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What to expect in the Bielema Era

The Illini have their coach, but will the outcome be any different?

Illinois v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

I’ve made it no secret that I didn’t want Bret Bielema in Champaign, as I’ve said in this space before in an earlier post. But after taking a few days to stew over the news and get past the introductory press conferences, I wanted to reflect and on the new Illinois Fighting Illini head coach and see what, if anything, had changed.

I still think this is a bad hire, but Bielema can leave Illinois in a better place if he plays his cards right.

Let me expand upon the first point before going into the second.

There’s a vast difference between college football coaches who can keep already established football programs going in the right direction, and those who can resurrect struggling programs. Few coaches in the industry can do both, and the latter is far more difficult than the former.

Bielema has shown in his career that he could maintain the success that Barry Alvarez built with the Wisconsin Badgers, but he failed to improve the standing of the Arkansas Razorbacks when he was given the opportunity. Illinois’ conference position is much more comparable to Arkansas’ position in the SEC than to Wisconsin’s in the Big Ten.

That doesn’t necessarily make Bielema a bad coach in general, but it may make him a bad fit for Illinois. After all, Les Miles won a national championship and went 114-34 at LSU, but is 3-17 (1-15) after his second season with the Kansas Jayhawks. And Bielema’s replacement at Wisconsin, Gary Andersen, only won three conference games in three seasons with the Oregon State Beavers after going 19-7 (13-3) with the Badgers.

By way of comparison, let’s take a look at Lance Leipold, who took over a middling Buffalo Bulls program in 2015 and transformed it into one of the premier programs in the MAC (East Division Champions in 2018 and 2020). Or Matt Campbell, who took over an awful Iowa State Cyclones program in 2016, and now has it ranked in the top 10 of most of this season’s College Football Playoff rankings.

True, turning Arkansas around in the SEC West requires being able to defeat the likes of the Alabama Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers, but Arkansas has built-in recruiting advantages and a solid base of in-state and regional talent that most midwestern programs lack. Bobby Petrino had also elevated the Razorbacks to national prominence just a few years prior to Beliema’s hiring, which showed that the program can compete in the SEC under the right leadership.

Being around winning programs is a necessary attribute in any successful college football head coach. But to turn around the Illinois program, we should have been looking for someone who has a proven ability to create success, not merely continue it. Now, just because Bielema hasn’t shown the ability to turn a program around doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t do it. Perhaps we need to take him at his word that he’s learned and adapted since he was last in the Big Ten.

Assuming that to be the case, let’s talk about what he’ll need to do to actually get the Illini program back afloat.

As important as it’s been for Whitman and Bielema to re-establish ties with Illinois high school coaches, it’s also important to recognize why those relationships were strained in the first place. Lovie Smith was notorious for almost completely ignoring in-state recruiting late in his tenure, and he was wrong to do so, but he had realized that in-state recruiting often meant putting in twice the effort and getting half of the results compared to recruiting high schoolers in the south or trying to pick up players in the transfer portal. Bielema will soon encounter this same problem.

Illinois football (and men’s basketball for that matter) has often found itself in a seemingly unsolvable predicament of not being able to win due to poor recruiting, and not recruiting well because of a lack of on-field success. We should never again have Illinois high school coaches publicly lamenting that the Illini head coach is ignoring them, but we also won’t start beating out the Iowa Hawkeyes and Northwestern Wildcats, much less the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes, for in-state high school talent overnight.

Bielema must recognize the degree of success that Lovie found by bringing in talent through the transfer portal and by looking to other regions of the country. Early indications seem to show that he’s already treading that path.

After all, how many games would Illinois have won in 2019 and 2020 without transfers like Brandon Peters, Josh Imatorbhebhe, and Donny Navarro? Or southern high school recruits like Mike Epstein, Devon Witherspoon, Owen Carney, and Jake Hansen?

It seems very clear now that Bielema’s hire was at least in part a reaction to Lovie’s treatment of in-state relationships, and although Whitman’s decisive action was warranted, we shouldn’t entirely stop doing what was working. Closing down the borders on in-state recruiting simply isn’t feasible right now, we need to earn the ability to do that through winning, which is going to require creative roster-building until consistency is established.