Josh Whitman was named the AD at Illinois on Feb. 17, 2016. A former Illini tight end, Whitman inherited a program at crossroads. Tim Beckman was fired in training camp the year prior after allegations of player mistreatment; Bill Cubit was tapped as a long-term interim and led the Illini to a 5-7 season. The 5-7 record wasn’t far off from Illinois’s 6-6 regular season a year ago, and with his previous experience as the head coach at Widener University and Western Michigan, Whitman could have kept Cubit in place for another year — Signing Day had come and gone by then — and then have his pick of the litter after the 2016 season.
Instead, Whitman waited less than three weeks to hire Lovie Smith. Smith hadn’t coached in college since serving as a position coach at Ohio State in 1995 and wasn’t working anywhere when tapped by Whitman; he had been dismissed as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach on Jan. 6, 2016.
Despite facing zero competition for Smith’s services, Whitman handed Smith a 6-year, $21 million contract with an unnecessarily large buyout.
Two and a half seasons in, the jury may not be in, but there is activity in the courthouse.
Smith is 8-24 in Champaign, including a 3-20 mark in Big Ten play. He’s 2-1 against Rutgers and 1-19 against the rest of the Big Ten.
Not only that, but attrition is beginning to arrive along his staff. Cornerbacks coach Donnie Abraham resigned in August, citing personal reasons. On Monday, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned due to “health reasons”.
Abraham and Nickerson played with Smith in Tampa Bay, and Nickerson coached on his staff with the Bucs as well.
Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson has resigned "for personal reasons."
Nickerson: "Due to health-related circumstances beyond my control I must step aside at this time." pic.twitter.com/JFRxpz3Lga
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) October 29, 2018
Neither resignation is a reflection on Smith’s job performance (although it is odd to see two confidants leave the staff within months of each other), but it will be a factor moving forward as Smith shops a defensive coordinator job this winter with a possible coaching change looming.
By making such an out-of-left-field move, Whitman will fully own the Smith hire. Should Smith turn it around, Whitman will reap the credit for a successful hire. In the likely event that does not happen, Whitman will own the blame.
Smith’s buyout remains at $12.6 million through this season. The buyout then drops to $8 million on Feb. 1 — $4 million in damages, plus Smith’s entire Year 4 salary of $4 million.
Considering Whitman was competing with precisely no one for Smith’s services in March of 2016, then handed him a Charlie Weis-ian contract, Whitman will own the hire. There will be no “Well, the boosters wanted him” shoulder shrug in Champaign. Given that, it seems logical Whitman won’t pull the plug following this season. Waiting until February would save $4 million, but also depletes the pool of available candidates, putting Whitman back in the same situation he was in after dismissing Cubit in 2016. Should Lovie return for the 2019 season, there is little doubt he will top each and every hot-seat list.