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Iowa Illinois Football

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith looks on in dismay as his team goes down to a 63-0 loss to Iowa. Little more than two weeks later, Illinois gave Smith a two-year contract extension.

It wasn’t a big shock that Illinois retained Lovie Smith as its head football coach.

After all, it would have cost the school a $12 million buyout to rid itself of the former Chicago Bears coach. The price tag was too high. Had to keep him.

The thing that raised eyebrows around the Big Ten was when athletic director Josh Whitman announced that Illinois was giving Lovie a two-year extension. He now is under contract through 2023.

“We wanted to demonstrate firmly and strongly that this is a direction that we believe in,” Whitman said. “This is a person we believe in. This is a program that’s on the rise.”

Sure. Whatever you say, Josh.

The Illini did have their best won-loss record in three years under Smith (4-8) but one victory was against an FCS team (Western Illinois), one was against 1-11 Rutgers and one was against 2-10 Kent State, the worst team in the Mid-American Conference.

The big win was against Minnesota and had that game been played a few weeks later, it might have had a different outcome because the Golden Gophers actually improved as the season progressed. They really were a team "on the rise."

The Illini really weren’t. In the next-to-last game of the season, they suffered a 63-0 loss at home to an Iowa team that came in with a three-game losing streak. They gave up 63 points in two other games and 54 in another. Two of those games were against sub-.500 teams.

Lovie made his name in coaching as a defensive guru, which makes those point totals especially embarrassing. His program seemingly has taken backward steps on that side of the ball in his three years on the job. The Illini gave up 45.6 points per game in Big Ten play, 11 points worse than any other team.

Does that sound like a program "on the rise?"

The reasoning behind giving him an extension is that if a coach in a major sport doesn’t have at least four years remaining on his contract, he is considered to be handcuffed from a recruiting standpoint.

You also could reason that giving a coach with such a rotten record an extension sends the message that this school has really low standards for its football program. That could handcuff your recruiting, too.

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According to published reports, the Big Ten is considering doing away with its East-West divisional set-up for football. The thinking apparently is that if the conference championship game were to match the two best teams in the league instead of the best in each division, it might help the Big Ten land a spot in the four-team playoff, something that hasn’t happened the past two years.

Sorry, but that probably wouldn’t have made any difference this year. We would have had Ohio State and Michigan meeting in the title game just a week after their regular-season meeting. Even if Ohio State won again, the Buckeyes probably still would have lost out to Oklahoma for a playoff berth. If Michigan had won, it would have guaranteed that the Big Ten wouldn’t get a playoff spot.

Even though the West never has won the Big Ten title game, it doesn’t make sense to change it right now.

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The Chicago Cubs signed a new pitching coach this week. Some guy named Tommy Hottovy, who formerly served as the team’s run-prevention coordinator. I guess that’s what pitching is, right? Run prevention.

It seems as though most major league pitching coaches these days are paunchy older guys whose only exercise is the occasional stroll to the mound.

Hottovy is 37. He’s six weeks younger than Ben Zobrist and only a couple of years older than Jon Lester and Cole Hamels. In fact, Hottovy was drafted by the Red Sox in 2004, two years after they selected Lester, and briefly was a teammates of Lester's with the Portland Sea Dogs in 2007 and the Red Sox in 2011.

His entire major league career as a situational lefthander was comprised of 17 games and 13 1/3 innings with Boston and Kansas City.

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We're still trying to determine who was the youngest pitching coach in major league history, but Hottovy appears to be the youngest one currently.

The youngest one last season was 40-year-old Kyle Snyder of the Tampa Bay Rays.

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