Good to have Bret Bielema back in the Big Ten West Division
Former Iowa player and assistant coach will try to rebuild Illinois
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Some Hawkeye fans might disagree, but it’s good having Bret Bielema back in the Big Ten.
They would disagree, not because they necessarily dislike Bielema, but rather they fear what he might accomplish at Illinois.
Sooner or later, somebody will make Illinois good in football again.
And if Illinois were good in football, the challenge would become that much greater for Iowa to be good. Or, at least, that’s the concern.
Kirk Ferentz, with Iowa as a member of the Big Ten West Division, already has to deal with Wisconsin’s dominance, with Pat Fitzgerald’s impact at Northwestern, with Minnesota’s rise under P.J. Fleck, with Purdue’s explosiveness under Jeff Brohm, and with Scott Frost’s accusations and excuses at Nebraska.
Should Illinois start having success under Bielema, that would just make Ferentz’s job that much tougher.
And don’t forget about what Matt Campbell is doing at Iowa State.
Iowa and Iowa State aren’t in the same conference, but they compete for state bragging rights, and they compete non-stop in recruiting and in statewide branding.
One of the reasons I give the 51-year old Bielema a chance to succeed at Illinois, besides him being a good coach, is his ability to recruit.
Almost immediately after being hired, Bielema, a former walk-on defensive tackle at Iowa under Hayden Fry, reached out to high school coaches throughout the state of Illinois to let them know that instate recruiting would be his top priority.
Fry did the same thing when he was hired at Iowa shortly after the 1978 season, and Barry Alvarez did the same when he was hired at Wisconsin in 1990.
They both let it be known loud and clear that recruiting instate kids would be at the top of their to-do lists.
Fry and Alvarez have been two of the biggest influences on Bielema’s rise in coaching.
Fry hired Bielema as a graduate assistant in 1994, and as a full-time assistant coach in 1996, while Alvarez hired Bielema as defensive coordinator and head coaching in waiting in 2004.
Bielema led the Badgers to three Rose Bowl appearances and two Big Ten titles during seven seasons as head coach from 2006-12.
He then raised a few eyebrows by taking the Arkansas job, and now looking back, you could say it was mistake, although, he made a lot of money.
Bielema compiled a 29-34 record in five seasons at Arkansas, including just 11-29 in the Southeastern Conference. His best season was an 8-5 record in 2015, but that won’t get it done in the highly competitive SEC.
An 8-5 record at Illinois, on the other hand, would make Bielema a huge success.
Only twice since 2000 has Illinois won at least eight games in a season.
Lovie Smith was given five seasons to make it work at Illinois, and he led Illinois to a bowl game in the 2019 season.
But that team also finished 6-7 overall, and that was Smith’s best record in his five seasons at Illinois.
Smith was given a lot of time to rebuild the Illinois program, and there were a lot of people pulling for him to succeed because he is widely respected and admired, both as a person and as a head coach.
But at some point, it comes down to wins and losses, and Illinois stumbled to a 2-6 record in 2020.
I’m not convinced that Bielema will succeed at Illinois. But I give him a better chance of succeeding than Smith, and a better chance of succeeding than Illinois’ four head coaches before Smith, which dates back to Ron Turner.
It also helps that Bielema is from Prophetstown, Ill., because that should make it easier for him to relate to instate recruits.
Bielema has to figure a way to have recruiting success in the Chicago area, but that hasn’t been easy for previous Illinois head coaches.
Chicago is a recruiting hot spot for a wide range of programs, including Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa.
Bielema spent the past three seasons coaching in the NFL, this past season as the outside linebackers coach for New York Giants. He also coached for the New England Patriots in 2017 and 2018.
I’ll admit, I’m a little biased in this case because I like Bret Bielema. I think he’s good for college football and I think his personality is good for the Big Ten.
Bret Bielema will always be a Hawkeye, and he’s told me that many times before.
Hayden Fry helped change the course of his life, and Bielema will never forget that.
Fry hired assistant coaches who wanted to be head coaches because he felt that would make them work even harder to climb the coaching ladder.
And now a Big Ten school has turned to Fry’s coaching tree for help.
It makes sense.