Photo Courtesy of Peoria Journal Star via Illinois Athletics
In true Josh Whitman from the University of Illinois wasted NO time in filling the 1-week old coaching vacancy. They reached back into the NFL and tabbed New York Giants assistant Bret Bielema as the choice to lead the Illini program as Head Coach. A six-year deal worth a reported starting salary of 4.6 million. Illinois made the announcement around 8:30 am Saturday.
Bielema coaching in the NFL
Before being the Giants' Assistant (2020), he coached for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots as a consultant to the head coach in 2018 and defensive coordinator in 2019.
Collegiate coaching experience
1994-1995 Graduate assistant for Iowa under Hayden Fry
1996-2001 promoted by Fry to Linebacker coach at Iowa.
2002-2003 He became the C0-Defensive Coordinator for Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder at Kansas State.
2004-2005 he was hired by Barry Alvarez as Wisconsin's Defensive Coordinator.
2006-2012 promoted to Head Coach at Wisconsin When Alvarez became full-time AD.
As the Head coach at the University of Wisconsin, he compiled a 68-24 record, including going 12-1 in his FIRST year, winning the Capital One Bowl, and having his team ranked 7th in a postseason AP poll. All of this culminated in him being named Big Ten Coach of the year! In his 7 seasons at Wisconsin, his teams were ranked in the top 25 postseason polls 5 times, with 3 of those being in the top 10. Wisconsin appeared in 6 bowl games during his tenure, including two Rose Bowls, only going 2-4. (Actually, it was 7 bowl games, but Bielema did not coach the Rose Bowl in 2012). Wisconsin, under Bielema tied for the Big Ten Championship in 2010, won the Championship in 2011 and 2012. However, in 2012 they reached the championship game because The top two teams in the legends division (Ohio State and Penn State) were declared ineligible for post-season play.
In 2013-2017 he took over the University of Arkansas football program. Not having quite the success there in 5 years, he had 3 winning seasons with an overall record of 29-34 and 3 bowl appearances with a 2-1 record. Bielema won no conference Championships at Arkansas'
His overall coaching record in college is 97-58 and 4-5 in bowl games.
Having an Illinois Guy
Bielema is a native of Prophetstown, Illinois, Born January 3, 1970. He played college football at Iowa as a defensive lineman 1989-1992 under Hayden Fry. He signed with the Seattle Seahawks as a Free Agent in 1993(never played) and played one year with the Milwaukee Mustangs of the Arena Football League.
Bielema is very familiar with the Midwest and knows what the recruiting landscape looks like. Being an Illinois native son is a big plus. When he was Defensive Coordinator at Wisconsin, he was the chief recruiter in Illinois. It was widely thought that Whitman would need a coach with an Illini or at least an Illinois connection. Bret Bielema has that in spades, and it should not take him long to reconnect with Illinois High School Coaches.
Live on College game day, Bielema had this to say when asked What about Illinois opportunity made him think that he could be successful in the Big Ten "Well obviously, (I) grew up in that league, was an assistant coach, coordinator, I was a head coach. Lived that life pretty good in that division. Excited to get back; that is actually my home state......I was born in Illini Hospital in Silvis, Illinois. So it's coming full circle for me, and I couldn't be more excited about the opportunity."*
He has coached under College coaching legends Hayden Fry at Iowa, Hall of fame coach Bill Snyder at Kansas State, and Barry Alverez at Wisconsin. He has also spent two years under NFL legend Bill Belichick in New England. That is a lot of success to learn from.
Recruiting the state of Illinois.
For a while now, something that has been missing from Illinois football is the ability to get HIGH-level in-state recruits to commit and play for Illinois. Not since Ron Zook 2005-2011 has Illinois had a good number of HIGH-level recruits. Keeping stars IN STATE is priority number one for Bielema. Illinois has consistently lost Big name, Four and Five-star recruits to programs like Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Missouri, Ohio State, Michigan, Tennessee. Leaving Illinois with leftovers and going out of state or to the Junior college ranks to find players. It has left in-state high school coaches feeling a little slighted. Bielema needs to use his Bachelors's degree in marketing to SELL the Illinois program as THE program kids WANT to play for. This change will not come overnight, and it will not be easy.
Sports Illustrated football recruiting expert John Garcia had this to say about Bielema; “I can tell you Bret Bielema is known nationwide in recruiting circles as a guy who consistently produces A-plus evaluations on players and why is that? Because that man trusts his evaluations and won’t be swayed by the national recruiting experts' opinions at all. It should be expected that Illinois will put together a staff of committed, hungry recruiters, and they’ll find guys to play to their system and flat out over-perform. Bielema always has done that everywhere he’s been.” *
Energizing the fan base
As tough as turning around, in-state recruiting will be. Energizing the fan base may be just as hard. Illinois enjoyed a decent amount of success with Ron Zook, but the last time Illinois claimed a conference championship was 2001 under Ron Turner. The last coach to have a winning record at Illinois was John Mackovic 1988-1991 (30-16). The Illinois football Record Since Mackovic left is 129-211. Outside of a year or two here and there, excitement for Illinois football has waned. When Lovie Smith was hired, the thought was fans would get behind the former Super Bowl coach. However, consistent losing seasons have worn the fan base down. Winning became less of a priority, and some fans showing signs of improvement were hoping for improvement. So to say that the fan base is low at Illinois is an understatement. Bielema has his work cut out for him here, and the biggest thing that will bring the fan base back is winning football. That may take a year or two. When Kirk Herbstreit asked about how do you bring Illinois back, Bielema said that it starts with a great assessment. He was on his way to the Illinois Penn State game to view his new team in action and plans to be in Champaign on Sunday, "to start a new journey together. it's the Kentucky Derby theory of coaching right, No one remembers the Jockey, but everyone remembers the horse."*
Changing the culture
Much like Brad Underwood has done with Basketball at Illinois, Bielema needs to get current players to buy-in to his philosophy, system, and game. To do this, he will have to put a staff together that sees and shares his vision and can echo that to the players and fans alike. Bielema is relatively young(50) for someone with his coaching experience. That should play well in relating to the players, plus the fact that he has been a winner when asked about what will be a different trademark of a Bret Bielema team after coming back to college football. Bielema indicated it will still be based on toughness and dependability. He did say this about offense "I think the offense will be the biggest transition people will see.....Things will be quite a bit different than we had in Wisconsin. We will still have great line play. We will be about controlling the ball and maintaining good game management."* He also promised an aggressive defensive style and going to a 3-4 defense. "This is about Illinois. This is about a chance to take Illinois to another level. During my lifetime, I have seen them have success, and there are obviously times that they have not had that success, we are going to blend that together."* He went on to say, "it's not always about that 40 time or the bench press it's about how you think and how you act, and how you play the game."*
I think Josh Whitman threw a BIG TIME touchdown here. Bielema is a name that is recognized as a hard-nosed winner. He has paid his dues, he has had success, and he has had a few lows. He knows the Midwest, and he knows the Big Ten. He has learned from some of the best that college football and the NFL has to offer. Given the state of Illinois football, he will have work to do. A shrinking fan base, turning around instate recruiting and, most of all, developing a winning culture that has been absent for several years. It will not turn around overnight, but I do see that a turnaround is possible. Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure the Illinois Wisconsin game just got more interesting.
Thanks again for reading. See ya soon
* From https://www.si.com/college/illinois/football/matthew-stevens-column-bret-bielema-hire-dec-19-2020