Illinois Coach Candidates: Luke Fickell, Lance Leipold Leads Nine Candidates to Replace Lovie Smith


Illinois fired Lovie Smith on Sunday after spending five seasons at school. While Smith’s record on the field (17-39, 10-33 Big Ten) was nowhere near good enough, he leaves the program in much better condition than he found in March 2016.

Smith replaced coach Bill Cubit, who had just been extended after spending a year as interim coach after the unexpected dismissal of Tim Beckman before the 2015 season. The extension of the Cubit was decided by the school’s president and board of trustees, as Illinois hired a new sports director at the time.

Sports Director Josh Whitman announced the school’s Smith application on the first day. In his five seasons, Smith reshaped Illinois ’roster, which wasn’t good enough for the Big Ten, and helped open the $ 79.2 million Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Performance Center. Replacing Smith will inherit a much better position than he undertook, and the Illinois job will be more attractive than many realize. But where is Illinois turning?

Let’s take a look at the most popular names instead of Smith.

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell: When we hire Whitman history coaches, he likes to swing big. He picked up Lovie on his first responsible day. When he made a coaching change to the basketball program, he saw a few steps he took from Brad Underwood from Oklahoma just a year after he took on the job. Whitman himself is the football player of Illinois. He was the driving force behind the promotion of modernized facilities and longs to establish Illinois as a strong football program. So I would expect him to be looking for a great app and it’s harder right now to imagine a bigger name that would be available to him than Fickell.

Fickell played and coached in Ohio State and is currently in Cincinnati, where the Bearcats are ranked 8th in the College Football Playoff rankings. Fickell has been in four seasons 34-13 in Cincinnati, 30-5 in the last three seasons. Of course, Fickell inquired about the state of Michigan last spring and refused, so it’s clear he’s not just waiting for any Big Ten job, but the right Big Ten job. Would Illinois be that job? I’m skeptical, but if I’m Whitman, I’ll make sure Fickell doesn’t want this job before moving on to my other goals.

Buffalo coach Lance Leipold: Leipold has a history of victory. His overall record of 36-32 in the six seasons he spent in Buffalo is not impressive, but the Bulls ’teams have gone 23-9 in the past three seasons, winning two league titles during that time. Before arriving in Buffalo, Leipold spent eight seasons in Wisconsin-Whitewater Division III, winning six national championship titles (and appearing in a seventh title match) and becoming 109-6. Some will know skeptically if he can recruit in the Big Ten, but sometime the coach’s results speak for themselves.

Sean Lewis, Kent state coach: Lewis is an Illinois native who played in Wisconsin and became one of the hottest names in the coaching market. The 34-year-old studied under Dino Babers and is part of the Art Briles training tree. It brings an exciting attack in Champaign. Only 12-17 in Kent State, but after going 2-10 in its first season, Flashes has gone 10-7 in the last two years.

Jay Norvell, coach of Nevada: Norvell is from Wisconsin, played in Iowa, and has plenty of coaching experience within the Midwest. He has been in Nevada for four seasons and has done well with the Wolf Pack, going 21-13 in the last three seasons.

Dave Clawson, Wake Forest: When Illinois lured Underwood from Oklahoma, it seemed like a sideways move. Maybe Whitman will seduce another seated Power Five coach from his current position to raise his salary? Clawson is a proven program builder and led Wake Forest into bowl play for four consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.

Jason Candle, coach of Toledo: Illini fans may want to consider returning to the Toledo well after the Beckman Pass operates, but it’s hard to say that Candle didn’t do an excellent job with the Rockets program inherited from Matt Campbell. He has won 38 matches for the Rockets in six seasons and led the program to four bowls.

Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin Defense Coordinator: If Illinois wants the same success in football as what Wisconsin has achieved, it would be worth someone to follow 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 has spent the past four seasons as one of the best defense coordinators in the country.

Marcus Freeman, Cincinnati Defense CoordinatorA: Hey, if Fickell says no, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask him to transfer the call to Freeman’s office. Freeman helped oversee the brilliant Cincinnati defense, and many said he would be Fickell’s heir if he eventually left for another job. The former Ohio State linebacker has plenty of coaching experience within the Big Ten footprint.

Tom Manning, Iowa Attack Coordinator: Maybe Illinois is interested in the five-star culture he created at Campbell Ames. Manning played with Campbell in Mount Union and then met him again in 2012 as an offensive line coach in Toledo (when Campbell took control after Illinois hired Beckman). After Manning Campbell, he left for the state of Iowa before setting out to spend a year at the Indianapolis Colts. He returned to Ames in 2019 and has been the offensive coordinator on the Cyclones team for four of the past five seasons.