As one of the rare football coaches who has had success at both the college and professional level, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh finds himself at the center of two worlds. Everything he does at Michigan seems to cause a media circus, but at the same time, pundits continue to speculate that he might eventually return to the NFL in search of a Super Bowl ring.
With all the attention Harbaugh has gotten, it’s easy to forget that he’s not the only coach in the Big Ten who has willingly left the NFL behind to take a job at the college level.
Illinois coach Lovie Smith hadn’t coached a college team in over 20 years. The 12-year NFL head coach who led the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XLI and the 2010 NFC Championship game turned a lot of heads when he accepted the Fighting Illini’s head coaching job in March. Just two months earlier, he had been fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite coaching just two seasons there and the team appearing to be on the rise.
While the hire excited many Illinois fans, a turnaround won’t be easy — the Fighting Illini are just 2-4 so far this season, and they haven’t had a winning regular season since 2007. Still, there is hope in Champaign that a coach with Smith’s experience might be exactly what the program needs.
The Daily caught up with Smith in July at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, where he addressed reporters about returning to his old home state and readjusting to the college level.
Question: You spent many years here in Chicago and had a lot of success with the Bears. What’s it like to be back in Chicago?
Lovie Smith: We, of course, feel like we’re coming home. My wife is from Chicago. We have two sons that live here. When you’re placed in the coaching profession — and I see (Iowa coach) Kirk Ferentz over there, Kirk’s been 18 years at one place, that doesn’t happen most times. For an NFL team, to be there nine years, that’s quite a bit. When you’re in a great city like Chicago nine years, you love everything about it, and that’s how we feel. We kept a place here, we kept a home here throughout. So that transition has gone fairly well.
Q: When you take the step from the NFL back to the college ranks — you talked about teaching the fundamentals still being important to you — do you have to step back a little bit from a complexity standpoint when you’re coaching younger players?
LS: I feel like, even in the NFL, we were running a college-type program anyway. We put a big emphasis on fundamentals there. Defensively, we don’t have a complex system. I don’t think you play good defense based on trying to, you know, ‘I’m smarter than the guy across every play, and I have to call the perfect defense every time.’ We relied on athletic ability, putting guys in position to make plays. So I don’t feel like we’ve had to compromise what we did at that next level for what we’re gonna do right now. That doesn’t change an awful lot.
And the good coaches I’ve been around, as I left Ohio State and went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers way back in the day, that’s what I got from Tony Dungy. He said, ‘Lovie, there’s not a big difference between college and NFL. We’re gonna start our practices, early on we’re gonna teach tackling, teach stance, alignments and all those things, just like you did.’ So I don’t see it being a big adjustment at all.
Q: How much has the style of practice changed between when you first started coaching in college and today?
LS: There was a lot more contact back then, I would say. Now you kind of realize that you can’t have as much, and you have some marquee players that — you just can’t put them at risk. I just don’t think you have to go out and scrimmage every day. I think you can get in position and not have to throw your running backs down on the ground. I don’t think you have to, in practice, tackle a quarterback to know how to do it. That’s what drills are for. I’m a boxing fan — they’re not going in and going 15 rounds every day. You spar, a lot. And that’s what you have to do to win our game.