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Illinois hires Bret Bielema as head coach

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Bielma is Whitman’s guy.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Former Wisconsin Badgers football coach Bret Bielema is returning to the Big Ten.

The University of Illinois announced Bielema as its new football coach with a press release on Saturday. Bielema takes over for Lovie Smith, who was fired after going 17-39 in five seasons.

“Illinois and the Big Ten is home for me, and I can’t be any more excited about the opportunity in front of me with the Fighting Illini,” Bielema said in a statement. “We want to build a program that makes Illini Nation proud and regain the passion that I’ve seen when Illinois wins. We want the young men playing football in the state of Illinois from Freeport to Cairo and from Quincy to Danville dreaming of wearing the Orange and Blue and playing at Memorial Stadium. I look forward to re-connecting with the high school coaches around the state making it clear we intend to keep our players home.”

Bielema coached the Badgers from 2006 to 2012, winning three Big Ten championships and compiling a 68-24 record before leaving Madison to become the coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Bielema was fired at Arkansas following the 2017 season after going 29-34 in five seasons.

“In our conversations, it became clear to me that he is a life-long learner who is continually looking to grow and improve,” Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman said in a statement.

Bielema has spent the last three years working as an assistant coach in the NFL, first for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots and most recently for the New York Giants.

Illinois says Bielema signed a six-year contract and will join the team immediately, attending today’s game against Penn State.