One of the biggest college football events over the past week is the firing of Bill Cubit as the head coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini and the hiring of Lovie Smith to replace him for over $20 million. The transition from one coach to the other took just two days and was clearly something Illinois had planned ahead for.
This quick decision should prove to be a smart one, as Coach Smith has a strong coaching background as he previously coached the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He's certainly more than qualified to coach at Illinois.
What I want to look at here though is whether or not Head Coach Mark Hudspeth should have been considered for this position and if not how far away is he from a position like this being offered to him?
I had a chance to talk with Jim Vainisi from The Champaign Room about what exactly Illinois was looking for and if he thought Coach Hudspeth was even considered for the gig.
On the hiring of Lovie Smith and how it all transpired:
...this was obviously a very, very bizarre situation for Illinois. I still can't comprehend how quickly everything happened, but one thing seems pretty clear to me: Josh Whitman (Illinois' Athletic Director) had his next coach lined up before the decision was made to fire Bill Cubit.
Well, there goes the thought that Hudspeth might have been considered for the position, but are we really that surprised? Illinois fired and hired coaches within two days of each other. They obviously had a plan in mind and knew they had the money to land Lovie Smith.
What was Illinois looking for and why did Lovie Smith fit the profile?
As far as what Illinois was looking for... I think the main priority was to hire someone who could bring immediate excitement to Champaign. I also know that our Board of Trustees has been campaigning for an African-American basketball or football coach for *years*. The University, which is very often criticized for its lack of diversity, has never employed an A-A in either of those roles, so Lovie is poised to be the first.
Being an outsider when it comes to Illinois sports, I had no idea about such a desire. And with the hiring of Lovie Smith, Illinois successfully got themselves a big splash. Knowing this, it's safe to say that Coach Hudspeth was likely not even considered for the Illini coaching position.
So what does Hudspeth have to do to get interviews from the lower tier Power 5 conferences? Let's break it down into the three major qualifications I feel schools look for when hiring a new head coach: big splash/excitement, resume, and recruiting ability.
Big Splash Ability
The ability to create a big splash when hiring a new head coach does a lot for a school's program. These hirings are likely after a few years of bad seasons and fans upset over where the team currently stands, so hiring an exciting new name can do a 180 on the team's outlook. Does Coach Hudspeth create this big splash?
Hudspeth's reach to college football fans is basically just the southeast United States. His coaching career since 2002, which we'll get to in just a moment, extends to North Alabama (head coach), Mississippi State (assistant), and UL Lafayette (head coach). While he has been very good as a head coach, his name doesn't have the national pull to create a big splash. To get there, he'll have to improve upon his resume in a way you might not have considered.
When it comes to resumes, there aren't many 47-year old coaches with a career record of 106-45 (84-45 if you dismiss the 22 vacated wins). His seven years at North Alabama were phenomenal, winning 66 games and reaching the D-II semifinal three times, including double-digit wins in five seasons.
At UL Lafayette, he won four New Orleans Bowls in a row, but he has yet to expand his national reach in a major way. The recent news of UL Lafayette's infractions has spread throughout the country, but UL Lafayette has yet to win a big game outside of the Southeast, or at all against a big name team.
In Hudspeth's time in Lafayette, they have really challenged themselves and taken on big teams outside of the conference. They have lost to Ole Miss, Boise State, Arkansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Florida, and Arizona. Altogether, he's lost to these major programs by an average of 23.75 points per game despite close finishes against Florida and Arizona.
Without a big win, Hudspeth can't put his name on the map like other small school coaches have in the past. This isn't necessarily a negative; it's just not a positive, either. If you look at the big picture, Hudspeth has won eight games per season (including the vacated wins) for a team that hadn't won more than six games since 1993. You can't take that away.
When a school hires someone, they need to know this coach can recruit. Generally speaking, players are more important than any scheme in these Power 5 conferences. So, how has Hudspeth done when it comes to recruiting?
From 2006 to 2010, the Ragin' Cajuns finished third, fourth, sixth, fifth, and fifth in the Sun Belt Conference according to 247 Sports, From 2011 to 2016, Hudspeth has pulled in the first, fourth, first, sixth, first, and fifth recruiting classes in the conference. While Hudspeth hasn't blown people out of the water with his recruiting classes, he has certainly done a great job putting together great classes with the Ragin' Cajuns to help them produce four straight nine-win seasons.
Mark Hudspeth was likely never considered for the Illinois job, but that doesn't mean he won't ever be considered for a comparable job. Overall, his resume and recruiting ability have shown to be above average, he just hasn't created that big splash that creates a stir when college football fans bring up his name.
In the near future I could easily see Hudspeth considered for a Power 5 head-coaching gig, but I'm thinking it'll be one south of the Mason-Dixon Line, considering his last 14 years of experience coming in the south. I could see Hudspeth considered at Mississippi State, Kentucky, Wake Forest, or East Carolina (not a Power 5, but an upgrade from ULL). These positions are ones he'd surely have to consider and he would likely take as much as it hurts Ragin' Cajun fans everywhere.