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Ryan Walters had no other choice

And now the Illini must move on.

Michigan State v Illinois
It was a quick and impactful stint in Champaign for the program’s first hot coordinator in what seems like forever. Ryan Walters moves east to West Lafayette to lead the Boilers.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

What in the hell is going on with Illinois football? It feels like this isn’t reality.

Consensus All-Americans on both sides of the ball. Running back Chase Brown is a finalist for the Doak Walker. No-star corner Devon Witherspoon in the discussion for the Jim Thorpe.

Head coach Bret Bielema openly criticizing officials for obvious missed calls that cost his team a chance at 9+ wins and a road victory at top-2 Michigan.

To put a nice cherry on top of the season’s sundae, Illinois was chosen to play in Tampa Bay on Jan. 2 in the Reliaquest Bowl against SEC opponent Mississippi State.

A defensive coordinator up for the Broyles, after turning around a lackluster unit in just two seasons to become the nation’s top scoring defense. Among other notable accomplishments this year, Ryan Walters’ defense also ranked No. 1 in interceptions and turnovers forced.

It was more than that. It was the way Walters coached in Champaign that was the most impressive to me. No lengthy call sheet. No berating players for misdeeds like poor execution. As I’ve said in other articles...WHERE DOES HE GET HIS PULLOVERS?

It didn’t take long for those around the country to notice. It took even less time for other programs and ADs in the Big Ten.

Walters is the new HBC at Purdue. He had no choice. Purdue is a must take job.

Purdue won the Big Ten West in 2022, losing to Michigan in the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis. The football program has a long tradition of success. One thing of note is that Purdue decided to hire a decidedly defensive coach, which is a non-traditional way for the program to operate.

Purdue has mostly hired offensive juggernauts, and is known in some circles at the “Cradle of Quarterbacks.” I’m not saying Walters’ offense will be “three yards and a cloud of dust,” but don’t expect 4,000 passing yard seasons by a Purdue QB in the near future.

While this sucks for Illinois fans, and me personally, no blame or animosity should be heaved in the direction of Walters. He is only 36, and when a historically good football program calls you, you must pick up the phone and fight like hell for the job.

After becoming a position coach at only 25 years old, Walters spent three years in CoMo as the DC before being poached by Bielema when the big man came to Champaign late last fall. The Bielema pickup was more of a sub-headline, and didn’t make any national noise.

In my own pipe dream, Walters would lead the Illinois defense for another 4 or 5 seasons, and then take over the program as Bielema took a role in the athletics department.

He has all the qualities of great program leader. Charisma, communication, accountability, success and demeanor. His players and positional coaches love him. It’s easy to point out, even from the comfort of your home watching on TV.

It’s now time for Bielema to reach into his bag of tricks or pluck a branch from the coaching tree in his back yard in Champaign.

There has been much speculation as to who it will be.

Bielema should have so much street cred at this point, speculation should be damned.

When Bielema arrived in Happy Valley two years ago to watch his new squad get pummeled by Penn State hours after being hired, “mixed emotions” would be a mild way to put how Illini Nation was feeling.

Bielema has long been a smooth talker, and has transitioned smoothly into a smooth operator. He took over the worst program in the Power 5, and instantly began to turn it around. Coming off an 8-4 season in year two that could easily be categorized as disappointing, Bielema has not only the football relationships and credibility to be able to talk to some high-profile candidates, but now has the cache to land a hot shot candidate outside of the Smith Center, if he so choose.

It looks like Walters is the seventh Bielema coach to be named a head coach in his coaching tree.

Here are a few more reasons that BB can recruit a top candidate to replace Walters:

  1. Illinois doesn’t suck anymore
  2. Recruiting is going extremely well
  3. Illinois AD Josh Whitman won’t be scared with his checkbook
Bielema shaking hands and kissing babies at the Reliaquest Bowl announcement.

There are plenty of in-house candidates to choose from. Kevin Kane has to be on the short list for the new opening on Bielema’s staff.

This is nearly impossible for the ever-cynical Illinois fanbase to grasp, but can’t we just be happy for a week while one of our own enjoys success elsewhere that they have earned?

This is rhetorical, of course. We all know Ryan Walters will lead Purdue to the College Football Playoffs and win a National Championship. Start designing the banner now.

It’s a lock.

This is Illinois football.