For a big fish, Lovie Smith never forgot his ponds, no matter how small. And the ponds returned the favor in kind. Usually.
Well, OK. Sometimes.
“I used to travel a week with each of my assistants,” Don Morton, Smith’s old boss at Tulsa and Wisconsin, said of the newest Illinois football coach, rolling the calendar back three decades.
“And I remember going to Big Sandy (Texas), his hometown, which he had tremendous pride in. He was quite the local hero. And there was a high school coach in Texas that got his name (wrong) and thought he was ‘Louie.’ ”
Morton laughed at that one. They didn’t correct the teacher in question, and the Golden Hurricanes’ head coach kept that flub in his back pocket to take with him back up to Oklahoma.
“We kind of kidded him,” said Morton, now the site leader at Microsoft’s campus up in Fargo, N.D. “And kind of always called him ‘Louie’ for a little while.”
So, no, humility won’t be an issue in Champaign, which is good. Especially with Loui — er, Lovie’s first preseason camp as coach of the Fighting Illini set to open Thursday, kicking off the business end of the honeymoon.
“I think all the pro years and his varied experiences are a real plus,” Morton, the man who gave Smith his first Big Ten coaching gig, told LandOf10.com. “The difference between being a successful college coach and a successful NFL coach (is) not that big a gap.
“Lovie was a tremendous recruiter. And part of being a tremendous recruiter is evaluating talent, which he did very well at the collegiate level, and I think he’s done very well at the NFL level.”
Gene Keady said it best: Recruiting is like shaving — skip a day and you start to look like a bum. It’s the game within the game, a game Smith hasn’t had to play since leaving Ohio State for Tony Dungy’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff after the 1995 season.
And yet it’s also the most essential part of his first 18 to 24 months on the job — revisiting old pipelines and building new ones, one handshake – or tweet – at a time. You never forget the dance steps, but the music seems to play faster all the time.
“He’s very genuine,” Morton, who had Smith on his staffs at Tulsa (1985-’86) and at Wisconsin (1987), said of his former protege. “He’s very sincere, and you just can’t fake that. It comes through. What you’d call ‘empathy,’ or whatever you’d call it, he has it. (It) comes across. He can make the emotional connection with people because he’s just very genuine.
“The secret to recruiting is the secret to sales: When you can make that emotional connection. Lovie’s just a genuine, honest person. That can happen naturally, he doesn’t have to ‘work’ on it. It’s just part of his personality.”
Morton first met Smith more than 30 years ago, when the latter was a young holdover from John Cooper’s Tulsa staff, a group he’d joined in 1983, returning to his alma mater after three seasons on prep football staffs in Texas and Oklahoma.
“John had a very good staff of experienced people and so we interviewed Lovie,” said Morton, who succeeded Cooper when the latter left for Arizona State after the 1984 season. “It became clear right away that he would be a great fit.”
Morton thinks Smith is a great fit in Champaign, too, where the Illini over the last decade have averaged seven losses a year, cycled through three football coaches — including Bill Cubit, Smith’s predecessor, for just one season — and haven’t appeared in a major bowl since a hammering at the hands of USC in the 2007 Rose Bowl.
“I’m really happy to see him back in the Big Ten,” Morton said. “I’m really a Big Ten guy, and I think at Illinois, it looks like their athletic director (Josh Whitman) just has tremendous credibility. That’s what it takes. That’s the key thing, starting with representatives of the university and the (institutional) commitment. It’s just good to get everybody on the same page, and it looks like that’s starting to happen, so that’s all very positive.”
Smith has the benefit of a new chancellor (Robert Jones, who will start in October) and a relatively new athletic director in Whitman, who only a few months ago made the former Chicago Bears coach his first “splash” hire.
And those little stamps, the Lovie touches, are seeping in already. Camp was moved from nearby Rantoul, Ill., back to campus. And Big Ten peers are talking about looking at old NFL film to get ready for Smith’s Tampa-2 defensive schemes. Lovie’s Bears lead the NFL in takeaways twice and were among the Top 10 six times in nine seasons.
“The strategy part is the easy part of the job,” Morton said. “And there are so many things that go into it. He’s not going to be outcoached. He’s not going to be out-strategized.”
Illinois only returns four starters on defense, but one of them is defensive end Dewaune Smoot, a 255-pound edge rusher already earmarked by pro scouts as a possible first-round draft choice. While new faces at cornerback raise a few red flags, middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr., a graduate transfer from Cal, is expected to ease the transition, given that his father — ex-NFL defensive great Hardy Nickerson — also happens to be the program’s new defensive coordinator.
“There will probably be some execution problems that come along,” Morton continued. “But (after) they recruit and the talent level starts going up, all of a sudden, your strategy looks better.”
If the Illini aren’t a sleeping giant, they’re at least a sleeping middleweight. A project with potential, if the powers that be could ever get out of their own blasted way.
Unlike 30 years ago, high school coaches know Lovie’s name. But will that necessarily translate into constructive numbers?
“The thing is, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Morton said. “It just takes time to build a program. You’ve got to give a coach a chance to get his own players in there. … If they bought into you in the recruiting process, they’re going to buy into you on campus.
“I think Lovie will cover all the bases. And it will take some patience on everybody’s part. But it can happen.”
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler