Wait and see.
That’s my advice to everyone watching the Illinois coaching situation.
Let’s be honest: that won’t be an easy thing to do. When I first learned that new athletic director Josh Whitman fired Bill Cubit, a number of different things crossed my mind. Was it right for Whitman to dismiss Cubit without even giving him a chance? What about the Illini student-athletes, who will be playing for their third head coach in less than a year? Or the incoming freshmen, who signed with Illinois with the understanding that Cubit was going to be the head coach?
With so many negatives rushing through my mind, I had to come up with a logical reason why Whitman would make such a drastic move in his first day on the job. At first, I thought it might be personal, so I decided to look at his official statement.
“I appreciate the leadership that Bill Cubit provided our football program during what has been, unquestionably, a very tumultuous time. He accepted the challenge on an interim basis under incredibly difficult and unusual circumstances, and he has continued to work diligently for the betterment of our student-athletes. Through his efforts, he has kept the program moving forward. Bill is a good man and a good football coach. All of us in the Illini Nation owe him a debt of gratitude for his work leading our team these last months. At this juncture, however, I think it is most important that we position our program for long-term success by creating a more stable environment for the coaches, players, and prospective student-athletes.”
After reviewing that text, it was clear that this decision wasn’t personal. He did nothing but praise the outgoing coach, and even suggested that the Illini faithful follow suit.
Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Whitman wasn’t making this move just to shake things up; he was doing it because he had a plan to immediately get the program headed in the right direction.
While that seemed somewhat illogical when the news first broke, it now looks like Whitman had an ace up his sleeve the entire time. According to one report, Illinois is expected to name 11-year NFL veteran Lovie Smith as its next head coach.
No disrespect to Coach Cubit, but the addition of Smith would be an absolute game-changer. Sure, his record in Tampa Bay was less than stellar, but the Buccaneers finished four games better this season than they did in 2014. Before that, Smith guided the Chicago Bears to three division titles, taking them to the Super Bowl XLI in 2007.
Simply put: he would be just what the doctor ordered for an Illini program that’s been consistently inconsistent ever since John Mackovic left for Texas at the end of the 1991 campaign. Smith might not have Illinois in contention for a Big Ten title this season, but given his successful track record in the pros, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Illini compete for the Big Ten championship year in and year out under his leadership.
Of course, this is all speculation at this point, as Illinois has yet to make an official announcement about its head coaching vacancy.
Until they do, we’ll just have to wait and see.