set on playing for Cubit should be allowed to transfer sans penalty, but Whitman made a move that Illinois probably had to make and it just sucks that a lot of people and their families have to take the fall for this, only a few days from Spring Practice opening.
There’s not a ton of feel-good about a lot of this hire, mostly because Cubit and staff have to pick up their belongings and quickly move on. Not everyone makes the money the head coach does and can simply sit out for a bit. Decisions like this have no middle ground. They are either loathed or loved.
Wins and losses will determine all that, later, even if the impact reaches far harder than simple numbers.
Who knows, Cubit might have surprised and been great? Whitman, though, wanted Lovie Smith, and typically, the guy with the big job title normally wins in these sorts of things. As for the winning part, Illinois should expect to do the same.