Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

Lovie Smith for Tupper column

Head coach Lovie Smith watches spring practice for the University of Illinois football team earlier this month at Memorial Stadium.

The sagging performance of the University of Illinois football and basketball teams has invited skepticism to be the next door neighbor.

It’s an uneasy relationship.

Hire an exciting head coach and assume they’re short-term solutions whose careers are in a state of decline. Win a close game and assume injuries and disappointment are just around the corner.

Land a highly rated recruit and assume he’s vastly overrated.

Call it negativity if you wish, but history suggests these dim views are often founded in a certain degree of truth. Too often the buzz of optimism quickly fades.

So here comes Illini football coach Lovie Smith, with a 5-19 record in two seasons, shaking up the national recruiting analysts by picking off players who have been courted by Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan.

Here comes Lovie Smith, ignoring the naysayers and planting a flag in the fertile recruiting ground of four-star and five-star talent. Illinois has not harvested from this plot in a decade.

In the past two weeks commitments from 4-star receiver/defensive back Marquez Beason from Dallas and 5-star quarterback Isaiah Williams from St. Louis have given Lovie’s 2019 recruiting class a flying start.

Somewhere Alabama coach Nick Saban heard news of Williams’ commitment Friday and had to wonder, “What’s wrong with that kid?”

Williams could have rolled with the Tide and instead he’ll fight with the Illini? On the surface it makes no sense. But beneath the surface what Lovie is doing stretches back to relationships he began building in June 2016 when as a freshly hired Illini head coach he staged eight satellite camps in four states.

That included three in the Chicago area as well as camps in Dallas, Houston, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and at Trinity Catholic High School in St. Louis.

In St. Louis Lovie snuggled up to Trinity’s big offensive lineman Larry Boyd, head coach Cory Patterson and a terrific group of up-and-coming 2019 prospects.

The camp at Trinity turns out to have been a stroke of genius.

Not only did Illinois get Boyd, who started last year as a freshman and whose 6-foot-6, 340-pound body suggests NFL left tackle, Lovie began a blossoming relationship with Patterson and with his young, electric quarterback, Williams.

Lovie would go on to hire Patterson as his new tight ends coach and a commitment from Williams on Friday is what jolted the college football recruiting world.

Without question Patterson’s presence on the Illini staff helped to land Williams. Many of the Trinity players view Patterson as a father figure. When he gathered his team together in January to tell them he was leaving to join Lovie, a player Patterson considered the toughest, most stoic on his team buried his face in his hoodie and wept.

Many of these Trinity players hung out at Patterson’s home. The connection with him is deep and real.

But do not underestimate the influence of Lovie himself. His reputation as a cool former NFL head coach with a Super Bowl pedigree resonates with players. So does his smooth Texas drawl and his sales pitch that a coaching staff with more NFL experience than any in college football can help build a player into what it takes to play as a pro.

The skeptics will say they’ll get excited when any of this translates into victories on the field. The 5-19 record doesn’t cut it. And that’s fair.

But there is a different vibe on the Illini team since Lovie gave his coaching staff a makeover this winter. New offensive coordinator Rod Smith is exceedingly likable and his work with dual threat quarterbacks such as Michigan’s Denard Robinson is appealing.

New defensive line coach Austin Clark has young energy and the fact that he comes from Southern Cal doesn’t hurt.

Patterson isn’t done exerting his influence on the recruiting front. Trinity linebacker Shammond Cooper, thought to be leaning to Oklahoma, might now be giving Illinois a closer look.

And Trinity wide receiver Marcus Washington, holding multiple major school scholarship offers, had something to say Friday via his Twitter account.

Illinois had not been among the 10 schools he listed as his finalists. But shortly after Williams committed, he Tweeted, “Things change…”

Things change, indeed. Maybe, eventually, with the skeptics who doubt the future of Illini football.

Follow Mark Tupper on Twitter: @MarkTupper


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