News Local/State

Columnist Leitch Weighs In On The Lovie Smith Hype

U of I Athletic Director Josh Whitman with new Illini Football Coach Lovie Smith at the announcement of his hiring.

U of I Athletic Director Josh Whitman with new Illini Football Coach Lovie Smith at the announcement of his hiring Monday. Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

University of Illinois graduate Will Leitch, who regularly writes columns for Sports On Earth, New York Magazine, and Bloomberg, says the hiring of Lovie Smith as Illinois' new football coach makes him think of a packed Memorial Stadium, and a 23-22 comeback win over Colorado in 1990. 

The Mattoon native who formerly wrote for Deadspin was among the nearly 70,000 fans at that game when he was 14 years old.

"It's hard to explain to people now who have been to Memorial Stadium and seen it half full, even with the new additions, it's been kind of a sad place," Leitch said.  "It can be rocking. That Colorado game was one of the most intense sports experiences I've ever had to this day."

Leitch says given recent events on the U of I campus (the firings of football coach Tim Beckman and athletic director Mike Thomas), he understands if Illinois fans are a little gun shy since the hirings of Athletic Director Josh Whitman, and Smith, who he hired just days into the new job.

In his column, Leitch even said for the last decade, Illinois has become the joke of the college sports world.

"There are times when we've been excited before," he said.  "Even in the basketball program - it felt like that was about to take off just really two or three years ago.  I think it's okay to be skeptical."

Leitch admits there's lots of work to be done with recruitment, saying if the team made it to six wins in the upcoming season, it would be considered an unqualified success.  He says Lovie Smith also made a point of maintaining relationships with his former players in the NFL.

"His former players adore him," Leitch said. "He joked as (the hire at Illinois) was going down last weekend, he was supposed to go to (former Bears linebacker) Brian Urlacher's wedding. And it's been years since the two of them worked together. You talk to people who formerly played for Smith, and they consider him a mentor."

Leitch, a big St. Louis Cardinals fan, is also the author of "Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball."  The book centers around a trip to Wrigley Field to watch them play the Cubs.