Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center

By Johnathan Hettinger

No private funds were needed to buy out Lovie Smith’s contract, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said Sunday. The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics will pony up the $2.3 million buy-out, as an investment in the future. Here’s what Whitman had to say about it:

“It is a challenging year, and that’s been well documented, but again, we felt like given some of the contractual-related items, both with Lovie and some of the assistants, it seemed like either we could make the move now and do a relatively modest short-term financial hit, or we could make a recommitment with ever-more numbers of university resources and potentially put us at a greater risk with more exposure down the road.”

Viewed within the context of the DIA’s annual $126.4 million budget, Whitman was right to call the buy-out a “relatively modest short-term financial hit.” It’s a fraction of the $21.3 million Auburn had to pay Gus Malzahn in his buy-out.

But there is another more human context this decision needs to be viewed in: how much money this actually is.

Earlier this year, the DIA asked its employees to take “voluntary” pay cuts to help the department weather the pandemic and expected downturn in revenue from fewer football games and no fans being allowed at games. 

The response showed the lengths that people were willing to go to to help the department — 87 staff members volunteered to take pay cuts, totaling more than $2 million, surpassing the goal of $1.8 million. Forty others, some of the lowest paid in the entire department, started working for the university’s SHIELD COVID testing program.

The DIA was so proud of these sacrifices that they even paid one of their media people to write a self-aggrandizing post about how the “selfless staff is a silver lining within the pandemic.”

These 87 people should be praised. Their actions likely saved their co-workers’ jobs. But the fact that they even had to make this decision is a failure.

In one fell swoop, the $2.3 million buyout of Lovie Smith’s contract erased the $2 million saved by the sacrifices of these employees. 

Sure, it is a “strictly voluntary” pay cut, but when someone asks you to take less money, there is a veiled threat behind it: If you don’t take a paycut, someone is going to have to go. 

The same goes for the employees who took on COVID testing duties. This is really important work, but it’s also not what these employees signed up for. Not to mention it’s dangerous, exposing yourself to more people during a pandemic. When a DIA job needs done, who gets called on? Probably the people doing the testing, who are now doing two jobs for the price of one. Don’t want to do it? Well, you’re lucky you still have a job.

It’s the story of the pandemic over and over again: The general public buys in and unites for the good of the cause, but a failure of leadership at the top negates these sacrifices.

This $1.8 million cut isn’t going to solve any real problem with such a large budget and future uncertainty. A milestone like that only mattered because leadership said it mattered. 

Now, with Whitman deciding after the Iowa game that Lovie isn’t the future of the program, $2.3 million is a “relatively modest short-term financial hit” and the idea of “if you really think about it, it’s probably going to save money in the long-term” gains hold. In a few days, Whitman will hire a new coach. That coach will make millions of dollars, depending on experience and negotiating. Whitman probably has a budget in mind, but if $2 million more will seal the deal, I imagine it isn’t going to break his desire to hire a new coach.

The real problem is that money’s made up when the DIA wants it to be (head coach changes), but not when it comes to the 87 people that were counting on that money. The 87 people that budgeted based on that income, that bought homes and cars expecting to be able to pay mortgages and car payments based on that income. The 87 people who decided they could take a little bit less for a little bit.

I’m not interested in the discussion of how much money the decision could eventually save one day. Or an explanation about different pots of money being used for different things.

Instead, my point is: The money is always there when it needs to be.

This isn’t to say Lovie Smith should’ve continued to be the coach. That’s beside the point and not really something I have strong feelings about one way or the other. My greatest desire for Illinois football to get to a point where it can go 8-4 at least once every five years and go to a bowl 3 out of 5 years, and my overarching theory on college football coaches is that most will likely meet this low standard if you simply give them the time. 

In a few years, if the hiring doesn’t work out to meet the modest goals of Illinois football, there will be millions of dollars sitting there to buy them out.

But when it comes to paying the low-level employees, who keep the floors swept, who pick up the phone and sell the tickets, who do good tweets, my question is:

Will the money be there for them too?

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