The Fighting Illini are heading into Bret Bielema’s third season as the head coach. The former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach has amassed a record of 13-12 and 9-9 in the Big Ten, going 5-7 in 2021 and just missing out on a bowl game, then going 8-5 in 2022, just missing out on the Big Ten West division title and losing to Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl.
His return to the Big Ten has been a success thus far.
He has the Illini in much better position than in 2020, when they fired Lovie Smith after his best season was a 6-7 one and he was 17-39 overall in five seasons. Illinois as a program had been quite irrelevant for quite some time, with just three 8+ win seasons since 1990 before Bielema arrived.
But just how good of a position has Bielema put the Illini program in?
Let’s take a look at his performance as head coach so far.
High School Recruiting
One issue for Illinois is the fact that it is consistently out-recruited in its own state.
When you are not a blue-blood with national recognition, you need to at least keep guys home, and Illinois has failed to do that, especially under Lovie Smith. It’s one thing to not get the top-tier talent in Illinois; the blue-bloods have a lot of power in Chicago. But the worse thing was the second- and third-tier recruits, both from Chicagoland and then central or southern Illinois, who were also not getting recruited much by Illinois. They were consistently losing these guys to Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, etc. These are not blue-bloods.
When Bielema came in, he made it a priority to change that. He contacted the top high-school coaches in the state and established relationships with them. The result? Illinois is at least now contact every top-tier recruits in the state, and landing way more of the second- and third-tier recruits that ever before.
Just this week they just lost out on a five star, blue-chip, top-100 recruit from Chicago, but they were in his top four. Very soon, they’ll land a program-altering five star recruit. Bielema has boosted Illinois’s recruiting classes; based on 247 Sports composite class rankings, they were 87th and 73rd in their class in 2020 and 2021; Bielema has now had the 46th, 38th, and 40th best classes in 2022, 2023, and 2024, with 2024 possible ending up close to top-25, having just landed their first official 4=star recruit in RB Ca’Lil Valentine.
Bielema had a good reputation of developing players for the next level at Wisconsin, and it’s carried over to Illinois.
Illinois was at least getting around three guys a year into the draft in the 2000s up until 2013. Then they had just 7 players drafted in the next 9 years. Bielema has had 7 draft picks in his two years as coach, including four in the first three rounds, capped by Devon Witherspoon, a 0-star recruit, going 5th overall to Seattle. He also has had 15(!) players sign as UDFA.
None of the drafted players were above three star recruits.
If Bielema and the staff can do that with guys he didn’t recruit, imagine what he can do with those he did recruit. And high school prospects will take note; they will know going to Illinois gives them a great chance of making it to the NFL.
Bielema brought over Tony Petersen as his offensive coordinator and Ryan Walters as his defensive coordinator in 2021. Petersen was out after one season; a move Illini fans were all happy to see, it meant Bielema was serious about winning.
He was replaced with Barry Lunney Jr., who had a great season with UTSA. Lunney was a big improvement from Petersen, and while he definitely still has room to grow, it appears it was a good hire by Bielema, as Illinois went from bottom-dwellers of Big Ten offense to at least competent and middle of the pack, and guys like Isaiah Williams and Chase Brown became elite.
On the defensive side, Walters had an elite defense in 2021, and then a top-5 defense in 2022, possible even second only behind Georgia in the entire country. He parlayed that into becoming Purdue’s head coach. He was replaced by Aaron Henry, the secondary coach, who helped Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, Quan Martin and Kerby Joseph all get drafted.
Walters took some guys with him, but there is still a lot of smart coaches on the staff. Bielema has replaced coordinators before; if he can keep doing it he can become a top-tier Big Ten coach again.
Update: Bielema brought in a top-tier coach in former Wisconsin DC Jim Leonhard as a senior defensive analyst. An incredible get to help out DC Aaron Henry.
In this new era of college athletics, recruiting doesn’t end with a commitment, it doesn’t end at signing day, and it doesn’t end when a guy is at your school playing snaps. They can transfer at anytime. That means coaches have to always be careful not to alienate players.
Bielema has prevented Illinois from becoming a team whose players are consistently poached by other schools. Just two players who got legitimate playing time last season transferred away; Brian Hightower (likely because of Illinois’ incoming recruiting class with three very good WRs) and Calvin Hart (dealt with injuries but probably would’ve been a starter at LB). They were the only ones to transfer to other P5 schools.
In 2022 the only transfer out who got playing time was TE Daniel Barker (at MSU), and honestly, him staying would have been so much better both for himself and Illinois. And in terms of the draft, Bielema, with backing from AD Josh Whitman to improve the team’s facilities, and NIL from the Illinois ICON collective, has been important to...
Illinois hasn’t dipped into transfer recruiting as much as some other schools, but they have made enough moves so it’s a useful tool. They have gotten their QBs from there as Bielema needs time to recruit a high school QB; Tommy DeVito was a great acquisition, and Luke Altmyer, a former 4-star recruit, figures to be even better.
They’ve also gotten some good rotational defensive pieces from the portal in TeRah Edwards, Alec Bryant, Demetrius Hill (a former freshman All-American), and Nicario Harper. DBs and QBs saw opportunity for a team who did pretty well at those positions who graduated or got drafted.
If I were to pick one thing that is preventing Illinois from moving up in the Big Ten echelon besides the fact that building up the program to second-tier contender or blue-blood status takes time, it’s game management.
Bielema has done great recruiting, developing, and filling his staff. But some of his management in-game leaves a lot to be desired.
Some of Illinois’ losses were so very, very, VERY avoidable.
Rutgers in 2021 prevented them from being bowl-eligible when it should have been an easy win.
Even worse in 2022, losses to Indiana and Michigan stopped them from making the Big Ten Championship Game, and they blew the bowl game against Mississippi State. Bielema’s conservativeness hurt in these games. They had a lead in the fourth quarter against all of them, and played not to lose instead of playing to win; a little too much prevent defense, too much running and not throwing.
Sure, in the Indiana game (and Purdue game) there were game-changing incorrect calls by the referees, but still, the game(s) should have been won regardless. Bielema needs to keep his foot on the gas pedal; balance running with throwing when you have a lead, don’t just try to run the clock out when you’re only up one possession.
If he can learn how to do that to hold leads late, Illinois can be a power in the Big Ten West. Had he done that, Illinois would’ve made the Big Ten Championship Game at 10-2 last year, with a chance to make a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Bret Bielema has the Fighting Illini on the rise, and hopefully within a couple of seasons, can get them to the level of second-tier teams in the Big Ten; not Ohio State or Michigan, but with Iowa, Wisconsin, and that tier. That means being a consistent 8ish win team, in West contention (or just in the conversation to make a Big Ten title game), always making bowls, and every few years competing for a berth in the expanded College Football Playoff.
I have faith, if he improves his game management, Bielema will get Illinois there, and they’ll get a playoff appearance by 2030.