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Back to school: Crash course on what Lovie Smith should expect at Illinois

It's been 20 years since former Tampa Bay Bucs coach Lovie Smith was coaching in college and plenty has changed, but he isn't too concerned about an adjustment. "Football really is football," he says. Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports

In the winter of 1996, Lovie Smith joined Tony Dungy's staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving college football behind. Seemingly for good.

Smith quickly became a successful NFL coach, first as a linebackers coach in Tampa Bay, then as the defensive coordinator in St. Louis before becoming a head coach, first with the Chicago Bears, where he reached Super Bowl XLI, and then with the Buccaneers. Even when Smith was surprisingly fired in January, his coaching future seemed cemented in the pro game.

Two months later, he became Illinois' new coach. Standing in the student union shortly before his introduction, Smith told a crowd how he had missed the campus energy. He later mentioned Illinois' strong academic reputation and some general recruiting strategies.

Smith sounded ready to be back in college football. But the sport has changed dramatically in the 20 winters since he left his post as Ohio State's defensive backs coach.

Other coaches have returned to college after long NFL stints. Some, most notably ex-USC coach Pete Carroll, revived their careers on campus.

"Once Pete understood what it took to be successful, he was off and running," said DeWayne Walker, an assistant on Carroll's first USC team in 2001. "Lovie's a winner. He's going to look at some of the blueprints of how other NFL coaches have gone in and gotten it done."

Coaches whose careers followed similar paths outlined the blueprint and how Smith must adjust in several areas.

1. Recruiting

"The recruiting aspect is probably the biggest challenge you have," said Mike Sherman, who left college football after the 1996 season and spent 11 years in the NFL before becoming Texas A&M's head coach. "The phone calls, the letters, the visits, the junior days, sophomore days, freshman days on campus entertaining kids, that's the biggest challenge, because that's not part of the NFL.

"If you want to win, you have to do those things."

Coaches re-entering college football must handle not only the time demands of recruiting, but changes in the landscape. Increased regulation on recruiting actually makes it easier for them.

When Dave Wannstedt left the University of Miami after the 1988 season, recruiting was "12 months a year," with few restrictions on contact. He spent the next 16 years in the NFL before returning to Pitt, his alma mater, where he found a regimented recruiting calendar.

"It's dead week, it's quiet time, you can't text them, one visit per head coach, once-a-week phone calls," Wannstedt said. "There's a bigger fence around what you can and can't do, which I thought is good."

The tougher adjustment is the accelerated recruiting timeline. While NFL teams acquire new talent on the same schedule, colleges often secure verbal commitments from recruits 12-18 months before they officially sign. Smith noted that the size of recruiting departments, which have swelled in recent years, is the biggest change since he last coached in college.

Smith's unusually timed hiring actually helps Illinois' 2017 recruiting, as most coaching changes are made weeks before signing day. But he can't waste time. He and his assistants, some of whom also are coming from the NFL, must make connections with high school coaches and prospects.

Carroll dived into recruiting at USC, but he also wisely retained Ed Orgeron, an ace recruiter, and named him the team's recruiting coordinator. Carroll also hired new assistants with Los Angeles ties, such as Walker and Kirby Wilson.

"With that combination," Walker said, "it was pretty easy for him to come into L.A. and get things going pretty quick."

College coaches must brand themselves differently for recruiting. Although Smith needs few introductions in a state where he led its lone NFL franchise, he also must sell himself and his program in ways pro coaches don't need to.

Smith not surprisingly lacked a social media presence in the NFL. He joined Twitter the day after Illinois hired him.

"The biggest change was in recruiting, the social media access and how everybody knows who's recruiting whom," said Rich Brooks, who left Oregon after the 1994 season and spent six years in the NFL before returning as Kentucky's coach in 2003. "All of a sudden, I had a Twitter account and I was doing the stuff."

2. Scheme

Smith downplayed the schematic adjustments he'll make at Illinois, telling ESPN's "Championship Drive" podcast and others: "Football really is football."

Coaches who made the college-NFL-college transition laud Smith's tactical skills, especially on defense, but note that the current college game doesn't resemble the one he left in 1995. The spread offense was in its infancy. Offenses typically used tempo only in hurry-up situations. There were run-based option teams such as Nebraska, but fewer teams that applied run-pass options.

"You see a lot more variety offensively than you do in the NFL," Sherman said, "so your defensive coordinator really has to be on top of his game week in and week out."

The NFL has incorporated more elements from so-called college offenses and different types of players, which should help Smith and his reported defensive coordinator, Hardy Nickerson, who has coached NFL and high school ball but never in college. But Wannstedt notes that the run game in college "has a little more sophistication."

Smith historically grants his offensive coordinators autonomy and the adjustment there should be minimal. Coordinator Garrick McGee has spent almost his entire career in college football. He has coordinated spread-based offenses, coached different types of quarterbacks and worked for a former NFL head coach, Bobby Petrino, at both Arkansas and Louisville.

3. Players

Since his hiring, Smith has beamed about the chance to mold young players on and off the field. Known as a players' coach throughout his NFL tenure, Smith sees similarities between young pros and his new players at Illinois.

But the coach-player dynamic is unique at each level.

"With NFL players, we're management," Sherman said. "There's a little bit of a division there, an area that they guard against you knowing. You have a college player, you know just about everything: his strengths, his weaknesses, his mom, his dad, his grandma and grandpa, how he grew up, what his girlfriend's name is."

The personal connection helps college coaches elicit strong responses from players without major resistance. Although Smith inherits a locker room that could be loyal to Bill Cubit, who coached Illinois through the turbulent 2015 season, he'll soon be shaping the roster with his own recruits.

It's different from NFL veterans "kind of set in their ways" who may resist a new coach, Wannstedt said. "In college," Brooks said, "the coach controls the players."

"I enjoyed the enthusiasm of the college players," said Bobby Ross, the national championship-winning coach at Georgia Tech who led two NFL teams and had a 13-year layoff from college ball before taking over at Army in 2004. "They were very responsive. They would do just about anything you asked them to do. The thing that I always enjoyed on the college side, as opposed to the pro side, was having an impact on a young man's life, more so than teaching him football skills."

Smith will have less time to teach at Illinois. Although the NFL collective bargaining agreement in 2011 reduced preseason practices and in-season full-contact practices, pro coaches and players are together much more than those in college, especially out of season.

Walker said Carroll's hiring of strength coach Chris Carlisle in February 2001 often gets overlooked as a vital piece to getting USC on track. Strength coaches have added importance in college football because of their access to players, so Smith's hire there will be significant. Wannstedt also thinks Smith must hire staff who understand NCAA rules about player time demands.

"The NFL is getting closer to the college game in limiting meeting time and practices and what you can do," Wannstedt said, "but the college game has changed drastically since he's been in there."

Smith is stepping into a different realm, but coaches who have taken his route think he's ready.

Walker said Smith, like Carroll, monitored the college game without being in it and understands that relationship building with players is key. Brooks expects Smith to have "a very good grasp" on schematics, noting the recent trickle-up effect of college offenses to the NFL. Sherman thinks Smith will shine in recruiting, and not simply because of his pro coaching pedigree.

"Parents are tired of used-car salesmen in their living room," Sherman said. "He presents an integrity parents will want. Who he is, what he is, his authenticity will play out. He hasn't been in that world of blowing smoke at kids. He's been in a world of telling them the truth.

"That will be his greatest strength."