The Illinois Fighting Illini were represented on the second day of Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. Bret Bielema enters his second season as head coach following a moderately successful 5-7 campaign in 2021.
There were certainly some frustrating moments (losses against UTSA, Maryland & Purdue come to mind), but some unforgettable moments, also — like playing in the longest college football game in history!
The Illini have plenty of talent returning on both sides of the ball, while still having plenty to build on entering fall camp and next month’s season opener.
Coach Bielema began Wednesday’s press conference with an anecdote about his experiences at Big Ten Media Day, past and present:
“I first came to this event as a player in the early ‘90s. My head coach was Hayden Fry. I remember back then we got an issued Iowa Hawkeye jacket that I’m pretty sure 15 to 20 people had worn before I actually put it on that day and wore a tie and got all dappered up.”
“Earlier this summer, when we knew we were going to take our players, we take them to a clothing store and give them the opportunity to purchase a suit for them.”
“I’m kind of a purist and an old traditionalist, and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, they’ve got to wear a tie, don’t they?’”
“I asked my staff, and they unanimously told me I was in the wrong, to actually let them be independent and go without ties.”
“So I’m walking in this morning behind them, all four of them good-looking, strapped-up, well-trained athletes. And I’m looking, and they don’t have ties on, and they’re all wearing tennis shoes. I think about the world we’re in, and I think about Hayden Fry would probably slap me in the back of the head if I showed up with a pair of tennis shoes and no tie, but I think that’s the part of college football that’s awesome, right? There’s never been a time or a place where I think college football could be more exciting.”
Bielema on this season’s roster:
“Very excited about my team. Probably one of the things I’m really just thankful for is I probably know our roster now better than I ever have...over a year and a half, have added a lot of players but also developed a lot of players in the way we think, how we do things, and are able to get them.
“I think just knowing our roster...you’re more comfortable, you know their strengths, you know their weaknesses. You know how they handle moments.”
On Illinois’ development throughout last season:
“We talk a lot about tough, smart, dependable. That’s our DNA. That’s what we’re made of. It’s easy to regurgitate that. A lot of teams use it as a catchphrase, but it’s a really hard thing to live. It’s a hard thing to do.”
“I believe they feel it, they understand it. They definitely can regurgitate it, but I think they understand and know what it means.”
“The way we played at the end of the year, to come full circle and win a game against Nebraska on the front end, to beat Northwestern, a team we have great respect for, at the end of the year, really tells me the growth we have in that first season.”
You can watch Bret Bielema’s full presser HERE.
Coach Bielema addressed the media again later in the day, with more time to elaborate on what he’s looking forward to in the lead-up to the season.
About the Illini’s Week Zero game versus Wyoming:
“We played week zero last year [Nebraska]...one of the great things that provided us last year was two bye weeks. I just think this conference and the way we play, if you can get an extra bye week it’s a good thing.”
“I just really felt with as many players as we’re gonna have starting for the first time, a week zero game would be awesome, [Athletic Director] Josh [Whitman] afforded us that opportunity, we worked it out with Wyoming, and the rest is history.”
On adapting to new OC Barry Lunney’s offense:
“Overall, I think the passing game, the way he distributes the ball, the way we line up, the use of tempo, has got our kids very excited.”
On his return to Madison:
“I think the most challenging thing in Camp Randall that day will be the guy across the sidelines. Paul Chryst was my offensive coordinator for six years.”
“I know there will be a lot written about that day, but it’s really about the teams on the field. I’ll try to do anything I can to minimize the stories about me returning there. But, you know, I spent nine years there, it’s a huge part of my life and who I am today, so it’ll be special on that day.”