Smith confident in return to college coaching

Takes over for Bill Cubit after just one season
Smith confident in return to college coaching
Posted at 4:01 PM, Jul 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-26 17:01:17-04

It can be an eye-opening experience walking the halls at McCormick Place in Chicago during Big Ten media days. 

Walk through the Hyatt hotel lobby, and you might bump into Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz having a cup of coffee with Michigan State's Mark Dantonio. Leaning against a wall checking his phone could be longtime NFL coach and current Fox broadcaster Dave Wannstedt. It's basically a who's who in the college football world. 

However, one face I still find surprising to be wandering the halls here in Chicago (at a Big Ten event, at least) is Illinois Head Coach Lovie Smith. 

Smith's hiring caught more than a few people off guard. Former coach Bill Cubit had just received a contract extension after bailing the Illini out in 2015 after Tim Beckman's dismissal on the eve of the season. And to his credit, Cubit's team performed well last year under difficult circumstances, right in the mix for a bowl game berth before a three game losing streak to end the season.  

But, with a new athletic director often comes a new head coach, and that's exactly what Josh Whitman did when he took over at Illinois. 

Smith was certainly a splashy hire, and has brought plenty of attention to the Illini, but can he make the transition from coaching in the pros to the college game? He seems to think so. 

"Before Josh called, he knew my background," said Smith at Big Ten media days. "...I just think you talk about coaching, whether it's the NFL -- I'm not the only NFL coach that's coaching in college right now. Whether it's coaching junior high, high school, college or the NFL, I haven't seen many differences from it. Guys want to be coached. You have a different degree of athlete at every level. And for us, even when I was in the NFL I considered myself a college coach. And I'm talking about stressing fundamentals, trying to develop, of having a personal relationship with our players in the NFL, just like we will in college. Josh knew that."

Recruiting is obviously a major part of the college game and something NFL coaches don't have to deal with, but Smith thinks his experience with free agency will translate to the college level. 

"I knew we had a good product," said Smith. "So I knew we would be able to sell that. But not just recruiting, per se, for the current class, but how soon recruiting starts as far as recruiting an athlete...Again, we've embraced it. It has been nonstop. But again when you have a good product, you like talking about it. And again now it's about developing the -- we talk about developing the entire athlete, the man. And people are embracing that a little bit. I can't say that I haven't enjoyed it; I really have."