If we're being perfectly honest, we need to give new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman a ton of credit for having the guts (and the dollars) to can Bill Cubit months after signing him to a two-year contract. Likewise, we need to give him and the school a ton of credit for replacing him with a very well respected NFL coach in Lovie Smith.
For a football program that has more double digit loss seasons (3) than double digit win seasons (1) since 2000, going out and making an aggressive hire is a phenomenally low-risk, high reward investment. Illinois deserves a pat on the back for pulling the trigger.
As we at Inside NU have reported here, here, and here, Northwestern consistently whoops Illinois in recruiting. With the commitments of Rashawn Slater and Sam Gerak in Northwestern's 2017 class, 93 percent (26 out of 28) of recruits since 2012 with offers from Illinois and Northwestern who pick one of those schools end up in purple. Against Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, Pat Fitzgerald absolutely rolled.
Now in steps Lovie Smith, a coach with a proven track record at the next level and an attachment to the area thanks to his time as head coach of the Chicago Bears. There are a lot of reasons for high school kids to be enthused about what's going down in Urbana-Champaign right about now. But will Lovie Smith roll back the purple tide?
Here's what we know right now: not much.
Lovie Smith was last coaching in college basically 20 years ago as a defensive backs coach for Ohio State. That's a really long time to be away from recruiting. NFL credentials are important, but there's a lot more to sell than just that. There may be a significant adjustment period for Smith.
Exactly zero commits have signed to play at Illinois since Love Smith was hired a few weeks ago. Any projection of future recruiting battles between Smith and Fitzgerald is going to be coming seemingly out of thin air.
We do have some interesting hints as to the future of Illini-Wildcat recruiting though.
The vast majority of extended scholarship offers to the class of 2017 were given out by Bill Cubit's staff, so take this with a heaping serving of salt, but there are 12 high schoolers with offers from Illinois and Northwestern football.
2017 uncommitted recruits with Illinois and Northwestern offers
|Name||Position||Hometown||247 Composite Rating|
|Osiris St. Brown||WR||Santa Ana, CA||.9594|
|Danny Davis||WR||Springfield, OH||.9181|
|Logan Rudolph||WDE||Rock Hill, SC||.8954|
|Blaise Andries||OT||Marshall, MN||.8893|
|Grant Calcaterra||TE||Rancho Santa Margarita, CA||.8637|
|Cameron Sullivan-Brown||WR||Laurel, MD||.8604|
|Jake Marwede||TE||Wilmette, IL||.8596|
|Drew Jordan||WDE||Suwanee, GA||.8570|
|Michael Miranda||OG||Stow, OH||.8570|
|Joel Honigford||OT||Sugarcreek, OH||.8570|
|Trey Pugh||TE||Plain City, OH||.8504|
Usually, the profile of a player who picks up offers from both Illinois and Northwestern and chooses one of those two mirrors Jake Marwede. They are local, solid three-star products with a gaggle of power conference offers (though Marwede is a slightly stronger recruit than the norm).
At least for next year however, almost half of the battles are taking place a good deal farther away from the Great Lakes region. Northwestern is mostly to blame for that. Northwestern has offered scholarships to just two in-state prospects in the 2017 recruiting class, Marwede and fellow tight end Cole Kmet, who has already committed to Notre Dame. There are plenty of explanations for why Northwestern's taken most of its recruiting battles out of Illinois, not the least of which have to do with Northwestern's academic requirements. It should really be celebrated that Pat Fitzgerald has turned Northwestern into a brand that can take on Oklahoma and Texas across the country and pull in commitments.
However, in doing so, Pat Fitzgerald has opened the door for Illinois and Lovie Smith.
Historically, the best recruits in Illinois (Laquon Treadwell and Kyle Prater, for example) are targets for national recruiting powerhouses. Nearby schools like Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan State have had rights of first refusal on the next tier down. Since 2010, one top-five Illinois recruit went to Northwestern (Parrker Westphal in 2014), and two top-five in-state players have gone to Illinois (Aaron Bailey in 2013 and Gabe Megginson in 2015). There's a long way to go for Lovie Smith if he wants to switch that power dynamic.
But now there is an opening.
Whether you take issue with the veracity of the "Chicago's Big Ten Team" moniker or not, there is no denying that between Pat Fitzgerald and Bill Cubit/Tim Beckman, high schoolers in the Chicago area have felt way more connected to Fitzgerald. His Twitter feed is littered with shoutouts to Chicago sports teams, he grew up in the area, went to school in the area, and has been coaching at Northwestern for 16 years. His ties to Chicago are undeniable.
But for a 16- or 17-year old, that caché might well pale in comparison to Lovie Smith's thanks to Smith's time as head coach of the Bears. Anyone who grew up watching the Bears is going to have a tie to Smith that no other coach can match. We don't know how much that selling point is going to be worth, but we do know that Smith and his staff are going to have a full year to play with it while Fitzgerald is recruiting nationally.
Every coach who has coached any college sport in Illinois has come in with the promise of fencing off the state line and keeping talent at home. Lovie Smith is going to be given the opportunity to do that in year one while the other big show in the state is looking elsewhere. If he can turn that opportunity into a big commitments, Pat Fitzgerald's historical success of beating the Illini to talent could be put to a major test. Whether or not that matters is a different issue.
A solid 2016 class and a 2017 class that's shaping up to be the best class ever under Fitzgerald have been built on out of state recruits. Northwestern is slowly but surely becoming a national brand. Picking up recruits like Clayton Thorson, Parrker Westphal, and Justin Jackson, 4-star guys from the Northwestern neighborhood will always be on the top of Fitzgerald's wishlist. But if he can continue to poach legitimate talent in the Lone Star State under the nose of Oklahoma and Texas, or pick up guys from Ohio while battling with Jim Harbaugh, the need for local products to matriculate to Northwestern might continue to dissipate.