CHAMPAIGN – This is a man who has taken part in the biggest sporting event in the world not once but twice.
He’s been apart of a number of playoff games and conference championships in the National Football League where the eyes of the world, not just the nation, were on his and the performance of his team.
That won’t be the case of Saturday when Lovie Smith runs out of the tunnel on the Northeast end of Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon. A healthy but not a sellout crowd will greet him as the veteran coach takes the field for the first time as a head coach in the collegiate ranks at Illinois.
This is no Super Bowl XXXVI when he was the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams or Super Bowl XLI when he was the head coach of the Bears. Still the game against Murray State brings out a number of emotions for the long tenured coach.
“Butterflies, excitement, anticipation for that week,” is how Smith described his emotions before his first game with the Illini. “There’s nothing like it; each one is different.”
Certainly this one is for Smith who was hired by Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman just two months after being fired unceremoniously in Tampa Bay after two seasons with the Buccaneers. He takes over a program that was riddled in controversy and lost in mediocrity under Tim Beckman before he was fired before the 2015 season.
Bill Cubit took over on an interim basis, went 5-7, got the full-time job before Whitman replaced him with Smith in March. The move caught outsiders off guard considering the rarity of a post-recruiting coaching change and the fact that Smith hasn’t coached in college since 1995.
While hope is high for the future there are modest expectations for Smith out of the gate. The game against the Racers on Saturday at 2:30 P.M. will be one of the few games which the Illini are favored this season. Yet the adrenaline will be pumping for the coach just like it did for two decades in the NFL.
“For me coming back now, it’s been a long time since I’ve walked in the stadium and there’s a band playing, cheerleaders, just excitement of young people around,” said Smith. “So there’s a lot of excitement to put it mildly.”
NORTHWESTERN: If Only the Schedule Were Like Basketball
EVANSTON – There are a few reasons why Pat Fitzgerald is feeling pretty good as the 2016 season approaches.
His Northwestern team is coming off a ten-win season and returns their quarterback, running back along with one of the best linebackers in the country in Anthony Walker Jr..
The coach’s comments about the Wildcats’ training camp have mostly been positive so it would seem as if he feels pretty good about the team’s season opener on Saturday against Western Michigan. But when it comes to any team there is never telling how good they are till they actually get on the field.
There is no preseason and for the Wildcats or an easy match-up to start out the year since the Broncos come in with a solid offense mostly back from an 8-win season in 2015.
“I look forward to watching our guys play,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s one thing to practice, it’s another thing to watch them go play. I wish we were playing Carl Sandburg High School but we’re not.”
With that line of thinking in his head, Fitzgerald took a minor jab at friend Chris Collins’ men’s basketball program. They will open the season with relatively easy games against Mississippi Valley State and Eastern Washington before getting into the difficult part of their non-conference slate.
Collins’ opportunity to get his team on the floor against a weaker opponent is something Fitzgerald wishes he could have.
“I saw our non-conference schedule, that would be cool, that would be awesome,” said Fitzgerald of the basketball team. “But that’s not the deal. That’s not what football gets.”
NOTRE DAME: Snap Judgements in Austin
SOUTH BEND – On media day he was quick to come out and say that he would go with two quarterbacks in the opening game of the 2016 season.
About two weeks later, Brian Kelly was again honest with his thoughts on where the majority of the attention for Notre Dame’s opener against Texas in Austin will be.
“I think a lot of attention, a lot of eyes, a lot of national media and local media will be wanting to focus on that,”said Kelly of the signal callers on both sides. “But sometimes when you focus on the quarterbacks, you forget there are a lot of other things going on out there and there’s a lot of talented players on both sides that will have to step up and make plays.”
For the Irish, however, it will have to start with their quarterbacks.
DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire’s play was so strong during training camp that Kelly felt the need to use both for the opener against the Longhorns. Zaire was the opening day starter last season but a broken ankle in the second game of the season put Kizer in the spotlight.
He would go onto throw for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns compared to just ten interceptions as the Irish finished the season 10-3 with an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl.
Playing two quarterbacks is something Kelly has done in the past at Notre Dame – including the 2012 undefeated regular season with Everett Golson and Tommy Rees – so he’s not worried about any issues with splitting reps or snaps.
“They’re two veteran players. They know how to play. They would like to be the guy, but they want to win, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to win and find a way to win the game,” said Kelly. “So we get to pregame, they kick the ball off. We’re on the sidelines, the game starts, and they’ll be fine.
“When all the press conferences are over and we’re done talking about it, they’ll be fine.”