The firing of Bill Cubit and subsequent hiring of Lovie Smith one day later at Illinois was a bombshell nobody but new athletic director Josh Whitman saw coming. Suddenly, the Illini have renewed credibility and have demonstrated they are serious about competing in the Big Ten West.
Smith, the former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, still has numerous tasks ahead of him. But Illinois now has the league's attention. Smith is the third new Big Ten head coach to be named since the 2015 season ended. In this roundtable, the Big Ten reporters address which school that hired a new head coach this offseason positioned itself to improve the most over the long term:
Austin Ward: Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights needed a jolt of energy, a fresh set of eyes on the program and some innovation, and the hiring of Chris Ash certainly appears to have provided that in the early stages of his overhaul. Adding in the off-the-field troubles along with the inability to compete against the elite teams in the league on the field, Ash’s rebuild obviously isn’t going to be easy, and it might not even be realistic to see marked improvement in his first season. But with the blueprint he learned under Urban Meyer, some inspired choices to fill out his coaching staff and what seems to be renewed buzz for the program (at least on social media), Rutgers just might have done the best job setting a foundation for the future.
Jesse Temple: Maryland
OK, so I'm taking a flier here on the Terps. But I am basing this pick, in large part, on the hiring of D.J. Durkin as head coach and his assembled staff, which has caused reason for optimism. Durkin's defensive background can only help Maryland, which surrendered 421.2 yards per game last season and ranked 90th nationally. Durkin, as defensive coordinator at Michigan last season, led a unit that ranked fourth in the same category. Durkin is a fiery competitor, and even at age 38, he has quite a pedigree in college football. He worked under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, Meyer again at Florida and Harbaugh again at Michigan. There's no question Durkin has a monumental task ahead of him in his first head-coaching job. With Mike London, Pete Lembo and Scott Shafer on staff, Durkin has surrounded himself with head coaching experience. Maryland also went 7-6 in each of the two seasons before its 2015 debacle, so the program isn't that far off. It has the resources necessary and the right coaching staff in place to succeed.
Dan Murphy: Illinois
Illinois isn't finished making its changes yet. New head coach Lovie Smith has a staff to hire in a very short and inopportune time, but he and athletic director Josh Whitman have already done enough to inspire confidence that the Illini can turn the corner.
Like Rutgers and Maryland, they had nowhere to go but up. It wasn't the 5-7 record that was rock bottom as much as the state of flux that came from an interim chancellor, interim athletic director and a head coach with a contract so flimsy he might as well have never dropped the interim tag either. Now they have a competent and confident new coach and a decisive, young AD who knows football (Whitman played tight end at Illinois) and appears dedicated to helping the team make significant strides. There's a similar spirit at Rutgers, but Smith doesn't have to deal with one of the most stacked divisions in college football while moving his team forward in the near future.