Las Vegas is a special place for Illini head coach Bret Bielema. During his weekly press conference on Monday, the 51-year-old made mention that two of the most special people he’s ever met happened in Sin City.
One of the two was his wife Jen, whom he married in 2012 and met at a casino in Vegas prior. The other was Paul Chryst, who Barry Alvarez — the Wisconsin legend and Bielema’s predecessor — introduced to him, and Bielema eventually hired on his staff.
Bielema left Wisconsin after that 2012 season, after making six consecutive bowls, and went to Arkansas to be the head football coach of the Hogs. Bielema stayed there until after the 2017 season, and then spent the next three seasons in the NFL with the Patriots and Giants before coming back to his home state to coach college football at Illinois.
Meanwhile, Chryst was given the keys to the Wisconsin program in 2014 and will be coming to Illinois this Saturday to take on his former boss as head coach of the Badgers.
“[I have] a lot of respect for [Bielema] and I think he’s put together a really good staff,” Chryst told Wisconsin media during his weekly press conference Monday.
For the Illini, it’s Homecoming week — just like it was in 2019 when the Illini stunned then No. 6 Wisconsin with a James McCourt field goal as time expired.
And for Bielema, it’s a homecoming of sorts. The former Badgers head coach is squaring off against his former offensive coordinator, and will be seeing many of his former colleagues on the opposing sideline as well.
When asked about whether or not this Illini team might look like Wisconsin on Saturday, Bielema mentioned some similarities in coaching style after he and Chryst spent more than a half decade together.
“Paul and I were together for six of my seven years, [we] obviously had a lot of similar thoughts and ideas.”
But Bielema instead emphasized that the Illini would like to follow the blueprint of Wisconsin as a program — a team that has only missed missed a bowl game once in this millennium. The Badgers have also won the Big Ten West six times and the Big Ten three times since 2000.
“For us to get to where we want to be,” Bielema said. “I’ve defined [Wisconsin] as a model for what we’re trying to be.”
Bielema added that the Illini have had this game on their minds for a long time, but stressed that it was not because of his past, but rather the fact that they have been so successful in the division.
“The respect [the Badgers] have had is something that we would like to have here,” he said.
But once again, he echoed:
“This game is about the University of Illinois football against the University of Wisconsin football.”
Illini defensive coordinator Ryan Walters expressed his excitement about playing Wisconsin, and unlike his boss, acknowledged the fact that Bielema has a lot of history there.
“There’s a lot that goes into this game,” he said. “Everyone is going to say that this is just another game, c’mon man. Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room, Coach B used to be there.”
As for Bielema and his growth since leaving Wisconsin in 2012...
“Unfortunately, I’ve grown physically and emotionally.”