CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On Fourth Street, the honeymoon smells of hickory and heaven, poultry seared to perfection. The hot links snap like crisp twigs on an autumn lawn. The turkey tips melt on the tongue, drowned in a sauce that leaves grown men in tears.
There are precious few things Michael McDonald takes as seriously as good smoked meats. As the dinner hour looms, with sister Okema Battle chopping ribs behind a giant counter, the conversation at Wood N’ Hog turns to one of the precious and the few: Lovie Smith.
“What it said to me is the University of Illinois no longer accepts the status quo,” McDonald says.
“And if that means going out and getting a big name …”
“A man like Lovie Smith, there’s so much I appreciate about that name in the game of football …”
“As a U of I alum, what I appreciate is they went out and they found somebody who is a good teacher, has a good moral compass and has the skill set and potential to move the program again in the right direction …
“I mean, my son can aspire to be a college head coach. He can actually touch and feel a guy. So it means a lot to me.”
Wood N’ Hog — owned jointly by McDonald and Battle — has only existed since June, a tiny takeout joint in north Champaign built on love, sweat, a homemade sauce of vinegar and hellfire, and a giant smoker. Like Smith’s Fighting Illini football program, it’s a startup, a family business, a dream still finding its legs.
McDonald moved to Champaign in 1999 and graduated from Illinois in 2004. As an undergrad, he saw 10 wins and a Sugar Bowl. A couple of years later, he saw 11 losses.
Over the past 17 seasons, the Illini won eight or more games three different times and managed to drop eight or more on seven separate occasions. Since McDonald came to town, Illinois has been to six bowls and cycled through six coaches.
At the junction of I-57 and I-74, joy has a lease and misery a mortgage.
But at the Wood N’ Hogg, there’s a feeling now. A feeling — even after a 1-2 start, even after Western Michigan did things to Lovie’s football team you’d expect a Jim Harbaugh team or a Mark Dantonio team to do — that things will turn out differently this go-round.
McDonald is a lifelong Chicago Bears fan, and knows Smith’s resume — the 81-63 record at Halas Hall from 2004-2012, the two NFC championship games, Super Bowl XLI, the 13 years of college coaching — back to front. He grasps the significance of an African-American man being handed the keys to one of Illinois’ revenue sports programs for the first time in school history, and the implications that trickle down to the generations after that.
Mostly, he knows this is a tough freaking job. A beast. Like good barbecue, sustained success demands careful preparation, a proven recipe, patience and time. Lots and lots and lots of time.
“I think his platform is so big for the community,” McDonald says. “I haven’t been this excited about U of I football in a long time. I’ll say that.”
Some 3 miles south, at Memorial Stadium, the mood is almost as upbeat, despite the home team being outscored in its last two contests by a margin of 82-33; despite a visit to 4-0 Nebraska looming; despite a chill in the air more akin to Halloween than late September.
Lovie Smith’s default mode is upbeat. You see the skies darkening along Kirby Avenue. Lovie sees a rainbow coming, just around the bend.
“We’re talking about starting the slate clean,” the first-year Illini coach says.
Smith is 58, a young 58, a sunny 58. He was hired in March by new athletic director Josh Whitman to equal parts shock and fanfare, a Super Bowl coach who’d last toiled in the Big Ten as an Ohio State assistant in 1995, a generation earlier, back when Frank Sinatra still walked the Earth and the internet was still crawling along at the speed of dial-up modems.
“The way I see it — in the NFL, you’ve got four preseason games, you use three; guys don’t play (in the last one),” Smith explains. “And then that fourth is kind of like your bye week. So we’ve played three nonconference games that don’t have anything to do with us winning the championship later on, all right? So for us, you know, that’s what we want. We want to just start planning for the Big Ten Conference. We have a chance to (shoot for) 1-0 after this week.”
Smith speaks in coaching aphorisms and sensible analogies, delivered with a gentle Texas accent that treads as softly as a kitten. It’s easy, even at a cursory glance, to see why Smith’s personality is held in such high esteem by the men he coached in Chicago, St. Louis, Tampa. Most pro football news delivered internally is bad news — cold, heartless and blunt. Go upstairs. Bring your playbook. From Smith, even the cynical sounds spun from honey.
So that Champaign-Urbana remains charmed is hardly a surprise. Smith was a public relations victory with legs, one of the first African-American men to coach in America’s biggest single sporting event, the last man to take the Bears — the state’s most popular professional franchise — to the Super Bowl, a feat that, given the team’s present state of decay, looms larger with each passing year.
Of course, Lovie didn’t win that Super Bowl — Tony Dungy, the black coach on the other sideline, led the Colts past Smith’s Bears, 29-17 — and in some Windy City circles, the invectives against Smith gathered steam. Not snarly enough. Not fiery enough. Not Ditka enough.
Former Illinois coach Tim Beckman professed that kind of fire, and it got him run out of town after allegations of player abuse came to light, a bizarre August 2015 dismissal that set the stage for a surreal five months to follow.
Smith is the anti-Beckman in almost every sense, most of them pleasant. Those who have gotten to know Lovie daily over the past year, some for the first time, marvel at how level he remains, regardless of the circumstance, regardless of the score.
This is still early in the process, the basting part of the barbecue, the soaking part. The honeymoon part.
“It is that,” Smith says, laughing. “I don’t know exactly what that honeymoon is. Our plan was to win all of our games, that first quarter of the season. We haven’t. At the same time, when you’re coming in new, there’s a reason why you’re coming in new — there are some things that need to be fixed. And we realize that. And I didn’t come in necessarily trying to quick fix, or anything like that. We’re building a program and when you’re building a program, there are growing pains.
“I have 10 grandkids. You know, I kind of wanted them all to walk right away. But they have to crawl, right? So you want to skip steps along the way.
“This is a (basic) part of it. It’s not fun, losing the last two. But that’s why you can’t wait (for league play) … nothing has been decided. That’s how we see it. As we see it right now …”
He pauses. Another analogy.
“You know how you have a game, you play the first quarter and you’re behind,” Smith continues. “It’s about what you do from here on out. And that’s been our mindset.”
The woman behind the cash register ponders.
Then she shouts for a co-worker. Some 3 seconds later, a 20-something young man with hipster glasses emerges from a back room at the Gameday Spirit Store in Champaign’s Campustown.
“He wants to see the sign,” she says. “The Lovie yard sign.”
The young man points to a placard in the distance, far to the left of the main bank of registers, a white sign strapped to what appears to be a bale of plastic hay. It reads, in giant letters:
The motif serves as a tribute to — or a satire of — political campaign signs in a testy, divisive political year. While the same design is sold on a T-shirt in stores and online, the signs themselves aren’t available for purchase — although that hasn’t stopped customers from occasionally absconding with them as collector’s items.
A Gameday Spirit Store manager told the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette that profits in April and May were the best they’d seen in more than a decade. Lovie for President! Lovie for Governor! Lovie for Everything!
“I don’t know about any of that stuff,” Smith says. “I’m just a ball coach here.”
In many ways, though, the ball coach’s role is as much a “sell” job here as anything else, a shepherd trying to coax back a distracted, fractured, disillusioned flock. The program’s last marquee bowl bid was a berth in the 2008 Rose (USC demolished the Illini in Pasadena, 49-17, a setback from which then-coach Ron Zook never really recovered). The last Big Ten championship was 2001, under Ron Turner.
The Illini ranked 12th out of 14 Big Ten schools in average home attendance last fall, the only season of then-interim coach Bill Cubit, who was given the job on a permanent basis in November 2015 after a 5-7 campaign — and then let go by Whitman in March.
“There was a sense of underperforming, an atrophy that occurred throughout that,” offers Dino Pollock, an Illini receiver who played for Mike White and John Mackovic in the late 1980s.
“You just have a fan base that’s dying. We, as alums, we, as former players, we’re hyper-competitive people anyways. But to see other programs and other schools excel while we’re treading water and sinking in quicksand is unfathomable.”
A reported 48,644 filed into Memorial Stadium for the season-opening, 52-3 rout of Murray State, the largest at a home opener since 2012. A Week 2 showdown with North Carolina brought in 60,670 — the first sellout crowd in Champaign since Michigan came to town in November 2011. It was the first sellout for a nonconference game since Arizona State visited on Sept. 12, 1987.
“The fans have been supportive,” Smith says. “They realize that we’re here for the long haul. And again, it’s the same no matter where you are: If you’re losing, it’s no fun. For anyone. It’s no fun for us. And it’s really bad when you lose the last game of the year. That’s not the case with us. It’s on to the next week. If we were 3-0 right now, we’d be talking about (how) this is the biggest game, (how) the Big Ten championship starts right now. It’ll be the same mindset, except that there’s a little bit more of a sense of urgency when you’re coming off of two disappointing losses.”
The narrative floats, like the hope, on multiple levels. Joe Stovall recalls a client coming into his Champaign insurance office earlier in the week raving about Lovie, an African-American client who happened to play quarterback as a high school standout in East St. Louis, Ill., back in the ’70s.
“And we don’t need to repeat the history of how that thing swam like a 10-ton brick,” says Stovall, who hosts a weekly sports radio show on WBCP-AM (1580). “And he obviously was not going to be the quarterback at the University of Illinois.
“But to listen to him talk, you know, it’s like the lighthouse has been lit on the hill. And now people have a beacon to follow, and I think that’s really (powerful). When you’ve never walked in another man’s shoes, and now you get to see what imagery can do for individuals. To me, it’s galvanizing.”
Even if Lovie doesn’t capture a single league victory — and he might not, as the Illini will likely only be favored in one more contest the rest of the year, when Purdue visits on Oct. 8 — Smith has already knocked down old walls, shaken ancient precedent. He’s the first black man ever to coach football or men’s basketball here; The Illini were the last long-standing Big Ten member to make a diversity hire in either position, much to the consternation of alums such as Pollock and local advocates such as Byron Clark, president of the Illinois chapter of the National Council of African-American Men.
“I think it’s a value statement whenever you say, ‘We’re not just playing football here,’ ” Clark says. “I think it’s a good sign for the University of Illinois. It brings the community closer. I know, personally, a lot of African-Americans, members of our community, who are going to more games or who might be going to their first games ever, in part, because Lovie’s coaching now. It’s significant.”
A significance shared by the staff — offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson are both black, another program first — and by the highest levels of university administration. Earlier this month, Robert Jones became the school’s first African-American chancellor.
“When you’re first at something, I understand history,” Smith says. “I understand Dr. Jones, our new chancellor, being the first African-American chancellor here. We understand those (roles).
“And, to me, being the first to do something — you know what type of impact that has. That’s a big thing, to some guys of color, to young people coming up. I think when you have a desire to be something, it helps if you can see somebody that looks like you in those roles. I understand what that means, but I also understand my role now as just a football coach. Our guys here (don’t) say, ‘African-American head coach.’ Naw, they’re not thinking about that. It’s just, ‘coach.’ So I understand that role, too.”
Nor is it without irony that the site of Smith’s first Big Ten game — Lincoln, Neb. — has been fraught with some very hard, very real discussions about race, and race relations, over the past five days.
A trio of Cornhuskers players chose to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem before Nebraska’s league opener at Northwestern in protest of recent shooting deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement. One of the Huskers in question, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, said in an emotional statement that the players’ social media accounts after the victory over the Wildcats were peppered with furious, hateful and even racist invectives.
As with peers such as Nebraska’s Mike Riley, Harbaugh and Dantonio, Smith defends his players’ right to peaceful, lawful protest. Even in a sporting arena. Even on a nationally televised stage.
“If I’m asked a question, I answer it. If it’s something that I feel strongly about, I’ll answer it,” the coach says. “And I want our guys to do the same thing.
“To me, we have constitutional rights. It’s as simple as that. Is someone breaking the law? If they’re not, and they feel strongly about something … peaceful protest, isn’t that what we’re all about. To me, if people break the law, I have a problem with that, if one of our players is breaking the law.
“Like for me, diabetes — it has affected my family. I’m interested in that. Most of the guys on our team have a family member, (or) something important to them that socially is being talked about right now. So I don’t want our players just hiding in our locker room and not living in this real world. That’s not how it works. We have them for four hours (a day). What are they doing the rest of the time? They’re a part of society, so I just want them to be interested. This is the University of Illinois, it’s about education, knowing what’s happening in the world. Of course, I want them to do that. It’s not like we start every one of our football meetings with, ‘Hey, let’s go through current events.’ We don’t do that.
“I’m concerned about the killings, and things like that that are going on in our world. But no one is — when you’re not breaking any law, and again, these are peaceful protests. When you take a stand, it’s normally something that you feel strongly about. That’s what we should be encouraging. I just don’t think, as a general rule, you just go along with what you’re ‘supposed’ to go along with. You have to do research, and again, (with) things that are important to you, let that be known. It’s as simple as that.”
Even a honeymoon has rules. Boundaries. Scooters, the preferred on-campus choice of transport for more than half the Illini roster, were banned by Smith in the spring, citing safety concerns.
“If you ask me to describe a coaching staff, what you’re looking for in a coach?” Smith says. “A stern teacher. As simple as that.
“We’re teaching a trade, we’re teaching a skill, daily. Motivating. There’s methods as to how we want to get things done. That’s what I got from my teacher. I’d be disappointed if I was described as a coach that’s not really a good teacher, you know?”
But Smith also knows his tenure will be ultimately judged by recruiting (“We’re not talking calculus or anything like that,” he says) and results. He logged much of last weekend’s bye on the road, chasing the future. One of Smith’s first big gets for the class of 2017 is wideout Carmoni Green, a 6-foot-1 commitment from Miami (Fla.) Central High, a 4-star target who had Florida, Florida State, Georgia, South Carolina and Utah on his short list.
“The adjustment for me has been, in the NFL, you start about 7-8 (in the morning) and you’re going till 5,” Smith says. “You’ve got the guys here from 2-6. So there’s a four-hour block and you’ve got to be really on every little detail. No wasted time. But I think that I’m a detail guy that likes to be on time with everything and everywhere, and so, again, the environment has been great. You’re around a lot of young people. This is a big athletic department, and you interact with quite a few people during the course of the day.”
And even into the evening. On Aug. 26, Smith stopped in to the Wood N’ Hog to grab some dinner, shake hands and sample the fare.
“Even though I’m a fan, I wanted to give him room to breathe,” McDonald says. “I didn’t want to be, ‘Can I take a picture? Can I take a picture?’ But he was taking pictures anyway.”
The restaurant posted to various feeds a handful of shots that showed a congenial Smith posing with staff and neighbors. McDonald is a Lovie believer, but he also knows doing it right is a process. A journey. These are someone else’s players, someone else’s culture.
Someone else’s ingredients.
“It’s not going to be easy for him and it’s not going to be easy for me,” McDonald says. “We have got a lot of challenges.”
And funny how startups look after their own. A few days after Smith’s visit, the football office rang up Wood N’ Hog and asked for the little restaurant to cater a meal for the entire Illini coaching staff.
“This is the best feedback we’ve had,” McDonald says proudly. “So that was more validation that it wasn’t a fluke.”
Smith’s football team is still waiting for that same type of validation, that moment when a fan base decides it’s truly ready to fall in love again. A faithful that sees Wisconsin and Michigan State move up in weight class and wonders why it can’t happen here, why it hasn’t happened here. Why success comes in fleeting bursts, like a comet, and then shoots away again, leaving only memories, a vapor trail, and a chorus of growling stomachs.
“I think we can expect to be, within three years, a Big Ten West contender,” Pollock says. “And I feel like this entire season is a honeymoon for Lovie. (With) the timing of his hiring in March, he wasn’t able to recruit his own players and get a class in. He’s adjusting, coming from the NFL and back to college after 20 years away. And he’s getting to know his staff. He’s building a program from scratch, basically.”
Illinois football. The proud. The hopeful. The starved.
“And I’m disappointed with 1-2. I’d like to win, so 3-0 would be great,” Pollock chuckled. “But I’ve got a long view of this.”