Sean Lewis, Bret Bielema and Lance Leipold Favorites to Be Next Illinois Head Coach

Kent State Golden Flashes head coach Sean Lewis congratulates his players after scoring a touchdown during an NCAA football game against the Eastern Michigan Eagles on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Kent, Ohio. (AP Photo/Kirk Irwin)
  • Lovie Smith is out at Illinois after five seasons, and early reports suggest the Fighting Illini could be interested in Sean Lewis, Bret Bielema and Luke Fickell
  • The 34-year-old Lewis is the +350 favorite to be hired for the job
  • See all candidates given odds to take the Illinois football job within the story below

The Lovie Smith era has ended at Illinois. On Saturday, the team announced that the head coach is out and that they’ll begin the search for a new man to lead the team on the sidelines.

Kent State head coach Sean Lewis is favored to be their choice, while former Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema and Buffalo’s Lance Leipold are not far behind.

Which coach is the best bet to take over in Champaign?

Odds to Be Next Illinois Head Football Coach

Candidate Odds
Sean Lewis +350
Bret Bielema +400
Lance Leipold +400
Luke Fickell +600
Marcus Freeman +750
Billy Napier +800
Clark Lea +800
Jay Norvell +1000
Jeff Monken +1000
Jim Leonhard +1200
Tim Lester +1400
Tom Manning +1400

Odds as of December 14th

Smith Era Didn’t Produce Enough Wins

At the end of the day, Smith just didn’t produce enough wins at Illinois. The team wasn’t an abject disaster and the performance on the field was not calamitous, but they were just 17-39 in his tenure with a record of 10-33 in Big Ten contests. That’s just not good enough.

Smith appeared to be building towards something as the team won two games in 2017, four in 2018, six in 2019 (and went to a bowl) but the 2020 results delivered just two victories in seven contests.

It felt like a big step back, and given that there weren’t stellar results in other seasons, the school decided to make a change.

Lewis Is Favored to Be Next Illinois Head Coach

Illinois isn’t the sexiest program around, so it’s not as if they’ll be vying for the biggest names on the market. That’s why Kent State’s Sean Lewis is favored to be the next head coach.

He’s only been a head coach since 2018, but the results so far are fairly decent. He went 2-10 in his first season but had Kent State in a bowl last season, and is 3-1 so far in 2020.

Kent State was a dumpster fire before Lewis as they had won 10 games in the four years prior to his arrival. He’s won seven of his last eight at Kent State and the team has become quite entertaining to watch. They’re one of the most creative, explosive offensive units in the country. They lead the nation in yards per game (606.5) and are second in points scored (49.8).

Lewis is just 34 years old, and we know that young offensive minds are en vogue these days. He’ll have a good shot at this job but the question is does he want it or will he hold out for something better?

Bielema Could Be a Good Bet

Bielema flopped at Arkansas, going just 11-29 over five seasons. However, many people forget that he was one of the most successful Big Ten coaches before that at Wisconsin. He went 68-24 from 2006 to 2012, including 37-19 in Big Ten. That includes three straight Rose Bowl appearances.

What Illinois would likely get with Bielema is a coach who knows the conference very well. He knows how to recruit and win Big Ten games. At the very least, he should be able to build Illinois into a respectable, second-tier team in the conference that competes each and every year.

However, some do wonder just how good Bielema is. It seems that Wisconsin is doing just find without him, and given that he stunk up the joint at Arkansas, maybe his efforts at Camp Randall are making him look better than he is.

2020 Heisman Trophy Odds Tracker

What’s the Best Bet?

Bielema looks like a good play here because he’s looking for an opening to get back in the head coaching ranks. He might not be so picky. However, some of the other names on the list might, which is why you have to be careful betting this prop. Illinois is not exactly a football destination.

Lewis is an option but it seems like he’d be better suited to hold out for something else. His style of wide-open play might not work out in the Big Ten. Just take a look over at Nebraska where Scott Frost’s efforts have had little impact. Those same concerns fit Lance Leipold as well as Buffalo’s wide open offense works in the MAC but might not in the Big Ten.

Luke Fickell, who is currently guiding No. 8 Cincinnati to an undefeated season, would be a great option for the Fighting Illini. However, he turned down a job from Michigan State. That makes it very unlikely that he’d choose to go to Illinois.

That being the case, Bielema feels like the right fit here. He would probably take the job and they’d probably be happy getting him. He’s a good bet for this prop.

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