Let's just rip off the bandaid, and I’m sure this will be quick. Ryan Walters totally deserved the head coaching position at Purdue.
Picking the right replacement for Illinois would be very important in the growth of this team. Not only will it help keep talent from fleeing Illinois, but it will be crucial in bringing new talent — prep or transfer — as signing day is next week and the transfer portal closes on Jan. 15.
That being said, here are some choices for Bielema:
Jim Leonhard - DC/HC - Wisconsin
Nothing would piss off Packers fans more than taking their college sweetheart Jim Leonhard. But it makes so much sense. Leonhard is the epitome of what Bielema preaches to prep prospects. Jim came to Wisconsin as a walk-on and left as an All-Big Ten and NFL-ready player. Bielema and Leonhard crossed paths at Wisconsin in 2004 when Leonhard was a starting safety, and Bielema was DC.
After 10 years in the NFL, Leonhard came back to coach for Bielema’s successor Paul Chryst in 2016 and quickly grew through the ranks, becoming DC in 2017. In his first year, he was a finalist for the Ary Broyles award, given to the best coordinator in college football.
Wisconsin’s defense since 2017 have been some of the best.
Kevin Kane - Assistant HC/OLB Coach - Illinois
Kane seems like the obvious internal choice. Kane coached at Wisconsin under Bielema as a grad assistant and quality control before moving with Dave Doeren when Doeren left Wisconsin to take the head coaching gig at Northern Illinois.
Kane climbed up the ranks, building and leading the Huskies MAC defense to 3 MAC championships and 5 bowl games before moving to SMU. At SMU, Kane’s defense was widely successful and was top 3 in sacks and tackles for loss in the nation in 2019.
At Illinois, Kane has continued proving himself. Gabe Jacas is the biggest success story for Kane, who turned an underrecruited prospect into a Freshman All-American in just 8 months.
Continuity with the staff, with a coach that has done the defensive coordinator job, will keep Illinois’ recent success from subsiding.
Paul Rhoads - Defensive Analyst - Ohio State
From the Ohio State Website:
Rhoads, who brings with him 32 years of experience as both a head coach and coordinator, spent the 2020 season as the defensive coordinator at the University of Arizona. In his one season in Tuscon, the Wildcats finished third in the Pac-12 and No. 27 nationally in passing defense (202.4 yards/game). In 2018 and 2019, Rhoads was the defensive backs coach at UCLA where he helped the Bruins improve statistically in several categories, including total defense, scoring defense and forced turnovers. Rhoads has served nine years as a defensive coordinator at four Power 5 programs: Arizona (2020), Arkansas (2017), Auburn (2008) and Pittsburgh (2000-07).
Rhoads was hired by Bielema at Arkansas and honestly hasn't had a lot of success building programs due to no problem of his own, as the coaches that hired him were fired within a year. But teams where he stayed for longer than a year saw consistent success and growth within the program.
Rhoads is an interesting hire, and for the last year, he has been analyzing Big Ten offenses at Ohio State. Illinois could keep its current roster of position coaches and bring in a coordinator with years of DC experience across the P5, with experience coaching against Big Ten offenses.
I doubt that this hire is out of the blue, and should be someone we all suspected. I wouldn't be surprised if it were Kane, knowing his success. Bielema is about culture, and keeping the famILLy intact will enable continued success.
Leonhard would be a great hire, especially with P5 head coaching roles all but filled, but would bring the extra risk of flight, as he is just as capable as Walters.
Rhoads would be a sleeper pick that has had success in the past and could come into a program with a good foundation, like Illinois, and continue the growth.