Josh Whitman hired the right football coach this time, didn’t he?
Bret Bielema is taking Illinois football and making it look like…all of those programs we have been jealous of for over a generation.
It’s not one unsustainably impactful recruiting class like Lovie Smith had in 2019.
It’s not elite recruiting followed by lack of development like Ron Zook.
It’s not…whatever the hell Coach Oskee Lasagna was trying to do.
Those coaches treated the Illini like they were a CEO coming to Champaign to run an established company.
Bielema treats the Illinois football program like a startup that he founded. He’s the guy who has worked for some of the top companies in the world and brings his gained knowledge to his own venture where he can truly do what he wants.
Consider Arkansas to be a failed startup, if you will. He couldn’t reach his goals there, so he went to study under the person who has conquered the most daunting goals in sports: Bill Belichick.
Bret emerged from the hoodie’s cocoon as a fully formed founder with the NFL chops to complement his history at Wisconsin, Iowa and Kansas State. He was used to sending people to the NFL, but he learned in the closest way possible what happens when they get there.
So he returned to his home state armed with this knowledge to take on the ultimate Power Five rebuild.
Illinois didn’t recruit the Prophetstown native as a prep prospect, but Josh Whitman made amends with a big boy contract. And the rebuild began.
Fast forward to Oct. 1, 2022. It’s season No. 2 of the Great Illini Startup Project. The 3-1 Illini arrived at Camp Randall to face the Badgers. This was Bielema’s first big game as the head man in Chambana. He was returning to Madison for the first time since he spurned Barry Alvarez’ Godfather program for SEC bucks in Fayetteville.
Expectations were limited. Illinois was playing in one of the most difficult stadiums in the conference against a Wisconsin team with a premiere running game and a stout defense anchored by no-doubt NFL nose tackles Keanu Benton and Nick Herbig. That defense would be led by perennial all-world defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.
At the time, Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters was becoming the new young wunderkind defensive genius in the Big Ten West. Leonhard had turned down the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator job in the previous offseason. He was a made man. Wisconsin was a made program. Illinois was an ankle-biting pseudo team that feasted on lesser competition.
But a funny thing happened on that perfect Midwest day.
Leonhard’s Badgers had a terrible game on their home turf. The upstart Illini won 34-10. Graham Mertz didn’t have another Superman game in his arsenal. The Illini secondary made Wisconsin miserable. Chase Brown and Tommy DeVito gave Leonhard’s defense fits for 60 minutes.
To be clear, one bad game doesn’t ruin a coach. A reputation built upon a foundation of years of excellence isn’t destroyed in an afternoon.
But Paul Chryst, Bielema’s successor in Madison, was jettisoned the next day.
Leonhard was named interim coach, and speculation started. Would the presumed coach-in-waiting be made the main man in Madison?
The Wisconsin brass decided that at the end of a disappointing season, they would not offer the permanent head role to the young virtuoso. Instead, that job went to Luke Fickell, a superstar ex-Buckeye who destroyed the Group of 5 in Southern Ohio with Cincinnati.
So Leonhard sat in a weird football purgatory. Was the bloom off the rose, or did he narrowly escape dysfunction?
Bielema stole a page from the Bill Belichick/Nick Saban playbook. He hired Jim Leonhard to be a Senior Defensive Analyst at Illinois.
One of the brightest defensive minds in all of football is in a non-field coaching role with the program that just two years ago represented the dregs of Power 5 football.
For narrative purposes, this is a sign that Illinois football has arrived.
Ryan Walters took his wunderkind status and swagger to West Lafyette. Cool, good luck.
He took Kevin Kane and Cory Patterson with him. They’ve won some major recruiting battles. Congratulations.
Leonhard played a year for Bielema while Bret was an assistant coach at Wisconsin. Like Bielema, Jimmy spent plenty of time in the NFL…only he was making tackles on Sundays.
Bielema may have gotten the biggest fish in the offseason. Jim Leonhard said no to the Packers but he said yes to the Illini. He’s another sophisticated defensive mind to add to an evolving braintrust in Champaign.
He’s stepping into a room where Aaron Henry has taken control of a defensive staff with future coordinators like Antonio Fenelus and Terrance Jamison. Now, former defensive coordinators Leonhard and Andy Buh can lend different levels of expertise.
The hiring of Jim Leonhard is the kind of move that elite programs make. It’s an announcement that you’re ready for whatever the world throws at you.
This is the biggest offseason move in an offseason full of staff and personnel upheaval.
Sure, Jimmy may only stay for one season in Champaign and then leave for a Power 5 defensive coordinator job. He may even finally step into a head coaching role somewhere. But for this glorious final season of Big Ten divisions, Illinois just made the ultimate win now move.