Illinois coach Love Smith: ‘Be who you are’

By Dan Guttenplan

Lovie Smith has been the University of Illinois head football coach since 2016, when he returned to college football after spending 19 years in the NFL. He was an NFL head coach for 11 seasons split between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Smith and Tony Dungy became the first two African-American head coaches to coach in the Super Bowl when they faced off in Super Bowl XLI.

Smith shared some thoughts on his coaching philosophy with FNF Coaches.

It seems that high school is always a bit behind college when it comes to new technology due to budget constraints. What are some of the new trends for strength and conditioning programs that high school coaches should be aware of?

“First off, when it comes to strength training, as much as things are constantly changing, they remain the same. Young athletes in high school want to know what they need to do to take the next step and evolve to be the best possible athlete. One thing is to get stronger. There’s always new technology. I have a new car, but one of my favorite cars is the 1967 Mustang. It doesn’t have a lot of new features, but it still gets the job done. Some of the basic principles never change.

“I say the same with strength and conditioning. We are getting ready to move into a $90 million facility with all of the latest and greatest new weights. It still comes down to lifting weights and getting stronger.”

High school players are constantly trying to get bigger, faster and stronger so that they can play in college. What would you recommend to athletes who are trying to achieve that goal?

“There are things that haven’t changed. Start with nutrition. We have a full-time nutritionist. There are still some basic things that are in play. A balanced diet is important. What you put into your body is important. Nowadays, rest is just as important. Most young people take a nap every day. There’s a reason why. We put as much emphasis on rest as we do on strength and nutrition. The other thing we’ve put emphasis on is hydration. All of our guys carry a big jug with them. Hydration is a basic part of wellness.”

I once read a story about you between your coaching stints with the Bears and Bucs. A reporter was shadowing you on a Sunday, and you weren’t really all that concerned with the NFL games. I’d read similar stories about guys like Bill Parcells or Greg Schiano, and they were obsessed with watching NFL games. How do you keep a healthy perspective outside of football?

“First off, you need to be yourself. That’s who they are, the guys you mentioned. The best advice is to be who you are and be consistent with how you do things. I don’t think anybody should change to be like me or anyone else. I keep a healthy balance. When I watch games, I’m a fan. I don’t always want to be working. When I’m watching a game, I want to dissect the game in a different way. I’ll admit that coaching is about situational football. You can learn so much by watching, just like players can learn when they’re injured. How would I handle this situation if it comes up? From a young age, I’ve always loved watching football as much as I can.”

Coaches at all levels dream of coaching in a Super Bowl. What memories stick out from that experience?

“If you’re in high school, it’s all about the state championship. When you get there, you know everything you’ve gone through as a team. It takes years of training. Then, in college ball, it’s the national championship. To play in the last game that determines the champion, it gives you a moment to think of all of the experiences. I know how lucky we’ve been to get here. It’s a time to exhale. You never know if you’ll do it again, or when you’ll do it. A lot of people don’t get that chance. It’s a memory that will last forever.”

In what ways do you think high school coaches could better prepare players for college football?

“You have to develop the man first. It starts at that level. I keep hearing today’s athlete has changed. No, we’ve changed what we allow. We have to be strong with them early. My high school coach was in my life for all of my life. Even when I became a grandfather, he was in my life. That molded me for the rest of my life. I hope high school coaches realize what an impact they’re having. Before we get to scheme, there’s discipline and the responsibility of being a good teammate. There’s only so much you can teach about tackling and catching. Being trustworthy, that’s what’s important. You can’t skip ahead to scheme. Develop the man first, and then develop the player.”

What team-building exercises work for you?

“Spending time together works as well as anything. Whether it’s paintball or going to a movie, anything you do as a group will help team-building.”

The King of Cover 2

Lovie Smith is known for installing the Tampa 2 and Cover 2 defense wherever he goes. At Illinois, he’s running a one-gap system that features Cover 2, along with Cover 1, Cover 3, and a coverage referred to as Under 10.

“Scheme-wise, our family of defense has the Cover 2 trademark,” Smith said. “But it’s so much more than that. We play some basic coverages that all high schools play. We’ll play two-deep or man coverage. We’ve kept those concepts throughout.”

Smith believes the best coaches build their schemes around personnel.

“We tweak how we play,” Smith said. “You have to look at who you’re playing with, look at the personnel and what they’re able to do. Scheme can only take you so far. The development of an athlete is more about grooming an attitude of defensive football, playing hard, and being relentless. Those are the trademarks.”

Smith is also cautious not to confuse players by inundating them with various schemes and defensive formations.

“It’s about knowing what you’re supposed to do,” Smith said. “We primarily play Cover 2 in passing situations because everyone will be on the same page. It doesn’t matter what level, it comes down to stopping the run. You have to do that. Now with spread offenses, it all starts with that.”