Illinois fired Lovie Smith on Sunday after five seasons at the school. While Smith's record on the field (17-39, 10-33 Big Ten) wasn't nearly good enough, he leaves the program in much better condition than he found it in March 2016.
Smith replaced Bill Cubit, a coach who had just been extended after spending a year as the interim coach following the unexpected dismissal of Tim Beckman before the 2015 season. The decision to extend Cubit was made by the school's president and board of trustees as Illinois was in the process of hiring a new athletic director at the time.
It was on athletic director Josh Whitman's first day in charge that the school announced Smith's hiring. In his five seasons, Smith overhauled an Illinois roster that wasn't good enough for the Big Ten and helped in the push to open the $79.2 million Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Performance Center. Smith's replacement will inherit a much better situation than the one he took on, and the Illinois job will be more appealing than many realize because of it. But where will Illinois turn?
Let's take a look at the top names to replace Smith.
Luke Fickell, Cincinnati coach: When we look at Whitman's history hiring coaches, he likes to swing big. On his first day in charge, he hired Lovie. When making a coaching change in the basketball program, he made a move few saw coming, luring Brad Underwood away from Oklahoma State only a year after he took that job. Whitman is a former Illinois football player himself. He has been a driving force behind the push for upgraded facilities and has a desire to establish Illinois as a strong football program. So I would expect he's going to look for a big hire, and right now, it's harder to imagine a bigger name that would be available to him than Fickell.
Fickell played and coached at Ohio State, and he is currently at Cincinnati where he has the Bearcats at No. 8 in the College Football Playoff Rankings. Fickell is 34-13 in four seasons at Cincinnati, 30-5 in the last three seasons. Of course, Fickell had interest from the Michigan State job last spring and turned it down, so it's clear that he's not just waiting for any Big Ten job to come along but the right Big Ten job. Would Illinois be that job? I'm skeptical, but if I'm Whitman, I'm making sure Fickell doesn't want the job before moving on to my other targets.
Lance Leipold, Buffalo coach: Leipold has a history of winning. In six seasons at Buffalo, his overall record of 36-32 isn't impressive, but his Bulls teams have gone 23-9 the last three seasons and have won two division titles in that time. Before coming to Buffalo, Leipold spent eight seasons at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, winning six national titles (and appearing in a seventh title game) and going 109-6. Some will be skeptical about his ability to recruit in the Big Ten, but at some point, a coach's results speak for themselves.
Sean Lewis, Kent State coach: Lewis is an Illinois native who played at Wisconsin and has become one of the coaching market's hotter names. The 34-year-old learned under Dino Babers and is a part of the Art Briles coaching tree. He would bring an exciting offense to Champaign. He's only 12-17 at Kent State, but after going 2-10 in his first season, the Flashes have gone 10-7 the last two years.
Jay Norvell, Nevada coach: Norvell is a Wisconsin native who played at Iowa and has plenty of coaching experience within the Midwest. He's been at Nevada for four seasons and has done well with the Wolf Pack, going 21-13 the last three seasons.
Dave Clawson, Wake Forest: When Illinois lured Underwood from Oklahoma State, it seemed like a lateral move at the time. Maybe Whitman lures another sitting Power Five coach out of his current seat for a pay raise? Clawson is a proven program-builder and has led Wake Forest to a bowl game in four consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.
Jason Candle, Toledo coach: Illini fans might cringe at the thought of going back to the Toledo well again after the way the Beckman hire worked out, but it's hard to argue that Candle hasn't done an excellent job with the Rockets program he inherited from Matt Campbell. He's won 38 games in six seasons with the Rockets and led the program to four bowl appearances.
Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin defensive coordinator: If Illinois is looking to have the same kind of success in football that Wisconsin's achieved, it would make sense to go after somebody familiar with the formula. The 38-year-old Wisconsin native played for the Badgers and then joined the coaching staff after a 10-year NFL career. He's spent the last four seasons as the defensive coordinator of one of the country's best defenses.
Marcus Freeman, Cincinnati defensive coordinator: Hey, if Fickell says no, it wouldn't be a bad idea to ask him to transfer the call to Freeman's office. Freeman has helped oversee a brilliant Cincinnati defense and is seen by many to be Fickell's heir apparent should he eventually leave for another job. The former Ohio State linebacker has plenty of coaching experience within the Big Ten footprint.
Tom Manning, Iowa State offensive coordinator: Maybe Illinois is interested in some of that five-star culture Campbell has created in Ames. Manning played at Mount Union with Campbell and later reunited with him as the offensive line coach at Toledo in 2012 (when Campbell took over after Illinois hired Beckman). Manning followed Campbell to Iowa State before leaving to spend a year with the Indianapolis Colts. He returned to Ames in 2019 and has been the offensive coordinator for four of the last five seasons with the Cyclones.