Bret Bielema spent the early days of his life taking care of hogs at his father’s farm near Prophetstown, Ill., and dreaming of playing a Butkus-caliber linebacker for the University of Illinois and then, his home state Chicago Bears.
Now, Bielema is 50 years old and has been hired by Josh Whitman to be the next Illinois Football head coach. From Prophetstown to Champaign, the Illinois native’s story has come full circle. He spent his first hours as head of his new program teaching his daughter the famous I-L-L I-N-I chant and thinking of his parents.
“I know right now sitting in Prophetstown, Ill., are my mom and dad, Arnie and Marilyn,” said an emotional Bielema. “I thank them for raising a kid the right way. Telling me no when I need to be told no and telling me yes when I needed to be told yes.”
Whitman made it clear upon introducing Bielema that he wanted a guy who wanted to coach at Illinois, not just the coach who wanted the big job and the Big Ten. He also mentioned searching for a coach who would commit to recruiting in the state of Illinois, something Lovie Smith struggled to do during his disappointing tenure at the helm.
Whitman identified Bielema as a coach who checked off both of those boxes — and during the early hours after the announcement of Bielema’s new gig, he was on the phone.
“This is a dream job for me. It’s a destination,” Bielema said.
He called the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association to introduce (or reintroduce) himself and indicate his passion for recruiting the state of Illinois.
“I talked to the Illinois highway department, we talked about putting a block on the road. they’ll not be able to leave the state anymore,” Bielema joked.
Bielema has spent 12 years as a head coach in the NCAA before a brief three-year stint in the NFL with the Patriots and Giants. 10 of those seasons have featured bowl game appearances. Seven of those seasons have been in the Big Ten with Wisconsin (the others with Arkansas) and all seven of those seasons featured bowl game appearances.
In other words, Bielema’s teams have appeared in bowl games in 10 of his 12 seasons as an NCAA head coach — including trips to the Citrus and Rose Bowls. To get back to Illinois’ past ten bowl games, you have to go all the way back to 1991 when Bret Bielema was just 20, still playing football at Iowa.
Despite growing up rooting for Illinois with an Orange Krush towel hanging in his bedroom, Bielema’s first trip to Memorial Stadium as a player came as a Hawkeye in 1990 (a 54-28 Iowa win).
“It was an unbelievable environment,” he said. “Both teams were really, really good.”
In fact, Illinois was in arguably its best stretch of all-time. That 1990 season was smack dab in the middle of a streak of five consecutive bowl games for the Illini, the longest such one in Illinois history.
So what can Bielema do to bring the Illini to that type of success?
“Biggest thing for me is, the plan may be a little bit different than places I’ve been before,” Bielema said. “The root of good football is very simple. We’ll build a roster of smart, tough, dependable players.”
Whether it be constructing a coaching staff, managing a roster that may be overfilled following COVID-19, or recruiting the state of Illinois or otherwise, Bielema made the plan clear.
“We’re gonna build this thing for success.”
But the new Illini head coach was also adamant that this isn't some rebuilding long-term plan; the plan is already put in place.
“I’m not talking about success five years from now, I’m talking about success as fast as we can (get it),” he said.
The process has already begun, retaining multiple key pieces from this season (Doug Kramer, Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe and Brandon Peters) and hiring coaches to join his staff (Tony Petersen as offensive coordinator and Bart Miller on the offensive line).
Bielema will likely spend his New Year’s Day working on the Illinois plan, whether that be making roster decisions, offering scholarships, hiring coaches or watching Big Ten teams Ohio State and Northwestern play.
For Illinois, the hope is that Bielema is the guy that will get the Illini playing football — instead of watching it — on New Year’s Day.