football Edit

How recruiting helped sink Lovie Smith at Illinois

Lovie Smith
Lovie Smith (AP Images)

Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman cited a rate of progress that did not meet expectations in announcing the termination of Lovie Smith as the school’s head football coach on Sunday. When we look back at Smith’s recruiting record during his nearly five-year tenure, there are several recruiting reasons that explain why the Illini were not able to reach expectations.


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Smith was dealt a difficult recruiting hand when he took over the Illinois program in March 2016. At a time when Power Five schools were already well into their 2017 recruiting game plan, Smith’s first priority was organizing a meaningful spring practice for the football team he just took over and only having a few days to prepare. He did manage to find some resources to direct toward recruiting in those early weeks, but it always felt like Smith was playing from behind in recruiting after that late start.


In the weeks after Smith was hired at Illinois I started to hear of plans for the Illini to focus their recruiting efforts in the south. This was the result of their roster analysis revealing the need for greater team speed and the perception that that speed would only be found in areas like Florida and Texas. Yet, Smith’s first five commitments after taking over the program were all from the state of Illinois.

That early, in-state success initially endeared Smith to local high school football coaches, who liked to see the state’s flagship school valuing home-state talent. The term of that endearment was short-lived, however, as Smith’s recruiting focus did turn south. Over the next three classes the Illini signed just nine in-state prospects, which included a 2020 class that did not feature a single in-state addition. The relationship between Smith’s staff and the state’s high school football coaches never progressed beyond being cursory.

“I just don’t think it was every looked at seriously, as far as building a longer-term relationship. It wasn’t a negative so much against Lovie; just the whole approach was so much different than the coaches in the state had seen before. (Illini coaches) just weren’t very visible at times. I think it was just that NFL approach that never seemed to connect.” – Illinois high school expert EdgyTim O’Halloran.

Isaiah Williams was the highest-ranked prospect to sign to play for Lovie Smith at Illinois.
Isaiah Williams was the highest-ranked prospect to sign to play for Lovie Smith at Illinois. (AP Images)


One of Smith’s key, early coaching hires was Cory Patterson, the former head coach at St. Louis (Mo.) Trinity Catholic who would serve as the Illini’s tight end coach. Besides coaching one of the St. Louis area’s top high school programs, Patterson was also well-connected throughout the city with high school coaches and was expected to make Illinois the dominant recruiting power in the area.

St. Louis has emerged as one of the Midwest’s top two talent-producing cities in recent classes, but Illinois has experienced very little success recruiting there during Smith’s tenure. The Illini would sign just five prospects from St. Louis in the last three classes, and all but one were from Trinity Catholic and previously played for Patterson.


Of the 78 prospects Lovie Smith signed during his tenure at Illinois, 31 (or nearly 40 percent) were from the southeast portion of the country. Another 15 were from California or Texas, while in-state and Midwest prospects accounted for just 37 percent of prospects signed.

The Illini were able to sign a few four-stars out of Florida and Texas in Smith’s first two classes, but found it difficult to compete consistently in those big, talent-producing states later in his tenure. The result was very small classes in 2019 and 2020, each with just 13 prospects signed. Those low numbers were not enough to replenish the players who graduated or otherwise left, and forced Smith to rely more heavily on the transfer portal in recent years.