If they’re making up this preseason optimism, if it’s simply reading from a script shared by Lovie Smith, Josh Whitman and the three players representing the University of Illinois on Monday at Big Ten Media Day, it’s a very well orchestrated act.
Better than anything they orchestrated during a 3-9 football season last fall.
While acknowledging the proof will be determined on the football field, Smith sounded very much like a significantly more confident coach than he did one year ago when, after just four months on the job, he had barely learned players’ names, knew little about their abilities and was clearly trying to feel his way around a college game that hadn’t employed him for 22 years.
Monday was different.
“What a difference a year makes,” Smith said, practically beaming.
His boss, Whitman, said he feels better than ever about his bold decision to hire Smith in March 2016. He said he could feel it last season and expects to feel it in a more profound way this year.
“I felt a completely different dynamic around our games last year, whether in the tailgating lots or around the students,” Whitman said. “We’ll feel that gradual shift again this year.”
Offensive tackle Christian DiLauro said the difference one year later is huge.
“Last year we were running around with our names taped to our helmets because the coaches didn’t know who we were,” he said. “They were calling us by our numbers.
“This year everyone knows each other and we know what to expect.”
Smith beat the drum on two fronts Monday. He said the second year into a rebuild is when a program starts to get traction. And he said construction of the $79.2 million football performance facility, which will begin after the 2017 season, will finally put Illinois on a more even playing field when it comes to the recruiting arms race proliferating throughout the Big Ten and nationally.
Smith has experience on his side when it comes to understanding a rebuild.
He was 5-11 in 2004 during his first season as head coach of the Chicago Bears. In 2005, the Bears went 11-5. In 2006, Smith's Bears were 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl.
“I’m just going on what I’ve done and in the second year,” he said. “Big gains.
“If you’re lucky enough to turn things around in one year, good for you. Most of the time when you come into a program that has had issues, it takes a little bit longer.
“There’s no magic pill right away. And if you do it the right way, it may take a little time. We’re trending in the right direction.”
Smith says he sees example after example where the Illini football team is making up ground “behind the scenes.”
“Last year we had a couple of guys who could squat more than 500 pounds. Now we have 20,” he said, illustrating gains in the weight room.
“We’re in a whole different frame of mind now. You have to believe you can win before you hit the field and that’s based on what you have been doing.”
The perception of how successful Lovie Smith was with the Bears is an interesting subject. Opinions differ. But look purely at the numbers.
In his nine seasons as head coach, the Bears were 81-63.
In the four seasons since he was fired, the Bears are 22-41.
One gets the feeling Smith is bitter about the Bears' decision to fire him and maybe more bitter about Tampa Bay’s decision to fire him after just two seasons. He was 2-14 in 2014 but improved to 6-10 in 2015.
Smith doesn’t have to worry about that impatience at Illinois, mainly because Whitman is on board in every way imaginable.
Not only was he willing to pay Smith $21 million over six seasons, he significantly boosted the pool of money he has to pay his coaching staff and then opted out of a proposal to improve the south end zone of Memorial Stadium in favor of Smith’s plea for a performance center that could more directly impact recruiting.
The reasoning is simple.
If the performance center positively impacts recruiting, it should positively impact the team’s win-loss record.
If the win-loss record improves, attendance will rise.
And if attendance rises, the cash register will ring enough to pay for the south end zone improvements Whitman is pushing to a back burner.
The question is when. When will this improvement take root? Can Smith duplicate what he did with the Bears and show marked improvement in Year Two?
“The challenge we put in front of everyone is that we all have to do our part and our fans are part of that,” Whitman said.
“We need them to be in the stands and to be patient and continue to be enthusiastic and understand we have a plan. We’re executing that plan and it’s going to take a little time.”