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SportsMonday: Loving Lovie Too Long

University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman actually uttered these words Sunday: "Anytime you get a coach, especially in football and men's basketball, where they have less than four years left on their contract, you start to leave them open to some criticism or vulnerability in terms of recruiting."

Less than four years? How stupid does he think fans are? If there are any fans of Illinois football left at this point, that is. It didn't matter that Lovie Smith would have had three years left on his deal. It wouldn't have mattered if he had only two.

What really happened here is then-rookie AD Whitman lost his mind and gave Smith, who was not exactly the hot candidate when Illinois hired him three years ago, a massively generous six-year (!) contract. One suspects Smith's clever agent stuck it to the inexperienced Whitman during lopsided negotiations.

And if he had fired Smith on Sunday at the end of the third year of that crushingly dim-witted deal, he would have had to trash the athletic department's budget by paying the coach a $12 million buyout.

That is the only reason Lovie gets a fourth year at the helm. And it means next year will be another wasted season in Champaign - that the Illini will be another year further away from even a modicum of respectability.

But wait, there's more: Lovie wasn't just not fired, or given a token extra contract year, he was given a two-year extension! And the justification was the "less than four years" line (again, Josh, you have to be kidding).

The thing that saves Whitman here is that so few people care. More than 99 percent of sports fans who read this story in the last 24 hours will have completely forgotten about it 24 hours from now. Heading into Whitman's fourth (!) year as AD, Illinois football is still utterly irrelevant. Good work, big guy.

If Illinois wants to continue to pretend it didn't have a choice (a real university with a real athletic department, or at least real boosters, of course has a choice), the powers that be need to at least acknowledge that the problem is the AD's incompetence, not some goofy delusion in which Smith's contract matters in recruiting. The bottom line is: If they weren't firing Smith, they should have fired Whitman.

Smith deserved to be dismissed on the basis of one score alone: his team's 63-0 loss to Iowa two weeks ago was the single worst setback in Illinois football history. And that is a history that has some legitimately proud chapters in between the numerous less-than-stellar ones. Dick Butkus played for Illinois! So did Simeon Rice! So did Red Grange, for gosh sakes!

If anyone bothers to recruit against Illinois in the coming year, they will start and finish by pointing out that Smith obviously has no clue what he is doing.

And that is enough about the utterly insignificant football program at the state's flagship university, other than the fact that the space between Chicago's Big Ten team and its supposed downstate rival is now a massive chasm.

The funniest thing there is that a few years ago, Illinois made some noise about claiming that Chicago mantle from Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern powerhouse (they are the Western Division champs taking on Ohio State next Saturday for a spot in the Rose Bowl - that means they are a powerhouse even if they barely squeaked out an 18-15 win over Rutgers a little more than a month ago).

In the next year, Fitzgerald will survey the recruiting landscape in Illinois and indeed the entire country and give not one tiny thought to Illinois and its coach's contract. He will sell Northwestern' academic reputation, its stellar facilities and its sustained excellence on the football field (15 wins in its last 16 Big Ten games!).

Illinois won't have a chance to matter in the coming year and it won't have a chance to matter until at least year three of the next coach's reign.

It is as bad as major college sports gets.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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