Josh Whitman’s tenure as Athletic Director has been marked with bringing big names to Illinois. He brought in a well-regarded NFL coach in Lovie Smith in his first move and also was able to reel in a rising Brad Underwood, both moves helping stabilize and bring the respective programs back to relevance.
The hiring of Bret Bielema this offseason was no different. Bielema has had a long journey through various programs and learned from some of the best in football history, and he has the results to show it.
Iowa - 1994-2001 (Grad Assistant, later LB Coach)
Bielema played under legendary football coach Hayden Fry from 1989-92 for the Hawkeyes and was also the team captain his senior season. Bielema had a short stint in the Arena Football League and then joined Fry’s staff as a Grad Assistant from the 1994 season. After a couple of seasons as a Grad Assistant he was promoted to linebackers coach, and held onto this position through Fry’s retirement and the start of the Kirk Ferentz era.
Kansas State - 2002-03 (DC)
Bielema then moved on to become a co-Defensive coordinator at Kansas State from the 2002 season. At Kansas State he got the opportunity to coach under and learn from another legendary coach in Bill Snyder. Kansas State experienced a big turnaround after Bielema joined their staff, they went from a 6-6 record the season prior to being 22-6 in his two seasons there. They also won their first Big 12 title since 1934 in the 2003 season.
From a legend. @BretBielema | #Illini pic.twitter.com/0EtVB0Yixz— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) December 27, 2020
Bielema’s defense was a big reason why the Wildcats experienced success on the field, Kansas State was ranked No. 1 and No. 9 in team defense in his two years there. He also helped develop Terrance Newman who won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2002 and was a first-round draft pick.
Wisconsin - 2004-12 (DC, later Head Coach)
Riding the success of his run at Kansas State, Bielema moved onto becoming the Defensive Coordinator at Wisconsin, under yet another Hall of Fame coach in Barry Alvarez. Bielema continued to show his defensive prowess and coached the Badgers to be the No. 6 defense in the country in his first year. With Alvarez’s retirement in 2005, Bielema was promoted to head coach.
He began his tenure with winning 17 of his first 18 games, an impressive start for the first-time head coach. Bielema took the Badgers to a bowl game every season he was at the helm, most notably three consecutive Big Ten Championships and trips to the Rose Bowl in his final three years.
Bielema’s teams at Wisconsin were always known for being strong in the trenches on both sides of the ball. He sent 10 lineman to the NFL during his time there, most notably DE JJ Watt and OT Joe Thomas.
Arkansas 2013-17 (HC)
Despite the continued run of success at Wisconsin, Bielema moved onto taking the head coach job at Arkansas for the 2013 season. Taking over a program that was in the midst of transition from the Bobby Petrino era, the team struggled to a 3-9 record his first season there.
The team bounced back to win at least 7 games each of the next three years and returned to a bowl game after a short drought. The Razorbacks won the Texas and Liberty bowl during this three-year stretch.
Unfortunatley, Bielema and the Razorbacks struggled in the 2017 season and ended with a 4-8 record, which led to his firing.
New England Patriots/New York Giants 2018-20 (Defensive Asst.)
Bielema then took a break from the college football ranks and joined Bill Belichick’s staff on the New England Patriots as a Defensive Assistant.
While Bielema was on the Patriots were top-10 in the league in team defense and also won the Super Bowl in the 2018 season.
For the 2020 season, Bielema left New England along with Joe Judge and joined his staff as a defensive assistant on the New York Giants. While the Giants finished with a losing record in 2020, their defense made a huge improvement from 30th in the league in 2019 to ninth in 2020, despite having a young roster on that side of the ball.
In December 2020, Bielema made the decision to return to the college football ranks and become the head coach of the Fighting Illini.
Bielema’s proven track record of winning in the Big Ten and wealth of experience and learnings from some of the best coaches in the game should make us all be confident in his ability to bring Illinois football back to national relevance once again.